The Pakistani government's outburst against yet another violation of the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty has become all too familiar. The people of Pakistan have seen and heard enough of the theatrics.
So when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani slammed the NATO attack on two Pakistani military check posts on the border with Afghanistan on November 25, the words failed to assure the people. "This is a grave infringement of Pakistan's sovereignty," the Prime Minister thundered and proceeded to take some measures seemingly aimed at punishing NATO for killing 28 Pakistani soldiers at the check posts.
But in effect, the government measures, including the move to shut the vital supply route to Afghanistan and the closure of the Shamshi airbase from where the United States military launched its unmanned drone attacks, appear to be cosmetic or a political stunt aimed at an angry populace. The people of Pakistan where anti-American sentiments run high were shocked to know that the unprovoked attack lasted for two hours, even though Pakistani forces had contacted NATO and pleaded to stop the fire.
By no means, is Islamabad on the war path or arm-twisting Washington. If so, it should have taken the drastic decision to withdraw from America's war on terror, in which some 9,000 Pakistani soldiers have died. That such a policy shift is not forthcoming is an indication that there is room for reconciliation though Gilani warned the United States that "business as usual will not be there."
Pakistan cannot take this drastic decision as the choice before it is not between what is good and what is bad for the country and its people but what is least harmful from among all the disadvantageous options.
Given this unfortunate position, which Islamabad has been dragged into by the US, the initial angry response often turns out be a gun with blank cartridges.
Take for instance, the Raymond Davis incident, which created a major uproar in Pakistan. Government leaders thundered and roared that the culprit, a CIA mercenary, would be dealt with under Pakistani law for killing two youths in broad daylight on a Lahore street in January this year. Washington demanded the release of the killer claiming he enjoyed diplomatic immunity, though evidence indicated he was not a diplomat. The people urged the government not to bow to US pressure. But the government relented and released Davis after working out a $2.4 million dollar compensation package for the victims' families. Only the then foreign minister, Ahmed Shah Qureshi, had the courage to oppose the compromise. He quit the government in disgust.
If this was not bad enough, worse even was the US Special Forces' raid on the Abbottabad hideout of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May. Again, Pakistani leaders cried foul saying it was a blatant violation of the country's sovereignty — and an apparently embarrassed military vowed not to share intelligence with the US. But before the blood that was spilled at Abbottabad dried, relations between the two countries were back to normal.
The present crisis will also wither away, though the Pakistani leaders still appear to be seething with anger.
If the anger is genuine, what should come forth is not empty rhetoric or ineffective measures, but a decision to withdraw from the war on terror. After all, it is not Pakistan's war. Besides, Pakistan could say that since bin Laden had been done away with and the conflict in Afghanistan is now largely an internal civil war, it is time for all foreign forces to leave.
But NATO's 150,000-strong military presence in post-bin Laden Afghanistan smacks of an ulterior motive connected to the US geopolitical interests. Initially, it was a pipeline to carry Central Asian oil across Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea port of Karachi that was thought to be the cause for the prolonged US stay. But China appears to have pipped the US at the post in the Central Asian pipeline game. This setback may be the reason behind the gradual US troop drawdown that is to begin in 2014. This withdrawal is conditional upon Afghanistan remaining a US neocolonial outpost, so that Washington can maintain military bases there to check China, Russia and Iran. China, which shares a border with Afghanistan, is not unaware that the US has surrounded it. Recently, the US opened a military base in Darwin, Australia, to counter China's growing power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean region.
Incidentally, there is life for Pakistan in this power game between the US and China. Many Pakistani strategists have begun to openly advocate a defence alliance with China to counter any military threats from the US in the event Islamabad withdraws from the war on terror. China has condemned last Saturday's attack.
One wonders whether Pakistan has the courage to pull out of the war on terror and tell the US that the pro-Taliban militancy within Pakistan is a matter for Pakistan to handle, not for outside force.
Signs have, however, already appeared that Pakistan may blink. One indication was in the visit of a high-level United Arab Emirates delegation led by Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. The mission was aimed at reconciliation between Pakistan and the US. Incidentally, the UAE is the lessee of Pakistan's Shamsi airbase from where the US launches its drone attacks which have killed more civilians than miscreants. Media reports said Sheikh al-Nahyan's visit was aimed also at persuading Pakistan to reverse its eviction orders on the US troops operating from the airbase near Qeutta in Balochistan. But the UAE minister denied that the Shamsi airbase issue had figured in the talks with Pakistani leaders.
If Pakistan insists that it is serious and its anger is real, then will it at least keep the supply route shut for three months or until NATO feels the pinch?