Now transport fees threaten to upend US-Pakistan ties

Now transport fees threaten to upend US-Pakistan ties

After all the assertions of their deep existential and strategic interests in Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan are squabbling over how much to charge for every truck carrying supplies across the latter's border.

Although the figures vary, there is a general media consensus that while Washington is offering no more than $250 a truck, Islamabad is reportedly asking for as high as $5000. The first day of the summit here of the North  Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries witnessed the sorry spectacle of the relations between two most crucial players in the future of Afghanistan being upended by transport charges.

The idea that one of the world's great strategic balancing acts can be complicated by something so trivial underscores the inherent failure of the way all concerned have handled it. Pakistan has broken off the crucial supply lines to Afghanistan since November last year when US airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The decision to choke the supplies capped off nearly six months of profound embarrassment that Pakistan experienced after Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed by American special forces practically in Islamabad's backyard in May last year.

The NATO summit here, whose predominant focus has been in Afghanistan, was seen by many as an opportunity to mend US-Pakistan relations. As a gesture of that goodwill Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari was invited to attend along with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai practically at the last moment. The expectation within the Obama administration as well as the NATO leadership was that Pakistan would, at the very least, make the announcement that it would resume the supplies within days.

However, what was probably not factored in as something that could spoil the calculations for the NATO in general and the US in particular were truck transport charges, which can potentially accrue rich financial rewards for a cash-strapped Pakistan. Reopening the supply lines is very crucial for the overall effectiveness of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which also includes NATO members, comprising a total of 129,469 troops.

America has 90,000 troops on the ground, nearly ten times the second biggest contributor, Britain with 9,500. Fifty countries are part of the ISAF-NATO alliance present in Afghanistan, at least ten of whom have contributed less than 50 troops each.

Pakistan sees an opportunity to reclaim some of the prestige it lost in the aftermath of the Bin Laden killing by driving a hard bargain on the truck charges. It is a measure of how much nuts and bolts bilateral diplomacy can become that Pakistan has even pointed out the wear and tear the truck traffic could cause on its road infrastructure. It is an extraordinary example of roadside haggling over what both claim to be a matter of grave national security.

With Pakistan not obliging, the US and the partners have to route its supplies via a much longer and more expensive way using Baltic and Caspian ports going through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus which costs them 21 times the Pakistan route, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It is not clear what Zardari stands to gain by accepting the invitation when there are perceptions that Pakistan has been isolated at the summit. As an apparent consequence of no commitment to resume supplies forthcoming from Pakistan, Zardari was studiedly deprived a one-on-one meeting with President Barack Obama.

He had to be content meeting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  It is somewhat akin to being called for a wedding but not asked to stay on for the dinner. That said, Islamabad could not have sat the summit out because Afghanistan has a direct economic, strategic and national security impact on it. Zardari had to be here once he was invited, even if it meant him shuffling his feet inside his hotel room.

It is possible that the second and last day of the summit on Monday might yet see some movement forward on the issue of supply lines but even if it is resolved it is bound leave a deep scar on the already fractious relationship between the two countries. Eventually, even the US and the allies might have to approach it from the standpoint which of the two options is cheaper even after paying Pakistan more than what it was being paid before the disruption.  Keeping the Pakistan route open is also important as the US begins to gradually withdraw its troops and equipment later this year.

On a related note, although Karzai and Afghanistan are central to the issue, the impression at the summit was that he was a child bystander watching from the sidelines as the two adults slugged it out. However, as a less than subtle rebuke to Zardari, Obama did meet Karzai one on one. The difference in treatment of the two neighbors was also necessitated by the fact Afghanistan is already in the midst of what has been officially called 'Inteqal', the Dari and Pushtu for transition under which security is being increasingly led by Afghan forces.

According to a NATO backgrounder 75 percent of the Afghan population will soon live in areas whose security is overseen by Afghan-led security forces. Next year the whole country is expected to be under Inteqal.

For India, the NATO is important by implication in so much as it determines the future role of Pakistan in a region which is strategically decisive for South Asia.

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