Ramifications of reopening of supply routes
Asif Haroon Raja
Closure of NATO supply routes by Pakistan as a reaction to Salala attack slumped Pak-US relations to all time low. It looked that if Pakistan further stretched the blockade, the agitating US might lose its patience and go for another unilateral military action, or completely cut off aid and impose sanctions. If the US had other viable option for transporting supplies for the ISAF, it may have done so and broken off with Pakistan. However, use of northern route was costing it $100 million a month besides being cumbersome and time consuming. Moreover, northern route allowed perishable items only and each container paid $20,000. Northern route is otherwise technically unfit to transport tanks, APCs and heavy guns on return journey.
The US after obtaining the blessing of Russia had signed agreements with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to transport the daily needs of ISAF. The US had also inked a deal with India for air supplies and was considering using land route via Chahbahar Port by using the good offices of India. All these actions were initiated to impress upon Pakistan that its routes were not indispensable and it had several other options to exercise. In this context Gen Allan stated that closure of routes by Pakistan had made no impact on ISAF’s needs. However, the hard reality was that none of the alternatives were convenient and cost effective as the two land routes via Torkham to Kabul and Chaman to Kandahar. Besides being direct and shortest, it doesn’t entail any change in mode of transportation or crossing of river as in the case of northern route which entails crossing of Russia and four Central Asian states and shifting of goods from road to train to ferry and again to road to reach northern Afghanistan. Above all, Pakistan was charging a nominal custom fee of $250 per container and no transit fee.
Why seven month closure failed to make any impact on the US was that containers supply had never ceased altogether. Certain number of fuel tankers and containers carrying fuel and essential items kept plying daily. Had there been a total blockade, by end June the waiting containers would have strung along the entire length of our GT road from one end of the country to the other creating huge traffic problem.
The US tolerated Pakistan’s defiance for over seven months and resorted to verbal threats and economic coercion only and not to military action since it knew that culmination of endgame in Afghanistan in a safe and honorable manner was not possible without Pakistan’s cooperation. It refused to tender apology on the unconvincing plea of election year of Obama. It refused to stop drone war since unmanned drone had been declared as a choice weapon to kill terrorists hiding in FATA without entailing risk to life to US soldier. It refused to relent to Pakistan’s demands since it knew of the pathetic state of Pak economy and the true worth of our leaders with feet of clay.
Knowing that GHQ was the main obstacle, the US hit its soft belly by suspending payment of $1.1 billion which it was required to pay in 2010 for the services it had already received. Installment of Kerry-Lugar aid was suspended and a cut of $33 million imposed after CIA agent Shakil Afridi was sentenced to 33 year jail. Mumbai attacks case was reactivated by USA by announcing reward money for arrest of Hafiz Saeed and nudging Saudi leadership to hand over Abu Jandal Ansari to India. It was also falsely propagated by Leon Panetta that Pakistan was demanding $ 5500 transit fee per container which in his view was excessive. That way, an impression was created that Pakistan was interested only in money and not in redeeming the honor of martyrs of Salala.
Multiple pressures had a telling effect on our government and its puffed up position began to wane at a fast rate. Hina Rabbani sounded the first bugle of retreat when she said that Pakistan couldn’t afford to earn ill-will of 48 countries by keeping the routes closed and that ‘we should move forward’. When Gen Allan’s apology over Salala in private to Gen Kayani didn’t succeed, Hillary Clinton after relentless coaxing of Sherry Rahman performed the ritual of casual apology without any remorse and Hina exultantly accepted it. It melted the ice and led to DCC meeting and decision to reopen supply lines. The cabinet and parliament endorsed DCC’s decision promptly. President Zardari complimented Sherry for playing a key role in placating infuriated American leadership. Former PM Gilani forgetting the begging bowl, hypocritically stated that Pakistan is an honorable country and will not demand transit fee. He however stressed that only non-lethal items will be allowed to be transported through Pakistan. This point was repeatedly rubbed to mellow down the high emotions of the public. The religious right, Tehrik-e-Insaf and PML-N insisted that unless the two principle demands of formal apology and stoppage of drone attacks were met the MoU must not be signed. They vehemently opposed reopening of supply lines.
The MoU signed in Ministry of Defence was a real comedown and a big disappointment for the public. It was in sheer violation of the recommendations made by the Parliament. Except for promise of release of $1.1 billion CSF, we gave in everything in favor of USA. No transit fee has been levied and no commitment obtained to repair the damaged road infrastructure due to containers traffic. No compensation for the martyrs of Salala and no assurance that Salala like attack will not be repeated and that Pakistan’s sovereignty will be respected. No word on drone, or on cross border terrorism from Afghanistan. In fact drone attacks and cross border attacks by Fazlullah led militants have accelerated. No commitment has been made on improving railway tracks, goods bogies and engines to transport at least 50% of NATO supplies by rail so as to reduce the load on roads.
The biggest bombshell was permission to transport arms and equipment for ANA. We forgot that one of the reasons of increase in acts of terrorism in Pakistan was the pilferage of arms from containers during transit. It is no more secret that NATO containers have been feeding the target killers in Karachi and Balochistan and also to the militants of TTP. Case of missing 11000 containers is a sure indication that smuggling and pilferage of arms has been going on during transit from Karachi to Torkham/Chaman. Between December 2011 and June 2012 when the supply routes were non-operational, one could notice sharp decline in suicide attacks and bomb blasts.
Besides domestic security concerns arising out of NATO containers, another worry which must not have gone unnoticed in GHQ and JS HQ is the expansion and modernization of ANA by US-UK-Indian trainers to make it a potent force. Its training, equipment and funding will continue till 2024. $4.1 billion annual grant from 2015 to 2024 was pledged for ANA and development works in Afghanistan during Chicago Summit in May this year. This huge force of over 260,000 is not being fine tuned to tackle the Taliban threat only but also to fight a defensive battle against Pak forces in collaboration with Indian military operating in the East in any future Indo-Pak war. Given the increased influence of India in Afghanistan and backing of USA, two-front war has now become a reality. At the outbreak of hostilities with India, specified number of divisions of ANA will get deployed along our western border to undertake limited border attacks with a view to pin down our two Infantry Divisions in the northwest and two divisions in the southwest. A glimpse of heating up of western border can be seen even now. GHQ had to send 8000 additional forces to Bajaur, Mehmand and Chitral to checkmate cross border terrorism from Kunar and Nuristan organized jointly by ANA, RAAM, RAW and CIA.
Containment of our four strike formations on two extreme flanks by ANA discreetly backed by US Special Forces and possibly Indian forces would hamper Pak Army’s offensive options with its strategic reserves. Additionally deplorable state of our railways and acute shortage of fuel would pose immense problems to move armor and infantry during war by rail. Ever growing scarcity of CNG would also weigh down military’s road movement. Wear and tear of our military hardware and depletion of ammunition stocks as a consequence to decade old war on terror are other causes of worry. More so, high rate of attrition of officers and men and recycling of units in northwestern war zone are fatiguing the troops. Indian military out of malice refer to Pak Army as ‘crippled Army’.
With such grave security implications, one wonders how our policy makers decided to allow transportation of lethal items for ANA. These very arms are being used by our adversaries during peace time to soften up Pakistan from within under the garb of fighting terrorism and will be used during wartime as well. To say that Armored Cars and Humvees mounted with guns will not be allowed is laughable. By signing a MoU, Pakistan has tied its hands and will no more be in a position to block the supplies in future even if it wants to. Interestingly, the government is putting the onus of MoU on the military, which is not true.
It is feared that having successfully cowed down Pakistan, the US is likely to exploit its success by making it budge on other aspects as well. These may include reversion to relaxed visa policy for the US citizens, return of US trainers, removal on restrictions on move of diplomats and other American citizens in Pakistan, release of Shakil Afridi, expansion of radius of drones and reopening of Shamsi airbase, opening up of US Consulate in Quetta and expansion of Karachi Consulate and Embassy in Islamabad, launching of operation in North Waziristan, allowing free access to land trade route to India via Wagah to transport its goods to Afghanistan, acceptance of Indian military presence in Afghanistan post 2014. In short, we will not only continue to remain on receiving end but will also continue to stomach its insults and belligerence.
The writer is a retired Brig and a freelance defence analyst. Email: email@example.com