US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shakes hands with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Rahaeel Sharif after a meeting on Dec. 9 in Rawalpindi. (Mark Wilson/AFP)
ISLAMABAD — Bowing to US pressure applied earlier this week by visiting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Pakistani government is moving to ensure NATO supply routes through the country stay open.
Initially, however, analysts viewed Hagels visit of little real consequence.
“I doubt very much they discussed details of equipment or, indeed, anything of real consequence,” said Brian Cloughley, a former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad. “I don't think there was anything in the visit, other than a bit of open support for Pakistan which, of course, is badly needed. I think it was a non-event, really.”
Similarly, analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank said the event was only of importance in being the first Pakistan visit of a US secretary of defense in four years.
During his visit, Hagel met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Gen. Raheel Sharif, the Army’s chief of staff. More military equipment for Pakistan was likely discussed, Khan said, but no major developments are expected.
"Most likely they talked about military requirements, but the options for Pakistan are very limited. There is no money in the bank, plus the only help the US can give is via [excess defense articles] and [foreign military funds],” he said.
It was expected both sides would talk about the issues that concerned them most — Afghanistan, terrorism and the blockage of the supply route through Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for Hagel; and the ongoing drone strikes in the case of Pakistan. The press releases issued after the meetings reflected this.
However, Salma Malik, assistant professor in the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University here, said Hagel “made a few points very clear:One, that drones would not stop any time soon, plus Pakistan has to allow the NATO supply route to operate uninterrupted, as this is also the [ground line of communication] for future [International Security Assistance Force] troops’ withdrawal.”
If public opinion was against such a move, however, she said, “It is up to the Pakistani decision-makers (civil and military) both to garner domestic consensus and consent on the issue.”
Islamabad seems to have taken Hagel’s words on board. On Tuesday, the government heavily criticized the blockage of the NATO supply route in the National Assembly.
“Neither the [federal] government nor [the military] ever supported the blockade,” Haris Khan said. “In fact, I think [the Army’s General Headquarters] gave standing orders for the Frontier Constabulary to stay out of this mess.”
The culprit responsible for the blockage is cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. His Movement for Justice Party (PTI) is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has made the issue of drone strikes its main rallying cry.
Najam Rafique, program coordinator and US analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI), believes Imran Khan is not so much focused on US drones as forthcoming local elections.
“I think even Imran knows that the Americans are not going to be putting an end to the drone strikes simply because [he] refuses to let the NATO trucks pass,” he said
“The Americans have on many occasions made it amply clear that the use of drones is now a part and parcel of their military strategy, not simply because it is cost-effective in terms of finances and loss of its soldiers; it is also effective as a weapon of choice against elusive militant/terrorist targets.”
“At this point in time, Imran has his eyes and heart set on the next elections and this little political ploy, while it will not deter the Americans, it will win him the hearts and minds of his future electorate,” Rafique said.
Local politics aside, Rafique said he believes the PTI “will have no choice but to cave in to the reopening of the routes” since a bill was unanimously passed in the National Assembly demanding an end to drone strikes and pulling this metaphorical rug from under it, leaving it little cause to protest.
He also said the US threat to cut off financial aid, along with political shifts elsewhere, could leave Pakistan bankrupt and strategically isolated.
Such shifts could lead to NATO’s use of alternative routes such as the Northern Distribution Network, “and maybe with the warming up with Iran, through [the Iranian port of] Chabahar — with Indian connivance, of course — which will never be acceptable to the establishment,” Rafique said. This possibility of Indian involvement likely would cause alarm as Pakistan “would never want India to get an upper hand with the end game in Afghanistan right around the corner.”
Similarly, Malik said that local elections “can be a very strong factor, and [the PTI] may conditionally agree Supon some conditional acceptance once the local government is in place.” She concedes, however, there is a possibility the PTI would not agree to unblock the route and would shift the onus on the federal government “to resolve and take up with US.”
“Either way, it would be a problematic situation, with [the federal government] having the highest stakes to deal with,” she said.