Strapped for Cash, Pakistan Can

Islamabad, Pakistan – By any account, closing a key NATO supply route into Afghanistan just as a major offensive there gets underway is a bold move and a clear message.

But Pakistan’s decision to shut down the all-important Torkhum border crossing is unlikely to have much of an effect since, according to security analysts, the country is incapable of holding out for any length of time.

Pakistan closed the Torkhum border, one of two key supply routes used by foreign forces fighting the Afghanistan War, last week in retaliation for a series of U.S. aerial strikes in Waziristan on the Pakistani side of the border, which killed at least 60 people, including three Pakistani paramilitary troops, government officials said.

Although the closed supply route could be detrimental to the war effort if it remained closed for long, the United States appears unlikely to make any concessions outside of the customary apologies as negotiations reach their seventh day.

“The United States is testing our nerves. It knows that Pakistan cannot keep the route closed for a long period due to its struggling economy,” said Saleem Haider, a retired Pakistani general, who is now an Islamabad-based security analyst.

Pakistan’s long-hurting economy has gone from bad to worse following widespread floods that submerged one-fifth of the country, sweeping away thousands of houses, bridges, shops, hospitals and basic health clinics.

Pakistan, according to the United Nations and other multilateral groups, will need $15 to $20 billion for flood reconstruction and to support flood victims, who have started returning to their villages to find them populated not by homes but by twisted wreckages, boulders and uprooted trees.

The presence of U.S. and NATO forces shipping supplies through the country helps support both Pakistan’s informal and formal economies and Pakistan is a major recipient of U.S. military aid, making it all but impossible for its government, with any sincerity, to force the military to find alternative routes elsewhere.

“The Pakistan government is under extreme economic pressure,” Haider said. “That’s why I believe that the [route closure] will not work and will be reopened within the next few days after customary assurances from the U.S. and NATO.”

Although Pakistan has long made fleeting demands that the United States stop conducting unmanned drone attacks inside the country, the border closing was its most severe reaction to date and, despite assurance from U.S. officials, the closure has at least partly slowed the movement of goods into Afghanistan at a time when a major offensive in the southern province of Kandahar reaches its most critical point.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Tucson, Ariz. on Sunday that he has not yet seen any major impact on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, but said he hoped the border would be reopened quickly, adding that both Pakistan and the United States remain allies in the fight against terrorism.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, are meeting in Brussles in a bid to resolve the crisis.

About 80 percent of all non-lethal supplies — including food, clothing, military vehicles and fuel — destined for Afghanistan move through the northwestern Torkhum and southeastern Chaman borders, giving Pakistan a substantial bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States.

It’s a bargaining chip, however, that Pakistan can little afford to use.

A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said the government had closed the border in response to immense public pressure after anger erupted over the U.S. drone attacks and the sentencing in a U.S. court of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national accused of attacking U.S. soldiers, to 86 years in prison.

“There is no doubt that the closure of the supply route is a result of the masses speaking up,” Haider said. “But unfortunately Pakistan is not in a position to carry on with this for much longer.”

The closing of the border forced long lines of NATO convoys carrying fuel and other essential supplies to idle on the side of roads or return to provincial capitals. Security analysts worried that the situation might give militants an opportunity to strike, which they did earlier this week when they torched three NATO convoys, including one that was just a few miles from Islamabad, the country’s capital.