Bloomberg reports: Pakistan stepped up its protests over a NATO airstrike that killed 24 of its soldiers, deciding to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Germany next week.
The decision to pull out from the Dec. 5 summit in Bonn was agreed at a meeting of the federal Cabinet yesterday, according to a government statement. The nuclear-armed nation had already closed border crossings to trucks carrying supplies for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and ordered American personnel to vacate the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwest that has served as a launching point for Predator unmanned aircraft.
Pakistan still supports “stability and peace in Afghanistan and the importance of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of reconciliation,” the government said in the statement. “In view of the developments and prevailing circumstances, the country has decided not to participate in the conference.”
The U.S. wants the Bonn meeting to cement a sustained international commitment to stabilize Afghanistan, and prevent any Taliban takeover, following the planned U.S. pullout of its main combat forces by 2014. The U.S. and Afghan governments have said Pakistan’s role is critical as it wields influence with the Taliban and could press the guerrillas for concessions in a peace process.
Following the Nov. 25 airstrike, “there’s a lot of domestic pressure in Pakistan that’s forcing the government to move beyond rhetoric,” Shaheen Akhter, an analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad, said yesterday. Still, Pakistan can’t afford “to remain on the sidelines as the international community decides on the future of Afghanistan. They will be back at the table soon.”
The Economist‘s correspondent in Lahore notes: Pakistan’s leaders know the Americans are still deeply dependant on them. In the past few months NATO—and especially the Americans—have done an impressive job of reducing their reliance on land transport corridors through Pakistan to supply Western soldiers in Afghanistan. Over the past 120 days, for example, of the materiel received by the Americans in Afghanistan, around 30% was flown in and 40% was driven over Afghanistan’s northern borders from Central Asia, leaving just 30% to come via Pakistan’s roads. That is a sharp reduction on previous years. Thus the immediate and predictable closing of the Pakistan route, in response to the deaths on the border, should prove less disruptive than it once would have been.
But America relies on Pakistan in other ways. A military base, Shamsi, used by America inside Pakistan, apparently to launch drones, has been ordered closed within 15 days. That may be smoke and mirrors (it was quite possibly no longer used by the Americans anyway, after a previous clash), but is a sign of the sort of co-operation the Americans have quietly enjoyed on Pakistan’s account as they hunted al-Qaeda and other extremist leaders whom Pakistan does not regard as allies. Intelligence co-operation (however flawed) from Pakistan, against individuals plotting attacks on the West will also continue to be crucial in the coming years. Keeping close tabs on Pakistan’s large (perhaps 100-warhead strong) and fast-growing nuclear arsenal is also a long-term priority for the Americans.
Yet America and Pakistan could decide it is better to wind down their relationship to something minimal. A strong cohort within the Pentagon—especially after attacks on America’s embassy in Kabul, in September, by fighters seen as allied with Pakistan—has been demanding direct American military intervention in North Waziristan, possibly including American soldiers on the ground, even if Pakistan’s government opposes the idea. Pakistan is blamed for NATO and Afghan army forces’ failure to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan, and for the Taliban’s refusal to consider peace talks. American lawmakers have also grown increasingly hostile over civilian and military aid to Pakistan, especially once it appeared that bin Laden had been harboured in Pakistan.
Within Pakistan, a breaking point could be near. One factor may be the rise of Imran Khan, a populist figure who makes a big deal of his opposition to America’s role in the ongoing fighting. As important may be the rise of younger, more religious army officers who are instinctively more anti-American than previous generals. After a year of crises and confrontations, the relationship, though troubled, survives. But the moment when one side or the other decides it is better to cut aid, reduce military co-operation and weaken diplomatic ties is growing nearer.