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Pakistanis fear becoming isolated because of government’s negotiating strategy

By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times –

ISLAMABAD — As U.S. frustration with Pakistan’s six-month blockade of Afghanistan-bound supplies became painfully apparent at the NATO summit in Chicago, Pakistanis are growing worried that their government’s negotiating strategy could cost their country millions of dollars in American aid and jeopardize its prospects for a voice in Afghanistan’s postwar future.

For weeks, U.S. and Pakistani officials have been negotiating a new set of transit fees that would pave the way for the reopening of routes that NATO convoys used to ferry fuel and nonlethal supplies from the southern port of Karachi to the Afghan border. Pakistan shut down the routes after U.S. airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November.

NATO invited President Asif Ali Zardari to the weekend summit, believing a breakthrough in those talks was at hand. Instead, Pakistan has insisted on an increase in transit charges from $250 to as much as $5,000 per vehicle, a demand that has infuriated U.S. officials. Both sides say they are continuing to negotiate, but the Americans have made it clear that their patience with Pakistan is wearing thin.

Zardari’s embattled ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party, is heading into a turbulent election season. Many analysts believe he is avoiding a deal in order to appease opposition parties and influential right-wing mullahs who adamantly oppose the NATO convoys traveling through Pakistan.

His reluctance to reach an accord on a fee increase more palatable to the Americans could cause lasting damage to relations with the U.S. and other NATO nations. One measure under consideration in Congress would freeze $650 million in Coalition Support Fund payments — reimbursements for costs incurred by Pakistan in battling militants — until Islamabad reopens the routes.

“Perhaps it’s too late in the game for Pakistanis to wrap their heads around the idea that the U.S. isn’t the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ that they’ve been told it is,” wrote columnist Cyril Almeida in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn this weekend. “But we could do ourselves a favor and begin to realize that Pakistan, as articulated by the paranoid and the insecure, is a ‘Danger to Itself.’”

Though most Pakistanis believe that domestic political considerations have influenced Zardari’s handling of the supply issue, his inability to tackle the country’s tattered economy or improve the quality of life for millions of Pakistanis means he and his party remain particularly vulnerable as election season approaches. Losing millions of dollars in aid will only increase that weakness, observers say.

Cutoffs in U.S. aid, Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper wrote in an editorial published Sunday, “would exacerbate Pakistan’s difficulties in a cash-strapped environment, reducing it to relying purely on its own resources for the continuing fight against terrorism.”

The U.S. needs Pakistan’s help in facilitating talks between Afghan officials and the Afghan Taliban leaders, many of whom are based in Pakistan. The Americans also see Islamabad as an important — though difficult — counterterrorism ally. Nevertheless, President Barack Obama clearly displayed his unhappiness with Zardari in Chicago this week by publicly thanking Central Asian nations that allow supplies to flow to Afghanistan while making no mention of Pakistan.

Pakistani officials have stressed that they do not want to be perceived by the U.S. and the West as an impediment to resolving the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, and have grown increasingly concerned about being brushed aside as the U.S. withdraws its troops by the end of 2014.

“They want to stay relevant, especially once the U.S. begins withdrawing forces from Afghanistan,” said Talat Masood, a security analyst and retired Pakistani lieutenant general. “There’s this worry that they would start to get isolated, that they would not be part of the process.”

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