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Pakistan Plays the China Card

Has the Obama administration miscalculated in Pakistan?

| Tue May 24, 2011 2:56 PM EDT
Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Beijing on May 20, 2011.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Washington often acts as if Pakistan were its client state, with no other possible patron but the United States. It assumes that Pakistani leaders, having made all the usual declarations about upholding the "sacred sovereignty" of their country, will end up yielding to periodic American demands, including those for a free hand in staging drone attacks in its tribal lands bordering Afghanistan. This is a flawed assessment of Washington's long, tortuous relationship with Islamabad.

A recurring feature of the Obama administration's foreign policy has been its failure to properly measure the strengths (as well as weaknesses) of its challengers, major or minor, as well as its friends, steadfast or fickle. To earlier examples of this phenomenon, one may now add Pakistan.

That country has an active partnership with another major power, potentially a viable substitute for the US should relations with the Obama administration continue to deteriorate. The Islamabad-Washington relationship has swung from close alliance in the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad years of the 1980s to unmistaken alienation in the early 1990s, when Pakistan was on the US watch list as a state supporting international terrorism. Relations between Islamabad and Beijing, on the other hand, have been consistently cordial for almost three decades. Pakistan's Chinese alliance, noted fitfully by the US, is one of its most potent weapons in any future showdown with the Obama administration.

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Another factor, also poorly assessed, affects an ongoing war. While, in the 1980s, Pakistan acted as the crucial conduit for US aid and weapons to jihadists in Afghanistan, today it could be an obstacle to the delivery of supplies to America's military in Afghanistan. It potentially wields a powerful instrument when it comes to the efficiency with which the US and its NATO allies fight the Taliban. It controls the supply lines to the combat forces in that landlocked country.

Taken together, these two factors make Pakistan a far more formidable and independent force than US policymakers concede publicly or even privately.

The Supply Line as Jugular

Angered at the potential duplicity of Pakistan in having provided a haven to Osama bin Laden for years, the Obama administration seems to be losing sight of the strength of the cards Islamabad holds in its hand.

To supply the 100,000 American troops now in Afghanistan, as well as 50,000 troops from other NATO nations and more than 100,000 employees of private contractors, the Pentagon must have unfettered access to that country through its neighbors. Among the six countries adjoining Afghanistan, only three have seaports, with those of China far too distant to be of practical use. Of the remaining two, Iran—Washington's number one enemy in the region—is out. That places Pakistan in a unique position.

Currently about three-quarters of the supplies for the 400-plus US and coalition bases in Afghanistan—from gigantic Bagram Air Base to tiny patrol outposts—go overland via Pakistan or through its air space. These shipments include almost all the lethal cargo and most of the fuel needed by US-led NATO forces. On their arrival at Karachi, the only major Pakistani seaport, these supplies are transferred to trucks, which travel a long route to crossing points on the Afghan border. Of these, two are key: Torkham and Chaman.

Torkham, approached through the famed Khyber Pass, leads directly to Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Bagram Air Base, the largest US military facility in the country. Approached through the Bolan Pass in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, Chaman provides a direct route to Kandahar Air Base, the largest US military camp in southern Afghanistan.

Operated by some 4,000 Pakistani drivers and their helpers, nearly 300 trucks and oil tankers pass through Torkham and another 200 through Chaman daily. Increasing attacks on these convoys by Taliban-allied militants in Pakistan starting in 2007 led the Pentagon into a desperate search for alternative supply routes.

After Empire by Dilip HiroWith the help of NATO member Latvia, as well as Russia, and Uzbekistan, Pentagon planners succeeded in setting up the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It is a 3,220-mile railroad link between the Latvian port of Riga and the Uzbek border city of Termez. It is, in turn, connected by a bridge over the Oxus River to the Afghan town of Hairatan. The Uzbek government, however, allows only non-lethal goods to cross its territory. In addition, the Termez-Hairatan route can handle no more than 130 tons of cargo a day. The expense of shipping goods over such a long distance puts a crimp in the Pentagon's $120 billion annual budget for the Afghan War, and couldn't possibly replace the Pakistani supply routes.

There is also the Manas Transit Center leased by the US from the government of Kyrgyzstan in December 2001. Due to its proximity to Bagram Air Base, its main functions are transiting coalition forces in and out of Afghanistan, and storing jet fuel for mid-air refueling of US and NATO planes in Afghanistan.

The indispensability of Pakistan's land routes to the Pentagon has given its government significant leverage in countering excessive diplomatic pressure from or continued violations of its sovereignty by Washington. Last September, for instance, after a NATO helicopter gunship crossed into Pakistan from Afghanistan in hot pursuit of insurgents and killed three paramilitaries of the Pakistani Frontier Corps in the tribal agency of Kurram, Islamabad responded quickly.

It closed the Khyber Pass route to NATO trucks and oil tankers, which stranded many vehicles en route, giving Pakistani militants an opportunity to torch them. And they did. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a written apology to his Pakistani counterpart General Ashhaq Parvez Kayani, conveying his "most sincere condolences for the regrettable loss of your soldiers killed and wounded on 30 September." Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan, issued an apology for the "terrible accident," explaining that the helicopter crew had mistaken the Pakistani paratroopers for insurgents. Yet Pakistan waited eight days before reopening the Torkham border post.

Pakistan's Other Cards: Oil, Terrorism, and China

In this region of rugged terrain, mountain passes play a crucial geopolitical role. When China and Pakistan began negotiating the demarcation of their frontier after the 1962 Sino-Indian War (itself rooted in a border dispute), Beijing insisted on having the Khunjerab Pass in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Islamabad obliged. As a result, the 2,000-square-mile territory it ceded to China as part of the Sino-Pakistan Border and Trade Agreement in March 1963 included that mountain pass.

That agreement, in turn, led to the building of the 800-mile-long Karkoram Highway linking Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Region and the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, now a household name in America. That road sealed a strategic partnership between Beijing and Islamabad that has strong geopolitical, military, and economic components.

Both countries share the common aim of frustrating India's aspiration to become the regional superpower of South Asia. In addition, the Chinese government views Pakistan as a crucial ally in its efforts to acquire energy security in the coming decades.

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