The Russians have a favorite saying, “Where is the bumaga?” Maybe, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and US president Barack Obama never heard of it. Bumaga, by the way, means the sheet of paper in Russian. The wise people that Russians are, they staunchly believe that a happening on the diplomatic plane can be taken as conclusive only when matters are drafted, vetted, duly signed and sealed on paper as a document.
Both Obama and Rasumssen thought they could hold up an invitation to Pakistan president Asif Zardari to the NATO summit in Chicago to bait Islamabad to agree to the re-opening of the NATO’s transit routes via Pakistan, which were shut down almost 7 months ago. They were right insofar as how could NATO possibly invite to its celebratory event a country that shut its door on the alliances’s supply routes to a war theatre where it is bleeding heavily?
Pakistan duly obliged by indicating at various levels that a reopening of the NATO’s routes is on the cards. And Zardari duly received Rasmussen’s invite (and is indeed in Chicago at the moment). However, now it appears that the understanding, if any, on the reopening of the transit routes wasn’t put down on the bumaga. Which means it is no more than a line in the sand.
The US commander in Afghanistan John Allen already speculates that it may be “days or weeks, I don’t know” before the bumaga is penned. He also seems to have dark forebodings; he has underplayed the significance of the Pakistani transit routes. Allen is parrying.
The ground reality is that NATO’s exit plan is critically linked to the availability of the Pakistani routes. It will be a “logistical nightmare” for NATO if the Pakistani routes remain closed. Obviously, Pakistan knows this. The hitch seems to be over the transit fee, which Pakistan has proposed as a modest figure of 5000 dollars per vehicle. (It used to be 250 dollars earlier).
Bit Obama isn’t amused. He is asking why such a big amount is to be paid when the US is already generously giving aid to Pakistan. It’s a good point. But Obama forgets that he is also refusing to apologise for the massacre of the Pakistani troops in an air strike last November or to respect Pakistani sensitivities regarding the drone attacks. There is a price to pay in such circumstances.
What happens now? At any rate, Obama shouldn’t have taken matters to a personal level by snubbing Zardari and refusing to have a “bilateral” with him on the sidelines of the Chicago summit. The Pakistani government needs all the money it can get from Washington to work on a good budget for the forthcoming financial year, which also happens to be an election year in Pakistan. But its dilemma is that the re-opening of the NATO’s supply routes will be a very unpopular move and may prove costly politically at the election.
On the other hand, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta thinks it is “not likely” that US would agree to pay a higher transit fee. Equally, Pakistani military has withdrawn to the barracks and maintains calmly that this is not their cup of tea and it is for the civilian government in Islamabad to decide whether to reopen the transit routes or not. Having said that, there is a lingering suspicion that the military may also be quietly encouraging the “Islamist” opposition to the reopening of the NATO’s routes.
Ultimately, this is at its core a game of brinkmanship, as both the US and Pakistan jockey for advantages and Pakistan knows the US is running against time, what with the serious phase of the “transition” in Afghanistan commencing already by September. Clearly, the fracas at Chicago isn’t helping matters.
Meanwhile, such a high drama is bound to have its sideshow. Even as the NATO banquet gets under way in Chicago in a few hours from now, all eyes will be on another banquet in Islamabad tonight, which Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani is hosting for the visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan is on a mediatory mission that harps on the need for consensual politics in Pakistan. It is an uncertain mission, but if Erdogan succeeds in convincing the Pakistani political class about the meed to work shoulder to shoulder to handle national issues (such as the NATO’s supply routes), Obama would be a collateral beneficiary. This is the least Erdogan could do for Obama at the moment.
– May 21, 2012