The line of container trucks and fuel tankers waiting to cross into Afghanistan grows longer by the day at the Torkham border crossing, as Pakistan's partial blockade of NATO supply lines stretches into a sixth day.
Nearly 80 percent of nonlethal supplies for the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan travel through Pakistan. They are first shipped to Pakistan's southern seaport of Karachi, and then most are hauled by truck into Afghanistan via Torkham. A smaller crossing point at Chaman has remained open.
The current interruption of supply lines appears to have official backing. And since the closure began on October 1, stranded NATO supply trucks have come under repeated attacks in Pakistani regions where the Taliban had never operated before.
But beyond the immediate impact, the closure exposed deep rifts between Islamabad and Washington over the future course of the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
It all comes as NATO's military efforts in Afghanistan continue to escalate, with increasing drone strikes and cross-border incursions into Pakistan. This, some observers say, has angered Islamabad, which had been counting on the Afghan insurgent networks being targeted in these attacks as potential future allies once the West begins withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
But Washington views the networks as deeply enmeshed with Al-Qaeda, which it believes continues to plan future attacks on North America and Europe. Western officials have shown little enthusiasm for finding any accommodation with Jalaluddin Haqqani or, to a lesser extent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Those two commanders now appear to control the bulk of the Afghan insurgency and have spent much of the past 30 years as Islamabad's allies.
Haqqani, whose son Sirajuddin Haqqani now leads his network, is a prime target of U.S. drone strikes on his stronghold in North Waziristan. Across the border in Afghanistan, U.S. ground troops are making a major push in the southeastern Khost Province, where his network is most active. The network is seen as being the closest ally of Al-Qaeda, whose leadership has had long-standing ties with Haqqani.
A third insurgent network, called the Quetta Shura, has recently publicly distanced itself from negotiations with the Afghan government, although RFE/RL has learned that such talks are continuing in Kabul. The organization -- named after the southwestern Pakistani city where the leadership of the remnants of the Taliban regime is thought to be hiding -- is seen as being active in its home base in southern Afghanistan. Local analysts, however, believed it to be in flux after Islamabad arrested some of its key leaders for independently reaching out to the Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier this year.
In a speech to lawmakers in Islamabad a day after an alleged NATO helicopter strike killed three Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border incursion from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said his government would protect the country's sovereignty at all costs. "We can never allow you [NATO] to infringe on Pakistan's sovereignty and security," he told members of Pakistan's National Assembly on October 1. "And if you will not explain your actions, compensate us and apologize for this, we can use other means. And we have other options."
Analysts suggest that the closure of the NATO supply route tops that list of "other options." They say that, in theory, Islamabad can reorient itself by completely abandoning the West, but they add that that would spell disaster for Pakistan's troubled economy and turn the country into an international pariah, giving a boost to its arch-enemy, India.
The Long And Short Of It
U.S. and NATO officials are said to be working with Islamabad behind the scenes to avoid such a breakdown. But the two sides are unlikely to agree on a common future course in Afghanistan, where the West continues to work toward leaving a reasonably functioning state after its forces are eventually withdrawn. Allowing the region once again to become a terrorist safe haven is seen as a widely unacceptable alternative.
Speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum last week, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, acknowledged that the relationship with Pakistan is more complicated than any strategic relationship he has ever been part of during his long diplomatic career.
"At the end of the day, success in Afghanistan, however you define success, is not achievable unless Pakistan is part of the solution -- not part of the problem," Holbrooke told the gathering. "In the end, we're going to work with the Pakistanis, at least as long as I'm involved in this, because I believe that's the right policy, and I know this administration does, too. That doesn't mean we are not without frustrations."
Such headaches include disagreements over counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and the continued sanctuary that Pakistan affords Afghan insurgents.
Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan specialist at Washington's Middle East Institute, says the closure of the supply route is a card that Pakistan cannot afford to play for long.
Weinbaum, who served as the State Department's Pakistan analyst in the 1990s, says that Islamabad and Washington cannot let the current crisis go too far because of its potentially devastating consequences. "The United States requires supplies through the Pakistan route. There is no easy alternative to this and there is none that is contemplated anytime soon that can match what Pakistan has to offer," he says.
"And, as I say, Pakistan with a weak government -- a weak economy -- is ill-positioned now to be confrontational in a way that could jeopardize the country's viability."
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, agrees. He believes the supply-line closure will not lead to any serious collision but could prove a major short-term irritant.
Nawaz, who is familiar with Pakistani strategic thinking through his extensive contacts within the Pakistani elite, suggests that the record number of drone strikes last month and the idea of NATO's hot pursuit into extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan have not won the alliance friends in Islamabad.
He says that Islamabad and Washington continue to talk past each other over the future role of Afghan insurgent organizations, which Pakistan has pushed to be included in the government as part of its strategy to safeguard its western border with Afghanistan. "A lot of their support is for the Pashtuns in the areas that border Pakistan, which also includes the Taliban groups," Nawaz says, reflecting on the Pakistani rationale for its Afghan policy. "[It] is really to broaden the base of the government in Afghanistan so that there won't be unhappiness among Pakistani Pashtuns."
But Afghans strongly reject such a view. They point to Islamabad's ill-treatment of its ethnic minorities, including Pashtuns, and suggest that noninterference in each other's domestic affairs is in the best interest of both neighbors.
Speaking to newly promoted military officers over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai complained that Western involvement in Afghanistan centered on its strategic goals in the region. He cited the successful Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, which had broad international support but eventually did not benefit Afghans.
"The success [against the Soviet Army] benefited NATO and our neighbors. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO forgot us and even handed us over to the neighbors," Karzai told the Afghan military's top brass.
The Afghan government is now lobbying hard to convince the West not to repeat the same blunder by giving Afghanistan's neighbors a major say in determining the country's destiny.
By. Abubakar Siddique
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.