External coaxing and American lobbyists from within Pakistan had almost pushed the government to re-open the route before the summit.  Significance of the summit was indeed grossly exaggerated. Thanks to Panetta’s erratic arrogance in rejecting Pakistan’s proposed transit charges, a disaster was averted.

By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

As Chicago summit was on, western media carried reports that President Obama had declined a formal meeting with President of Pakistan until the supply routes were opened. Both Pakistan and America have exposed the crude fragility of their bilateral relations. America has indicated that it could go to any extent of arm twisting in the context of reopening of supply routes via Torkham and Chamman.  American vulnerability of dependence on supply routes through Pakistan came to fore once America’s bluff about much trumpeted viability of Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was called, in November last year. Pakistan also stood exposed regarding its economic vulnerability. Though direct American aid accounts for only 15-17% in terms of direct budgetary support, the real trouble surfaces when multi-lateral lenders look for American nod before entering into any arrangement with Pakistan.

In a run-up to Chicago summit, a flurry of activity took place to reassess the cost-benefit balance of reopening the supply routes. The pressure was tremendous. External coaxing and American lobbyists from within Pakistan had almost pushed the government to re-open the route before the summit.  Significance of the summit was indeed grossly exaggerated. Thanks to Panetta’s erratic arrogance in rejecting Pakistan’s proposed transit charges, a disaster was averted.

Opening or otherwise of supply routes has become a point of national prestige.  The difference between the grand public standing and the government’s wish is quite phenomenal. The handle of decision has clearly moved in the hands of public sentiment. Unless a significant quid pro quo is accrued, resumption of logistics would be construed as a national insult. Political baggage is so much that parliament also side-stepped the matter and passed the buck onto the government. The government in turn roped in the DCC to radiate an impression as if re-opening of routes is a necessity of military leadership. Whereas reality is that even if the route was closed on military’s insistence, nothing tangible has been achieved by it to necessitate the reversal of earlier standing.

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Pakistan’s keenness to attend Chicago summit was misplaced. Chicago gathering had no other objective than to endorse the earlier transition plan. NATO will hand over the lead role in combat operations to Afghan forces by mid-2013. This puts to rest the speculations that NATO could carry on with the deployments and combat errands after American pull out. NATO has now unfolded its path out of a war that has lost public support, the world over and strained the budgets of most of the Western countries. The economic pressure in Europe and elsewhere is being presumed as an unwelcome drag on countries, which are facing a snowballing public opposition to a costly war that has failed to defeat the Taliban in nearly 11 years of fighting.

Summit has formally endorsed an American plan of action for exiting out of Afghanistan. This was a move aimed at holding together crumbling allied force struggling to cope up with France’s decision to withdraw its troops early. President Barack Obama is eager to show his war fatigued voters that the end is in sight. He, at the same time, wants to reassure Afghans that they will not be abandoned. “There will be no rush for the exits,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as the summit got under way. He struggled to put up a show of unity even though France’s President Francois Hollande vowed to stick by his pledge to withdraw French contingent two years earlier than the NATO’s schedule. Now, NATO’s plan is to shift full responsibility to Afghan forces for security across the country by the middle of 2013 and then withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of 2014. The new mission for the US and NATO troops will assume a focus on advising and supporting Afghan soldiers.

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While starting the summit, Obama warned of “hard days” ahead. Obama had earlier termed the Afghan conflict a “war of necessity” but is now desperately looking for a face saving way-out to dispel the impression that shaky allies will leave US troops alone for their ‘last post’ ritual in Afghanistan. Chicago talks were held under the shadow of gradual meltdown of the ‘alliance of the unwilling’.

A poll in January showed 84 percent of the French public backed an early troop withdrawal. France has about 3,400 troops in Afghanistan. “French combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year,” Hollande told reporters. “In 2013, only trainers for police and officers of the Afghan army will remain and this will be done within the framework of ISAF.” Hollande’s comments underscored the challenge for Obama, who has steadily narrowed his goals in Afghanistan and is struggling to design a troops’ pullout that will not open the way for Taliban resurgence. “We went into Afghanistan together, we want to leave Afghanistan together,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. Conceding that Hollande was unlikely to be dissuaded, General John Allen, the US commander in Afghanistan, played down the impact, saying “we have the capacity, using our current force structure, to ensure there is no degradation in security.” French comments had indeed shrunk the space that NATO leaders had while they sought to avoid the appearance of splits within NATO.

Alliance leaders walked a cautious line in discussions on long-term funding for the Afghan police and army, whose ability to battle the Taliban is at the core of NATO strategy for leaving Afghanistan smoothly. Obama, meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the sidelines of the summit, said the Afghan war as we understand it is over, but our commitment to friendship and partnership with Afghanistan continues.” President Karzai thanked Americans for “your taxpayer money” and said his country looked forward to the day it is “no longer a burden” on the international community. The Obama administration, unwilling to foot the $4.1 billion annual liability of maintaining Afghan security forces single handed, has been seeking promises from its allies to chip in $1.3 billion a year for Afghan forces.

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Taliban made their point by urging the countries fighting in Afghanistan to follow France’s lead and pull their forces out in accordance with anti-war sentiment in the West. Obama told the summit’s opening session: “Just as we have sacrificed together for our common security, we will stand together united in our determination to complete this mission.”

With heavy security in place for the Chicago summit, baton-swinging police clashed with anti-war protesters marching by the thousands near the summit venue. At least a dozen people were injured; some with head wounds from batons, and more than 60 were arrested.

Regarding reopening of supply routes, General Allen told Reuters that he was confident that a deal would eventually be struck but “whether it’s in days or weeks, I don’t know.”  Not bowing to American pressure for reopening the supply routes before or during the summit has gone down well amongst the public. Decision on the issue should be taken in the best national interest, prudence should prevail upon emotionalism. As goodwill gesture, Pakistan may announce one way reopening of supply routes for facilitating early and expeditious withdrawal of occupation forces, however it should not allow resumption of supply into Afghanistan except the humanitarian cargo like medicines etc.

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