Trailers carrying military equipment out of Afghanistan are parked near the port of Karachi, Pakistan, in July. Analysts are uncertain as to whether Pakistan will close its supply routes to NATO forces after a UAV strike killed a Pakistani Taliban leader on Friday. (AFP/Getty Images)
ISLAMABAD — Analysts are uncertain as to whether NATO supply routes through Pakistan will be closed in the wake of the UAV strike Friday that killed a Pakistani Taliban leader. A meeting of Pakistan’s national security officials has been called to review the Pakistan-US relationship.
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed ahead of a meeting with a government delegation as part of peace negotiations that most serious analysts considered pointless.
Speaking at a press conference in Brussels Monday, NATO leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen asked Pakistan to keep traffic flowing, saying, “It is in Pakistan’s own interest to contribute positively to stability and security in the region.”
The Pakistan government in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering Afghanistan, led by Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), is leading efforts to close the route as US and NATO forces remove military equipment from Afghanistan. The national PTI leader, Imran Khan, has been vocal in opposing drone strikes.
On Monday, he claimed NATO supply vehicles would be blocked beginning Nov. 20.
Pakistan previously blocked NATO convoys after a November 2011 attack on a Pakistan Army post near Salalah on the Afghan-Pakistan border that killed 24 soldiers.
The routes reopened in June 2012, and under a current deal, NATO supplies are able to transit Pakistan until the end of 2015.
A former Australian defense attache to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, who knew Khan during his time in Pakistan, is not so sure if Khan can manage this.
“It is possible he will manage to get a Province Assembly agreement to stop the NATO trucks, but if he does, this would be overruled by Islamabad, and he can’t do anything about that. No country can have provinces deciding national foreign policy, and he is not stupid, so [he] must realize this,” he said.
Nor does Cloughley think the federal government is inclined to take such action itself, lest it risk economic disaster.
“If [Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif] acts too strongly against the US, there will be not only withdrawal of the [International Monetary Fund] agreement, but crippling economic measures on the part of Washington,” he said.
Ultimately, Cloughley said he thinks Sharif will “talk a lot but take no action.”
Other analysts agree, but domestic politics, not rationality, may dictate events.
Claude Rakisits, associate professor for strategic studies at Australia’s Deakin University, said he is amazed that Mehsud, Pakistan’s No. 1 terrorist, “has effectively become a martyr,” but this is a “case where anti-Americanism trumps terrorism.”
Therefore, “Sharif will be making quite a bit of noise on this one because he simply cannot let Imran look more ‘patriotic’ than him.”
Rakisits said he recognizes this would have to be limited, as “Americans will only take so much protest.” But at the same time, “Washington really needs a friendly Pakistan as they try to transport by road hundreds of thousands of containers out of Afghanistan.
“The US also needs Islamabad’s help to get some sort of Kabul-Taliban dialogue going. It’s all very messy, intertwined and compounded by deep-seated mistrust.”
This mistrust is exacerbated by what Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said is “the wide perception gap between the two countries.
“In our view, Pakistanis ought to be dancing in the streets at the death of a vicious killer,” he said. “Alas, most Pakistanis — probably 95 percent in public, perhaps 85 percent in private — see Mehsud’s death not as justice rendered on a murderer of innocents, but primarily as a violation of their sovereignty and an affront to their national honor.”
Even without government action, NATO’s convoys are not necessarily safe.
Hathaway said it is “quite possible that at least some Pakistanis will seek to retaliate against the United States — and disruption of NATO convoys is a relatively easily implemented response.”
This seems to have happened with the burning of two NATO fuel tankers on Monday in the Bala Nari area of the restive province of Baluchistan.
The attackers were not identified, but the Taliban and its allies operate in the province and have carried out attacks in the past.
If such attacks continue, Hathaway said the government’s response “becomes an extremely interesting question.”
However, the death of Mehsud does not equate to the 24 soldiers killed in the Salalah strike.
The Army, especially, has a particular loathing of the Pakistani Taliban, not least because of its frequent attacks and habit of beheading captured soldiers. Despite civilian rule, the Army is a powerful political player, and the disruption of NATO supplies would see it lose precious supplies and support for equipment, training and funds from the US.
Salma Malik, assistant professor in the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University here, said she believes the Army could be an important braking force on the more emotional political forces.
“If better sense prevails, the military could ideally ‘advise’ against such decisions,” she said.
Timing aside, she also said Mehsud’s death in itself is not the issue, but who killed him, and how.
“Where I would say that the state should adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ approach towards uprooting this menace, for collective benefit, it would have been a better idea if this thing would have been done by Pakistani and not American forces,” she said.