Belmont Club

You Never Have To Say You're Sorry

Foreign Policy describes how the administration has scored yet another success. It has reopened the logistical supply routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan, closed these many months after US forces fired back at what turned out to be Pakistani forces shooting at them. It writes, “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ‘sorry’ to Pakistan today and announced that Pakistan would resume allowing U.S. military goods to flow through its border with Afghanistan, but her near-apology was only one piece in a much larger set of moving parts in the effort to restore some normalcy to the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.”

The other part, you will not be surprised to hear, involves money, even though that fact is minimized. The Administration for its part maintains that it has neither said ‘sorry’ nor paid any money demanded. But that all depends on the meaning of words. Words matter, and as far as the administration is concerned it did not issue any apology because it did not use the actual word “apologize” or “apology” in any part of its official statement.

The official narrative is that the administration persuaded the Pakistanis to reopen the routes without issuing an apology and without even having to pay the former transportation highway usage rates. But as Foreign Policy notes, there’s a backstory.  What actually happened is that the administration finally overruled US military objections to an apology. By that time even the Pakistanis thought that no apology was forthcoming. The administration then sought a way to express its regrets to Islamabad and make amends in ways the press could trumpet as a victory.

Clinton spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar by phone Tuesday and said that Khar had promised Pakistan would reopen its supply lines for U.S. military flows into Afghanistan, which have been closed down for six months in retaliation for the killings. Pakistan dropped its demand for fees of up to $5,000 per truck and will not even charge the $250 per truck the United States was paying before the incident occurred, Clinton said.

The internal U.S. process that led to today’s remarks by Clinton was extensive — and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally …

Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.

The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.

That’s why today’s comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word “apology” or “apologize.”

“It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn’t ‘apologize,’ we said we were ‘sorry,'” said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.

Asked directly at today’s press briefing if the “sorry” comment constituted an “apology,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn’t say that it did.

“The statement speaks for itself, the words are all there, and I’m not going to improve on it here,” she said.

Foreign Policy says that the waiver of the route rates — although the US may still be charged for “infrastructure wear” is meaningless because the Pakistanis were never interested in it. They were secretly demanding something else: up-front payment on the Coalition Support Fund which is the really big bucks.

Pakistan might still ask for money to help repair the infrastructural wear and tear that comes along with thousands of NATO trucks traversing its highways. The Pakistanis might also demand a new system that institutes some regularity in the CSF funds because the U.S. government currently demands detailed receipts and then rejects about 40 percent of the Pakistani reimbursement requests.

In the past, the United States has used delays in the CSF funds to punish Pakistan when the administration is frustrated with Pakistani actions.

“Internally on the U.S. side, when the administration has been pissed off at the Pakistanis, they’ve just said, ‘Oh, we’ll slow down the CSF funds and just not tell them,'” one former U.S. official told The Cable.

Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to the former official.

“The Pakistani government doesn’t care about the transit fees as much as they care about the coalition support funds,” the official said. “CSF offers them more of a short-term benefit. The reason they were making such a big deal about the transit fees before was because that was their negotiating position.”

Right on cue The Hill reports that the US has indeed agreed release the CSF. “The United States has lifted restrictions on roughly $2.5 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan following Islamabad’s decision to reopen critical military supply routes in the country to American and NATO forces. Over half of that U.S. aid, or $1.5 billion, will be distributed to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund, according to reports by Stars and Stripes.”

The facts make it possible to stretch the administration narrative to maintain that there was no apology and no payment.  All the same, according to the Washington Post, withdrawing from Afghanistan will be an expensive proposition, whether it is done through Pakistan, the Northern Route or by air.

Even with the reopening of critical supply routes through Pakistan, the U.S. military confronts a mammoth logistical challenge to wind down the war in Afghanistan, where it must withdraw nearly 90,000 troops and enormous depots of military equipment accumulated over the past decade …

Those routes carry strategic risks of their own. Access to the transit lines depends on the whims of several authoritarian Central Asian leaders as well as Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, a longtime nemesis of NATO. Moreover, the cost of shipping goods along the northern routes is about triple that of the much-shorter Pakistani lines.

The only other option for departing landlocked Afghanistan is by air — an even more expensive alternative, costing up to 10 times as much as the Pakistani ground routes …

All told, U.S. military logisticians are preparing to bring home 100,000 shipping containers stuffed with materiel and 50,000 wheeled vehicles by the end of 2014, when U.S. and NATO combat operations are scheduled to cease.

The Washington Post article now vaguely suggests that there might be a problem bringing it all back from Afghanistan if only because the US may soon face the same kinds of demands along the Northern Route that it faced — and successfully overcame — in Pakistan.

Over the past several months, the Obama administration and NATO have signed two-way transit deals with many of the former Soviet republics. But negotiations continue over a host of side issues, including alternate routes, access to airspace and airports, tariffs and restrictions on what kinds of military cargo are eligible for shipment.

“These countries know it’s the last chance, it’s the last negotiation, so they’re going to squeeze very hard,” said Alexander Cooley, a Barnard College professor and expert on U.S. military relations in Central Asia. “They can escalate their demands in the confidence that this is a one-off transaction.” …

From Afghanistan’s north, there are two primary ways out: either by rail into Uzbekistan or by road into Tajikistan. Both are authoritarian countries with checkered human rights records.

Beyond that, shipping convoys — which are run by private companies — must cross Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, with most of the land routes then entering Russia before zigzagging to ports in Siberia or on the Baltic Sea.

Negotiating with the Central Asians has often been as difficult as with Pakistan, according to U.S. and NATO officials. The countries distrust, compete with and often try to sabotage each other while simultaneously seeking to exact more concessions from Washington and its allies.

But did it overcome the Pakistani objections permanently?  The Washington Post suggests that not everyone in Washington is sure how long it will be before the Pakistanis welsh on their bargain, now that they’ve got their mitts on the money. “Even with Pakistan reopening its border, the northern routes are seen as a vital hedge against a Pakistani change of heart.”

After all, there is precedent for a change of heart. “After installing an unpopular ruler and corrupt government in Afghanistan, aiming to create a puppet government with which to control trade routes and defend India, the British lost the respect and cooperation of the Afghan people. Ineffective retaliation against the killings of British troops and leaders gave the impression of weakness, and negotiations to withdraw ended only in the duping and killing of the British Chief Representative in Kabul. Return to India was the only choice: this map depicts part of that route, and the events along it.”

Lord Elphinstone, who supervised the British withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1842 learned to his cost that a deal is not always what you think it is. Elphinstone, and his deputy Macnaghten decided put their trust in agreements with Akbar Khan — who controlled what one would today call the Pakistani route — but with less than satisfactory results.

Macnaghten realised their desperate situation and tried to negotiate a free retreat for the troops and the 12,000 British and Indian civilians still at Kabul. The Afghan diplomats invited Macnaghten for tea on 23 December, but at the moment the British delegation dismounted from their horses, they were seized and slain by Akbar Khan. Macnaghten’s body was dragged through the streets of Kabul. The guard which was supposed to protect him had not shown up …

To the utter horror of all his officers Elphinstone again ignored the murder and instead signed a capitulation on 1 January 1842, which had some unfavourable conditions. For example, his troops had to hand over their gunpowder reserves, their newest muskets and most of their cannon. However, they were promised a safe retreat, and the troops and civilians, amongst them children, women and the elderly, began to move out on 6 January. They planned to retire to Jalalabad, 90 miles (140 km) away, through snowy mountains.

But Akbar Khan lied once again. So Elphinstone, anticipating those enlightened 21st century diplomats who believe in never resorting to violence when diplomacy was an option, made yet another and another agreement with Akbar Khan.

At first light on 6 January Elphinstone’s column began to slowly move out of Kabul leaving Shuja Shah Durrani and his followers to their fate. The troops and civilians were heading for Jalalabad, the nearest British garrison 90 miles (140 km) away. As Akbar Khan had guaranteed safety to all concerned, the sick, wounded and infirm were left behind. However once the rearguard finally left the cantonments, the Afghans quickly moved in firing at the retreating troops while setting fire to the buildings inside killing all those left behind.

On leaving the city, Elphinstone discovered that the escort promised by Akbar Khan had not materialised, neither had the food and fuel, to help with the crossing of the mountains in winter. Major Eldred Pottinger pleaded with the sick British commander to turn back to Kabul as they still had time to take refuge in the fortress of Bala Hissar. But Elphinstone said there would be no turning back and they would proceed to Jalalabad. The column of 16,000 soldiers and civilians was now at the mercy of the Afghan tribes …

By the fourth day, a few hundred soldiers deserted and tried to return to Kabul but they were all killed. By now Elphinstone, who had ceased giving orders, sat silently on his horse. On the evening of 11 January, Lady Sale, along with the wives and children of both British and Indian officers, and their retinues accepted Akbar Khan’s assurances of protection. Despite deep mistrust, the group was taken into the custody of Akbar’s men. However once they were hostages, all the Indian servants and sepoy wives were murdered. Akbar Khan’s envoys then returned and persuaded Elphinstone and his second in command, Brigadier Shelton, to become hostages, too. Both senior officers agreed to surrender abandoning their men to their fate. Elphinstone died on 23 April as a captive.

The drama ended when Dr. William Brydon finally straggled into the British fort at Jalalabad on a dying, emaciated pony. The British garrison looked behind him and asked where the rest were.

to which he answered “I am the army”. Although part of his skull had been sheared off by a sword, he ultimately survived because he had insulated his hat with a magazine which deflected the blow. Brydon later published a memoir of the death march. The pony he rode was said to have lain down in a stable and never got up.

Perhaps if someone more competent than Elphinstone were in charge of the negotiations with Akbar Khan then the entire tragedy might never have been avoided. But then if they were more competent than Elphinstone they would have never relied on allies like Khan to guarantee the passage of arms in the first place. It’s a lesson that one hopes the administration has fully absorbed, or maybe not, because it relies on history that is more than 100 years old.

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