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Pakistan Mulls Terms Of Future NATO Cooperation

A Pakistani security officer stands guard over long lines of NATO trucks and oil tankers at a border crossing amid a blockade against NATO vehicles transporting supplies to Afghanistan via Pakistan. The blockade has been in place since November 26, when 2
Islamabad is preparing to turn a new page in its relationship with NATO, meaning the days of verbal agreements and secret arrangements appear to be over.

Top government officials have been consulting with two parliamentary committees established to help define "rules of engagement" that lawmakers familiar with the discussions have said could include taxes on NATO supply convoys and a strict ban on drone strikes on Pakistani territory.

The new rules recommended by the Special Parliamentary Committee and the National Security Committee are expected to become official government policy upon parliamentary approval, expected in the coming days.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after briefing a joint session of the two committees on December 15 that Pakistan's collaboration with NATO in the "political, diplomatic, military and intelligence" spheres will be addressed.

"It will be a partnership which will be on a clearly defined mandate," she said. "It will be a partnership -- which has less gray areas -- which has a clear mandate [from] the public and parliament of Pakistan. And therefore, we will be able to pursue this partnership much more vigorously."

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar
The move was prompted by two November 26 NATO helicopter attacks on a Pakistani military post along the country's western border with Afghanistan, which left 24 Pakistani troops dead.

The incident added to Islamabad's longstanding anger over NATO and U.S. intrusions into its airspace.

Notable incursions that have particularly raised Islamabad's ire include a secret U.S. raid in which Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistani territory in May, and contentious drone attacks carried out by NATO in the country's restive tribal areas.

A Firm Stand On Drone Strikes

Lawmaker Haider Ali Shah, a member of the National Assembly's Defense Committee, says that Pakistan's military leadership will take a firm stand on future drone strikes on its territory.

"The briefings we were given clearly show that the [army's] Chief of Staff has ordered that drones be shot down if they attack anywhere [in Pakistan]," he said. "The officers on the ground have been told not to even seek permission from their superior officers before shooting down a drone."

In general, the parliamentary committees are expected to recommend more transparency in military relations and intelligence-sharing with Washington, according to those familiar with the discussion.

Observers suggest such moves could be a major setback for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Missile strikes by pilotless aircraft are reportedly a favored tool of U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Hundreds of militants including key Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed in such strikes since 2004.

Days after the attack on Pakistani border posts in the western Mohmand region late month, Islamabad ordered Washington to vacate the Shamsi airbase in southwestern Pakistan and ordered a halt of NATO supply convoys transiting the country.

Truckers shipping cargos bound for NATO forces in Afghanistan have been stranded at the border since November 26, and there have been no drone strikes in Pakistan since that date.

The parliamentary committees have reportedly been briefed that most cooperation with the NATO has focused on keeping a handful of agreements, most of them verbal commitments made between Pakistani and American officials.

Confusion On Both Sides

Ayaz Amir, a lawmaker from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group, says this approach has led to confusion because both sides interpret them differently.

Pakistani opposition politician Ayaz Amir
Pakistani opposition politician Ayaz Amir
As a member of the National Assembly's Defense Committee, Amir is familiar with the specifics of the current negotiations. He maintains that Washington and Islamabad's future relationship will be based on formal, written agreements.

"This relationship is equally important for us and the Americans, he said.

"Nobody in America can say that we don't need Pakistan. If somebody in Pakistan says that we don't need America, it will not be a wise and sound opinion."

The blockade on NATO supplies and oil tankers headed for Afghanistan will eventually be lifted, according to lawmaker Shah, but individual trucks and containers will be taxed by Pakistani authorities once transit is resumed.

International media suggest that Pakistan plans to charge a tax of some $1,500 for every container.

Some Pakistani politicians are also pushing for compensation for the use of Pakistani infrastructure, citing the wear and tear on roads that results from heavy NATO traffic. Before the blockade, the alliance transported one-third of its non-lethal military supplies via Pakistan.

Amir believes both sides will ultimately need to make compromises.

"There are American complaints about [extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan], and Pakistan needs to consider them," he said. "But if Pakistan is trying to recalibrate its relationship [with America] based on its concerns and reservations, then America needs to show an understanding of this."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.