Dr. C. Raja Mohan
23 May 2012
It is not often that the United States President invites the leader of a critical allied nation to a summit meeting at the very last minute and then refuses to engage him. That is precisely what Barack Obama has done to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari at the NATO summit in Chicago.
In diplomacy, leaders rarely put down others in a fit of personal pique. They are usually deliberate and meant to convey a political message. In treating Zardari badly at the NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama was highlighting the US frustration at Pakistan's reluctance to open up over land access to the international forces in Afghanistan.
The eleventh hour invitation to Zardari followed a series of intensive negotiations between Washington and Islamabad in the last few weeks on reopening the ground lines of communication across Pakistani territory. It came after an express signal from Islamabad that it is ready to end the NATO blockade enforced after US forces attacked a Pakistani military post on the Afghan border and killed more than 20 soldiers last November.
Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, a few days ago said that Islamabad has made its political point with its six-month-long blockade, but that the time had come to "move on" and rebuild ties with the US and the West.
Although the invitation was said to be "unconditional", it was apparently based on the US expectation that Zardari would announce a decision to lift the blockade at the NATO summit in Obama's hometown, Chicago. Once Zardari signalled his inability to deliver on the deal in his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the eve of the summit, Obama expressed his displeasure and had no interest in meeting Zardari.
In his address to the leaders gathered in Chicago, Obama thanked Russia and the Central Asian nations for allowing the movement of war supplies through their territories to US armed forces in Afghanistan. With Zardari sitting barely a few feet away, Obama didn't mention Pakistan's contributions to the US war in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, there was an American effort to save Zardari's face. Media reports from Chicago say Obama's aides made sure that the President would "bump into" Zardari twice and exchange a few words: once face-to-face, and the other along with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The White House then tweeted the picture of the three leaders in a conversation.
Snubbing Zardari does not solve America's current problem with Pakistan. It only deepens the popular Pakistani resentment against the United States and weakens Zardari vis-a-vis the army.
The US knows that Zardari is not in charge of Pakistan's policy towards the US or Afghanistan. The top accounts of Pakistan's national security policy, including India, have long been the preserve of the Pakistan army chief. The current chief, General Ashfaq Kayani's decision not to travel to Chicago meant that Zardari was on a short leash and had little room to negotiate with the US on the margins of the NATO summit.
Price or Principle
The debacle at Chicago does not necessarily mean that the US and Pakistan can't clinch a deal on reopening NATO's supply routes into Afghanistan. Washington and Rawalpindi have a long tradition of brinkmanship in their bilateral relationship. More often than not, their public posturing is compensated by pragmatic compromises behind closed doors.
As the contradiction between the interests of the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan's policies deepen, deal-making between Washington and Rawalpindi has become a lot more difficult.
On the face of it, the problem is centred around the reluctance of Obama to offer a public apology for the November attack and his refusal to end drone attacks on Pakistani territory - two conditions that have been articulated vigorously in Islamabad.
American media reports, however, say the negotiations in Chicago broke down on the question of price, rather than principle. Pakistan is apparently demanding $5000 for every NATO container moving from Karachi to the Afghan border. Until the recent blockade, the US was paying less than $300 per truck. The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, had declared that there was no question of the US accepting the new rates.
If the problem is about price rather than principle, US-Pak mutual accommodation should not be impossible to accomplish in the coming days.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)