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International Bargaining, the Pakistani Way

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Days before a critical NATO summit scheduled to be held in Chicago this weekend, where member nations are set to discuss the future of Afghanistan, Pakistan has announced a policy reversal and will reopen NATO supply routes that have been shutdown since November. Closed off in retaliation to the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by NATO forces, Islamabad has since pressed hard to seek a formal apology from the United States before making the supply routes available again. Alas, the supply routes will be reopened and Pakistan will be invited to attend the summit in Chicago -- but with no apology forthcoming.

Pakistan recognized its need to be an active participant in discussions related to the future and safety of Afghanistan, and it understood the significance of participating in the Chicago discussions. With their invitation seemingly contingent upon making the supply routes accessible again, Islamabad has finally acceded to the U.S.

The decision from Pakistan's government is the correct one. Pakistan cannot afford to live in international political isolation, and it needs to have an active role and vested interest in securing the safety and sustainability of Afghanistan -- an uncooperative, nuclear Pakistan risks extended instability and violence in the Af-Pak border region, which is damaging for the world. Islamabad, for their part, has also been wary of India's growing presence and influence in Afghanistan, and a more active and participatory role will help alleviate some of their own concerns. Pakistan's exclusion from the summit would simply have been a diplomatic step backwards for NATO, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Despite moving in the right direction, the entire ordeal demonstrates just how incompetent Pakistan's government is when dealing with international crises, such as the NATO strikes, and how an emotional response, coupled with a poor understanding of bargaining power, can cripple a nation's international soft power and reputation. It was always never likely that the US would issue a formal apology, especially in an election year when the Obama administration has fought against Republican charges of being too repentant to other countries. Pakistan never had a chance to get what it asked for.

Recently, the U.S. has deliberately been shifting its supply routes to pass through Central Asia, as opposed to Pakistan, making NATO less reliant on Islamabad's assistance. Conversely, Pakistan lost out on $1.3 billion in tariffs and aid while the routes were closed -- a costly price for an already struggling economy. Further, Pakistan is much more reliant on the U.S. not only for economic and military aid, but also for expanding its international influence to meet its foreign policy goals -- inclusion in discussions surrounding Afghanistan's future is one example; counteracting India is another. The U.S. clearly wanted to restore normal ties with Pakistan, and it made concerted efforts over the past seven months to do so, but for long-term viability, Pakistan needed a resolution to the divergence far more than the U.S. did. Leverage was always with the U.S.

Pakistan's demands were an abysmal miscalculation of bargaining power. Making matters worse, confrontation with the U.S. over the supply routes have been a very public ordeal in the country over the past seven months, as different politicians and political establishments have used the issue to establish themselves as the true defenders of Pakistan's sovereignty, with little regard to a solutions-oriented approach that would be in the long-term interest of the nation. Politicians were more concerned with creating an aura of superiority when they were in no position to do so.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but alienating the world's only superpower when it has a strong military and diplomatic presence in your region is never wise. Pakistan's reliance on the U.S. for diplomatic, economic, and military aid makes it even worse. The government of Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani and his cabinet should be praised for rectifying the situation with the U.S. and NATO, albeit late -- a contrast to the outpouring of vociferous condemnations of the agreement from opposition parties. This will not be Pakistan's last international diplomatic crisis, and it is likely that there will be more with the U.S. For any nation, but perhaps particularly for Pakistan, understanding bargaining position and leverage is crucial before making public demands of other countries.