5th October, 2010
ISLAMABAD – Hawkish anti-American elements in Pakistan’s military prevailed on pro-United States army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani to close a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply route in Pakistan in a move that signals a possible ominous deterioration in relations between Islamabad and Washington.
The hand of the hawks was strengthened by a record number of US unmanned drone attacks inside Pakistan last month – 22 – as well as two raids by US gunships into Pakistani territory.
On Thursday, Pakistan blocked the Khyber Pass at the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan through which 80% of the NATO supplies that pass through Pakistan are transported. These supplies go straight to Bagram air base on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul. The remaining 20% of the supplies that go through Pakistan use the Chaman border, from where they go to Kandahar air base; this passage remains open. Approximately 80% of NATO’s supplies go through Pakistan. The remainder go via a much more expensive and time-consuming route through Central Asia, or by air.
The tense situation was exacerbated on Monday morning when about 20 NATO tankers near Islamabad were set alight by gunmen with Molotov cocktails. Three people were killed and eight wounded in the incident, which follows a similar attack on Friday in the south, when gunmen burned more than 24 trucks and tankers carrying fuel destined for NATO forces in Afghanistan.
According to high-level contacts who spoke to Asia Times Online, the prime mover behind having the Khyber Pass closed was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff Committee, General Tariq Majid, who is due to retire on October 8.
Following the closure of the border, Washington was stunned when the Pakistani Foreign Office arranged interviews for its spokesperson, Abdul Basit, with international news agencies. Basit defiantly stated that NATO supply trucks would only be allowed to cross into Afghanistan through Pakistan when anger among the people over the American attacks inside Pakistani had subsided. He added that any attacks on NATO convoys would be “the reaction of the Pakistani masses”.
However, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban – TTP) on Monday claimed responsibility for the two attacks. “We accept responsibility for the attacks on the NATO supply trucks and tankers. We will carry out more such attacks in future. We will not allow the use of Pakistani soil as a supply route for NATO troops based in Afghanistan,” TTP spokesman Azam Tariq was quoted by Agence-France Presse as saying.
Basit’s briefing followed comments by Richard Holbrooke, the US’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that he expected the closure to last for only a short period and that an extended disruption of supplies would have a colossal affect on the region. Hundreds of trucks normally cross into Afghanistan each day. The envoy described the overall US relationship with Pakistan as “more complicated than any strategic relationship I’ve ever been involved in”.
After a recent surge in militant activities in the border regions with Pakistan, especially in Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Ghazni, the Americans strongly reiterated their demand for Pakistani operations against the Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani network based in the North Waziristan tribal area. The US believes this powerful faction of the Afghan resistance to be behind all the attacks in the bordering provinces.
Pakistan refused due to devastating floods that had distracted the army, and pointed out that Haqqani’s most important commander, Sangeen, is now in Paktia and Khost and is directly commanding his men from the ground. Besides, these provinces, especially Ghazni, are mostly in the control of the Taliban, therefore the demand for immediate operations in North Waziristan is not justified.
Following Pakistan’s refusal, NATO forces adopted a policy of hot pursuit. One gunship helicopter attacked a town in North Waziristan last month and another went into Kurram Agency in an attack in which three Pakistani soldiers were killed, along with suspected militants.
The China factor
The outgoing Majid has agitated that Islamabad should review its strategic relations with the US, especially in light of China’s growing influence in Pakistan. This is even though the US, along with Saudi Arabia, had been at the forefront of rescue and aid efforts in the recent crippling floods across vast swathes of the country.
The anti-American viewpoint in the army is that the cost of American friendship is heavy, in that while Pakistan annually receives millions of dollars in aid and loans, the militant backlash against this pro-American stance is deeply divisive and undermines the stability of the country.
China, meanwhile, it is argued, simply wants to do business in Pakistan, and its presence does not stir up the masses. Recently, Pakistan handed over control of the operations of the strategic Gwadar port to China. Beijing is interested in turning it into an energy transport hub by building an oil pipeline from Gwadar into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The planned pipeline would carry crude oil sourced from Arab and African states.
General Khalid Shamim Wyne has been nominated to replace Majid, who orchestrated a dimension of the Pakistan-China strategic relationship as he dealt with naval projects. (The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee is a ceremonial position, but all defense deals in the three branches of the armed forces need his approval.)
Majid’s tilt towards China and a movement away from the US is expected to be continued by Wyne.
On Sunday, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani said on CNN’s State of the Union program that he did “not expect this blockade to continue for too long”.
This might be the case, but the incident is a harsh reminder for the US that it cannot take the cooperation of its most-valued non-NATO partner for granted.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at •••@••.•••