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The shame of Chicago

May 23, 2012


ONE of the nastier forms of ritual humiliation in the schoolyard is when a bunch of kids beckon an unpopular classmate towards a group he longs to be a part of and, when he eagerly fetches up, confront him with an insult along the lines of: “What do you want? Now go away…” Sometimes the slap in the face is not metaphorical.

This unpleasant scenario crept into the mind while contemplating the saga of Asif Ali Zardari’s belated invitation to Chicago, where Nato has this week supposedly been mulling over the endgame in Afghanistan.

That is anyhow a pretty bizarre phenomenon. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a certain lack of geographical proximity between Afghanistan and the north Atlantic.

Any role for Nato in determining Afghanistan’s future ought to be seen as an anomaly. In fact, there’s scope for arguing that the organisation lost whatever raison d’être it may once have had once the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist.

One interesting contrast in this context is that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Warsaw Pact as such was not involved — unlike in the case of the military interventions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).

There is no evidence that Moscow demanded contingents from its allies in the Afghan battlefield, perhaps because the Soviet leadership itself was not entirely convinced that sending troops into Afghanistan was a magnificent idea.

It’s also worth considering the possibility, though, that by 1979 the Soviet Union’s comrades-in-arms felt somewhat less intimidated by Moscow than the United States’ allies did in the aftermath of 9/11. Some of the latter have subsequently had cause to reconsider, the latest being France, whose newly elected president, François Hollande, reaffirmed in Chicago his electoral pledge to pull out French troops by the end of this year, a couple of years ahead of Nato’s formal withdrawal.

Even at the end of 2014, however, tens of thousands of American troops will remain in Afghanistan, ostensibly in an advisory and training role. The Chicago conference was aimed in part at securing promises of pecuniary assistance for this relatively open-ended venture.

President Barack Obama’s reluctance, meanwhile, to grant his Pakistani counterpart the symbolic satisfaction of a bilateral tête-à-tête was also related to money matters. US press reports suggest that Zardari was expected to fetch up in Chicago with a deal in his pocket relating to the reopening of Nato supply routes via Pakistan — which were shut down following a border incident last November in which 24 Pakistani troops lost their lives.

Islamabad has seemingly been adamant in demanding an apology for that attack; the Americans have expressed their regret and conveyed their condolences, but insist that both sides are to blame for the evidently one-sided clash. There is apparently also the consideration that saying sorry would be interpreted by the Obama administration’s opponents as a sign of weakness.

Pakistan has also demanded a cessation of drone attacks, although officials from neither side expect that to be taken too seriously. The real sticking point, according to a plethora of press reports, is the vastly increased transition toll for each Nato vehicle on which the Zardari administration is insisting.

The set price used to be $250 per truck. Islamabad is now demanding 20 times as much — $5,000 — partly on the basis that the alternative northern route via former Soviet republics costs Nato twice as much.

Obama is reportedly miffed at what the Americans see as barefaced greed, given that the US has already been pouring substantial funds into Islamabad’s coffers as the price for Pakistan’s support in what used to be called the war against terror — often without, from Washington’s vantage point, sufficient returns.

There’s scope for wondering, though, whether American discomfiture in the face of Pakistani audacity relates mainly to the fact that they are still unaccustomed to doing business with Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan’s calculations in this context are presumably based on the assumption that Nato’s need is greater. It’s interesting to note, though, that the economic repercussions of a reopening of routes extend well beyond Islamabad.

A report in The Washington Post last week, for instance, quoted Baz Muhammad Afridi, a trader “who vends looted goods in a bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar known informally as ‘the US market’” as saying: “We were getting quality goods, technological gadgets and American flags at very reasonable prices. But the supply suspension nearly stopped our business…. Lower-middle-class people like me will be very happy with the reopening of Nato supply lines.”

Boosting Pakistan’s black economy is obviously not an intended consequence for Nato, but it would undoubtedly appreciate a cheaper route as the military mission is wound up.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, may well have grounds for striking an optimistic note in Chicago. Principled Pakistani opposition to the resumption would have been harder for Nato to contend with — while those who have consistently considered the US-led intervention in Afghanistan as an ill-advised neo-colonial enterprise would have found it easier to support.

On the other hand, those relishing the prospect of enhanced compensation might have something to learn from what the consequences of blood money entailed for the family of one of CIA contractor Raymond Davis’s victims. Faizan Haider’s widow and her mother were shot dead last month, ostensibly in a money-related family dispute.

The future of Afghanistan, meanwhile, is no clearer nor any more secure or peaceful after the gathering in Chicago — a city that, incidentally, allows many of its own citizens little room for complacency on either of those fronts.

Don’t be surprised if the enduring images from the event are not the commonplace ‘family pictures’ of powerful leaders and their acolytes but of the thousands who took to the streets in protest, most notably the US military veterans who, in an echo of the Vietnam era, flung away their war medals with distaste, expressing their remorse in statements such as: “I apologise to the Iraqi and Afghan people for destroying your countries” and “I have only one word, and it is shame”.