"If we can't negotiate or successfully renegotiate the reopening of ground lines of communication with Pakistan, we have to default and rely on India and the Northern Distribution Network (NDN)," said a worried Lieutenant General Frank Panter to the Readiness Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee of the US House of Representatives on March 30th. "Both are expensive propositions and it increases the deployment or redeployment."
The main part of the NDN is a 3,220-mile rail network for transporting supplies between the Latvian port of Riga and the Uzbek town of Termez (connected by a bridge over the Oxus River to the Afghan settlement of Hairatan). According to the Pentagon, it costs nearly $17,000 per container to go through the NDN compared to $7,000 through the Pakistani border crossings.
Moreover, US and NATO are allowed to transport only "non-lethal goods" through the NDN.
Other military officials have warned that the failure to reopen the Pakistani routes could even delay the schedule for withdrawing American "combat troops" from Afghanistan by 2014. That would be bad news for the Obama White House with the latest Washington Post/NBC News poll showing that, for the first time, even a majority of Republicans believe the Afghan War "has not been worth fighting." A CBS News/New York Times survey indicated that support for the war was at a record low of 23 percent, with 69 percent of respondents saying that now was the time to withdraw troops.
In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, the PCNS finally published a list of preconditions that the US must meet for the reopening of supply lines. These included an unqualified apology for the air strikes last November, an end to drone attacks, no more "hot pursuit" by US or NATO troops inside Pakistan, and the taxing of supplies shipped through Pakistan. Much to the discomfiture of the Obama administration, a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate called to debate the PCNS report took more than two weeks to reach a conclusion.
On April 12th, the Parliament finally unanimously approved the demands and added that no foreign arms and ammunition should be transported through Pakistan. The Obama administration is spinning this development not as an ultimatum but as a document for launching talks between the two governments.
Even so, it has strengthened Prime Minister Gilani's hand as never before. Furthermore, he has to take into account the popular support the Saeed-led Difa-e Pakistan Council is building for keeping the Pakistani border crossings permanently closed to NATO traffic. Thus, Saeed, a jihadist with a US bounty on his head, has emerged as an important factor in the complex Islamabad-Washington relationship.
Squeezing Washington: The Pattern
There is, in fact, nothing new in the way Islamabad has been squeezing Washington lately. It has a long record of getting the better of US officials by identifying areas of American weakness and exploiting them successfully to further its agenda.
When the Soviet bloc posed a serious challenge to the US, the Pakistanis obtained what they wanted from Washington by being even more anti-Soviet than America. Afghanistan in the 1980s is the classic example. Following the Soviet military intervention there in December 1979, the Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq volunteered to join Washington's Cold War against the Kremlin—but strictly on his terms. He wanted sole control over the billions of dollars in cash and arms to be supplied by the US and its ally Saudi Arabia to the Afghan Mujahedin (holy warriors) to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. He got it.
That enabled his commanders to channel a third of the new weapons to their own arsenals for future battle against their archenemy, India. Another third were sold to private arms dealers on profitable terms. When pilfered US weapons began appearing in arms bazaars of the Afghan-Pakistan border towns (as has happened again in recent years), the Pentagon decided to dispatch an audit team to Pakistan. On the eve of its arrival in April 1988, the Ojhiri arms depot complex, containing 10,000 tons of munitions, mysteriously went up in flames, with rockets, missiles, and artillery shells raining down on Islamabad, killing more than 100 people.
By playing on Ronald Reagan's view of the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire," Zia ul-Haq also ensured that the American president would turn a blind eye on Pakistan's frantic, clandestine efforts to build an atom bomb. Even when the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the State Department determined that a nuclear weapon assembled by Pakistan had been tested at Lop Nor in China in early 1984, Reagan continued to certify to Congress that Islamabad was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program in order to abide by a law which prohibited US aid to a country doing so.
Today, there are an estimated 120 nuclear bombs in the arsenal of a nation that has more Islamist jihadists per million people than any other country in the world. From October 2007 to October 2009, there were at least four attacks by extremists on Pakistani army bases known to be storing nuclear weapons.
In the post-9/11 years, Pakistan's ruler General Pervez Musharraf managed to repeat the process in the context of a new Afghan war. He promptly joined President George W. Bush in his Global War on Terror, and then went on to distinguish between "bad terrorists" with a global agenda (al-Qaeda), and "good terrorists" with a pro-Pakistani agenda (the Afghan Taliban). Musharraf's ISI then proceeded to protect and foster the Afghan Taliban, while periodically handing over al-Qaeda militants to Washington. In this way, Musharraf played on Bush's soft spot—his intense loathing of al-Qaeda—and exploited it to further Pakistan's regional agenda.
Emulating the policies of Zia ul-Haq and Musharraf, the post-Musharraf civilian government has found ways of diverting US funds and equipment meant for fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban to bolster their defenses against India. By inflating the costs of fuel, ammunition, and transport used by Pakistan's 100,000 troops posted in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, Islamabad received more money from the Pentagon's Coalition Support Fund (CSF) than it spent. It then used the excess to buy weapons suitable for fighting India.
When the New York Times revealed this in December 2007, the Musharraf government dismissed its report as "nonsense." But after resigning as president and moving to London, Musharraf told Pakistan's Express News television channel in September 2009 that the funds had indeed been spent on weapons for use against India.
Now, the widely expected release of the latest round of funds from the Pentagon's CSF will raise total US military aid to Islamabad since 9/11 to $14.2 billion, two-and-a-half times the Pakistani military's annual budget.
There is a distinct, if little discussed, downside to being a superpower and acting as the self-appointed global policeman with a multitude of targets. An arrogance feeding on a feeling of invincibility and an obsession with winning every battle blind you to your own impact and even to what might be to your long-term benefit. In this situation, as your planet-wide activities become ever more diverse, frenzied, and even contradictory, you expose yourself to exploitation by lesser powers otherwise seemingly tied to your apron strings.
Pakistan, twice during America's 33-year-long involvement in Afghanistan made a frontline state, is a classic example of that. Current policymakers in Washington should take note: it's a strategy for disaster.
Dilip Hiro, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of 33 books, the most recent being the just-published Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia (Yale University Press, New Haven and London). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.