ISLAMABAD – United States President Barack Obama assembled an impressive array of his peers on the international scene in his hometown, Chicago, on May 20-21.
Sixty fellow leaders traveled to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit to endorse an exit plan from embattled Afghanistan; their people mostly as weary of the conflict as the American people.
However, there was one peer of Obama – Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari – who arrived empty-handed and not bearing the gift that was expected to put the icing on the cake his gracious host had baked with meticulous care.
The choice of Obama’s hometown for the much-ballyhooed conclave of NATO and the International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF) under American auspices had as much a domestic angle as an international one.
Obama wanted his votaries, as well as his detractors, to know that he is a global player, an international peacemaker and a statesman poised to put an end to the longest overseas military engagement in US in history – remembering that American voters go to the polls in November to either re-elect Obama or choose Republican Mitt Romney.
Zardari had been given a late ticket to the summit; up until a week ago the signals from both Washington and Brussels, the NATO headquarters, hinted at Pakistan being excluded.
That got the Pakistanis worried. They had boycotted the NATO-ISAF meeting in Berlin in December last year, in a huff to register their anger over the deadly American air raid against a Pakistan military post a week earlier that killed 24 soldiers.
Pakistan had also as a result stopped trailer convoys ferrying vital supplies for NATO and ISAF forces from passing through Pakistani territory on the way to Afghanistan, forcing these to take the much more expensive and longer northern route through Uzbekistan. Both moves were hailed by the people of Pakistan.
But much had changed since those retaliatory moves; the Pakistanis didn’t fancy the idea of being left out in the cold from the Chicago gathering and thus excluded from a role in the future of next-door Afghanistan, where Pakistan is desperate to enhance its strategic depth.
A Pakistani no-show at Chicago would have been a slap in the face by a country whose leadership – of any stripes, civil or military – has traditionally taken great pride in being the most steadfast ally of the US. Pakistan’s first military dictator and “Bonaparte”, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, boasted in his autobiography Friends not Masters that Washington would never find a friend more trustworthy than Pakistan.
However, relations between the two “all-weather friends and allies” have been in a deep chill since the fateful US raid and there are few signs of a warming. All the same, being scripted out of Chicago was deemed, in Islamabad’s power corridors, as an ultimate insult that could doom relations forever.
So the Pakistanis went scampering to their Turkish friends – with whom bonds of camaraderie and fraternity pre-date the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The Turks are also cozy with the Americans and have been part of the NATO brigade in Afghanistan. There couldn’t be a more effective and credible middleman than Turkey to bail Pakistan out of the very tight corner in which they seem to have painted themselves.
Frantic phone calls to President Abdullah Gul, who led the Turkish team to Chicago, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in Pakistan as these lines are being written and who is receiving a rapturous welcome, melted the ice in Washington and Brussels – Zardari was given the green-light to board a plane for Chicago.
The ice, however, didn’t simply melt because the Turks had waved a magic wand. The Pakistanis assured their Turkish interlocutors – who then relayed the message to Washington – that the Pakistanis were ready to play ball and revive transit facilities for NATO. This was interpreted as a conciliatory gesture and enough for the welcome mat to be rolled out.
It was anticipated that Pakistan would have lifted the ban before Zardari boarded his flight to Chicago. But that wasn’t to be, and he landed without bearing the gift everybody was expecting.
In obvious pique, Obama refused to meet Zardari one-on-one, while he bestowed that favor on Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. That was like rubbing salt into the Pakistani wound.
NATO secretary general added his own insult to the Pakistani injury when he, too, wriggled out of a planned one-on-one meeting with Zardari claiming “scheduling problems”.
Why Zardari didn’t deliver on Pakistan’s commitment is still a subject of intense speculation, with pundits scurrying to their crystal balls to see if they can make some sense out of Zardari’s “no-show”.
Sophistry aside, it’s obvious that Zardari and company got cold feet at the last minute and decided not to bite the bullet, at least not yet.
The explanation from the American side that progress on working out a deal has been stymied because of Pakistan’s exorbitant demand of a US$5,000 transit fee of every container using its facilities – against the previous fee of $250 – may have some merit, but is not quite convincing and doesn’t get to the bottom of the issue, or the nuances involved.
The Pakistanis have a point in saying the price tag has good logic behind it; they need money to fix the roads and highways torn up because of heavy NATO trailers plying them. Besides, they argue, why should NATO and the Americans be making such a big deal of it when they are running up excessive bills of up to $85 million a month on the alternative routes through Russia and Central Asia?
No, transit fees are not the real issue. The fee being demanded is, at best, a bargaining counter and could easily be negotiable. It isn’t an insurmountable problem.
The real issue is that the Pakistani leadership has painted itself into a helpless and unenviable situation. It looks more and more like a high trapeze artiste marooned on a perch at the top but with no safety net spread out below.
The Pakistani leadership – both civil and military – is to blame if it now finds itself hoist by its own petard. The leaders made the error of lobbing the episode of last November into the people’s court and losing their grip on it.
It has been a fight between the people of Pakistan and the Americans ever since the US raid that killed 24 soldiers. In Pakistan’s traditionally feudal culture, a man in uniform is still looked up to with awe, if not with reverence, notwithstanding all the misery and suffering that Pakistan’s frequent flirtation with military rule has brought to its people.
There was uproar, already, in the country over American drone attacks, seen by laymen as targeting civilians. The killing of Pakistani soldiers was the last straw on the back of the people to snap their patience.
Survey after survey of public opinion in Pakistan has found no dilution of the people’s demand for an unconditional apology from the Americans for the killing of their soldiers and an end to the nightmare of drone attacks. That’s the public’s absolute minimum price for resuming normal relations with US and its allies.
So that, in a nutshell, is Zardari’s dilemma: how to square this circle.
Obama can’t afford to tender an apology to a client state; that would be politically risky, if not suicidal, for him in an election year with his nemeses breathing down his neck.
Zardari also has a general election to deal with in early 2013. He should be as wary as Obama of being seen as a wimp.
It isn’t such a riddle to guess which of the two will blink first. Pakistan’s army needs US weapons and funds to keep rolling. Pakistan’s civilian government, riddled with corruption, needs American assistance to feed its people; it can’t even put together a national budget without US and other Western input.
It’s only a matter of time before Pakistan buckles under these enormous pressures.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani ambassador and now a freelance analyst, commentator and columnist. He can be reached at K_K_ghori@yahoo.com
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd