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Pakistan opens roads

July 4, 2012

Experts say that Pakistan's decision to reopen key NATO supply routes to Afghanistan is a sign that Islamabad could not afford to prolong its international isolation.

Image: AP

After almost seven months, Pakistan has finally agreed to reopen NATO supply lines to Afghanistan - an issue that severely strained Islamabad's diplomatic ties with the US and other NATO states.

Islamabad had blocked the supply routes in retaliation for a NATO airstrike in Salala near the Afghan border last November that resulted in the death of 24 of its soldiers. US-Pakistani ties had been at their lowest level ever since.

Separate probes by the Pentagon and NATO into the lethal strike revealed that inadequate coordination and a lack of "fundamental trust" had led to the tragedy. No apology was handed over to Islamabad. For its part, the Pakistani government rejected the findings and demanded that the US and NATO apologize.

Afghanistan-bound trucks carrying NATO supplies parked at Torkham border post in Pakistan
Afghanistan-bound trucks carrying NATO supplies were parked in Pakistan for monthsImage: AP

"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military" were the long-awaited words finally issued by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 3.

"We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again," Clinton continued in a telephone conversation with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

Islamabad responded to Washington's peace offering by announcing on Tuesday that it would reopen its border to NATO convoys.

Land routes to Afghanistan via Pakistan are the cheapest way for NATO to provide much-needed supplies to its troops who are fighting a decade-long war against Islamists militants.

The way forward

Pakistan experts say Islamabad was becoming increasingly desperate to find a way out of this crisis.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorryImage: AP

Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistan researcher and journalist, told DW that the breakthrough between the US and Pakistan was not a sudden occurrence, and there had been a lot of backdoor diplomatic efforts from both sides.

"I think Washington used both carrot and stick with Islamabad. Pakistan had hardly any choice," said Sulehria. "It would have been a disaster for Pakistan had the US, which is a big financer, and international monitory institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, refused to bail out its already frail economy."

On his part, Malik Siraj Akbar, a Reagan-Fascell Democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington DC, said both countries realised that they were "gaining nothing from the deadlock and they had to go forward."

"Both countries had calmed down by now and they felt they had to get back to business. When the Pakistanis were too angry in November last year, the US had agreed to tender an apology, but the decision was halted on Pakistan's own claim that the parliament was reviewing relations with the US."

Observers believe Islamabad's decision to resume NATO supplies will help ease its tensions with the US.

Regional interests

Akbar also believed that Islamabad had been able to convince the US that its interests in Afghanistan should not be put at stake for the benefit of India and other regional players.

Taliban militants take part in a training session in South Waziristan, Pakistan
Pakistan is still not ready to give up its support to Islamic militants, say expertsImage: AP

"Pakistan had conveyed to the Americans that they should understand Pakistan's limitations and its national interests, which meant that Pakistan was not willing to take action against the militant Haqqani network to undermine its own interests in Afghanistan," Akbar said.

The US has been pressing Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network in Pakistan's troubled northwest, which it believes is launching attacks from Pakistan on Afghan soil.

Sulehria said that the Pakistan Army, which has a grip on defense and foreign policy matters, was not ready to relinquish its decades-old "strategic depth" policy for Afghanistan, which meant that it needed a government in Kabul that protected its interests vis-à-vis India.

Backlash from Islamists

The reopening of NATO supply routes remains an unpopular decision in Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government faced immense political pressure from opposition parties, including hard-line Islamist groups. Observers say that despite the fact that the resumption of supplies will improve US-Pakistani relations, the PPP government is going to face a severe backlash from the Islamist parties.

Sulehria said Pakistan's move to open the border was not only detested by Islamists, it was also unpopular among the urban middle class. What's more, he said the decision would "remain unpopular."

Supporters of Islamic parties protest against the reopening of NATO supply lines
Islamists have vowed to continue their protestsImage: AP

Pakistani militants opposed to the resumption of supplies - which includes the Taliban - have warned they will carry out attacks on NATO supply trucks.

Shakoor Rahim, DW correspondent in Islamabad, said the opposition parties had already started criticizing the PPP government for "compromising on national security." They also say that the reopening of supply routes is a violation of a parliamentary resolution passed earlier this year.

Not long ago, Naseer Bhatta, member of Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's opposition Pakistan Muslim League, told DW that if the government wanted to take a decision on this matter, it had to get an approval from parliament.

"It would be unfortunate if NATO supplies were reopened without the consent of the people."

However, Najam Rafique, Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank, told DW that the protests against Islamabad's decision would eventually die down.

Author: Shamil Shams
Editor: Sarah Berning

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