The saga behind the 'sorry' that settles the seven-month standoff
Politics is sometimes an eyeball-to-eyeball game. The one who blinks first is out. In the game played by Pakistan and the United States, the question is: Who blinked first? If media reports are to be believed, it was the US. But the behind-the-scenes game they play is one of winking — not blinking. In this game, the people of Pakistan are taken for a big ride, just like the spectators at a US freestyle wrestling match.
Whether the game they played was one of blinking or winking, the final outcome was Pakistan’s decision to reopen the supply routes to Afghanistan. The routes were closed and the United States military was asked to vacate the Shamsi airbase from which the US monitored drone movements, after US troops killed some 28 Pakistani soldiers in an air attack inside Pakistan in November last year. It is said the Pakistanis had given their location in advance to the US troops operating across the border and even identified themselves via radio communication when the attack began.
When the United States called for the reopening of the roads, Islamabad demanded an unconditional apology and raised the road toll. Pakistan made no compromise and remained tough because it was perhaps the only way the Asif Zardari-Yusuf Raza Gilani government could stop the erosion of its popularity.
But the Pakistan government buckled under the pressure from Washington. Instead of an apology, Pakistan settled for a perfunctory sorry from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week. Pakistan had demanded that the US pays 5,000 dollars for each truck – an unrealistically high fee. But this week, it agreed to a rate of US$ 250 per truck.
Some may say the fact that it took seven months for the US to say sorry points to the arrogance of the sole superpower. Others may say that the United States’ refusal to apologise stems from election year politics. They say President Barack Obama is worried about criticism from Republicans, including his presidential challenger Mitt Romney. They ridiculed Obama as “Mr. Sorry” when early this year he apologised for the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and for the burning of the Quran by US soldiers at a military base in Afghanistan. However, apologies are not the norm but the exception.
Rarely does the US apologise when civilians are killed in cowardly drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said recently that the US policy of using aerial drones to carry out targeted killings presented a major challenge to the system of international law. He also said these drone attacks, in which hundreds if not thousands of civilians have died, might constitute war crimes.
Thus it came as little surprise when Clinton offered a half-hearted sorry. There was no expression of remorse for those Pakistani soldiers who died in the November attack. Instead, the sorry was prompted by self-interest as the US could no longer bear the heavy cost of sending supplies through landlocked Central Asia. It is said the cost has exceeded more than one billion dollars over the past seven months.
If only Pakistan had continued the closure till November this year, the US would have wilted under pressure and, perhaps, realised the folly of the Afghan war. Moreover, Pakistan could have obtained more concessions. One does not know whether it was real politics or corrupt politics that led Pakistan to cooperate with the US and settle for a simple sorry.
“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again,” Clinton said in a statement. She also telephoned her counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar. The two women diplomats have developed a personal liking for each other.
In response to Clinton’s sorry, Khar told her that both sides had made mistakes that led to the November air strikes, partially absolving the US of guilt. Some reports said the deal was the outcome of a joint effort by Clinton and Khar, the former representing an unpopular country and the latter an unpopular government.
In defence of Pakistan’s decision to reopen the supply routes, one may say that the country needs the United States, its main source of foreign aid. Since the war on terror began in 2001, Pakistan has received some 12 billion dollars in economic and military aid. If Pakistan had remained adamant, the US could have cut military and economic aid. In fact, it had withheld some 1.1 billion dollars in aid since the closure of the roads. Pakistan expects the US to release the money soon now that the roads have been reopened and trucks have started moving.
In November, the Pakistani government was forced to close the supply routes because the people’s anger had reached boiling point and the military was also seething. Though the government and the military, to some extent, were willing to listen to the US dictates, the people were not. They were angry at the manner in which their government had on various occasions given in to US pressure. Disregarding the nation’s anger, the government in January last year, let a US mercenary who had killed two Pakistani youths in broad daylight on a Lahore street go scot free. The people were angry when the US did not care two hoots about Pakistan’s sovereignty and sent its special forces to raid the Abbottabad hideout of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. They were angry when a US court sentenced Pakistani neuroscientist Aafiya Siddiqui, a young mother, to a 70-year jail term on what they called trumped-up charges.
A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project has revealed that 74 per cent of Pakistanis are anti-Americans.
According to the survey, the results of which were released last month, some 64 per cent of Pakistanis considered the US the enemy in 2009. In 2012, some 74 per cent viewed the US as their enemy. Perceiving the US as an enemy was not confined to Pakistan alone. In almost every Muslim country, the US is regarded as an enemy. This is largely because of Washington’s blind support for Israel even as the Zionist state commits horrible war crimes against the Palestinian people.
However, realpolitik pushes the governments in the Muslim world to maintain friendly relations with their people’s enemies. Pakistan is no exception.
The Zardari government’s submission to or collusion with the US has provided more ammunition to Pakistan’s opposition parties. A “sorry” is not an apology, they say adding that a sorry implies an admission of a mistake while an apology implies an admission of guilt.
A New York Times report on Wednesday said Clinton and her top aides, working closely with senior White House and Pentagon officials, carefully calibrated what she would say in her phone call to Khar to avoid an explicit mention of what one top State Department official called “the A-word” — “apology”. Instead, Clinton opted for the softer “sorry” to meet Pakistan’s longstanding demand for a more formal apology for the air strikes.
Former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has joined Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, which, according to last month’s Pew survey, is the most popular political party in Pakistan, demanded that the government tell the people about the terms and conditions for reopening the NATO supply lines.
“It is an insult to our nation. The rulers have put national interest at stake just to please America,” said Maulana Samiul Haq, chairman of the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defence of Pakistan Council, an umbrella group that also includes Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. The group has vowed to launch countrywide protests and block the supply routes.