NATO Summit’s Big Loser: Behind Obama’s Snub of Pakistan

America’s broken relationship with Pakistan crashed again in Chicago. The details are not yet clear, but the damage to the already severely dysfunctional relationship with Islamabad is a major step backwards.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari got a last-minute invitation to the NATO summit in Chicago last week. American and Pakistani officials suggested his visit would also bring an end to the border closing between Afghanistan and Pakistan imposed by Zardari’s government last November after NATO forces killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in a firefight in the region. Reopening the border would benefit both sides. Pakistan would get a transit fee for every one of the estimated 600 trucks carrying NATO supplies from Karachi to Kabul every day. And NATO would have access to a cheaper and more direct route to move equipment and supplies in and out of Afghanistan. But things have not turned out that way, like so much else in this bedeviled relationship.

When Pakistan imposed the border closing last fall, it was confident that NATO would have to cry uncle fairly soon. For years, most of NATO’s logistics came through Karachi, the mega-port on the Arabian Sea and Afghanistan’s traditional trade hub. At the start of the Obama administration, over three-quarters of NATO’s supplies arrived this way. But the president early on ordered the Pentagon to build an alternative route through Russia and Central Asia. By 2011 it was ready. Costs went up, but Pakistan no longer had a lock on NATO’s logistics. So Islamabad this spring finally realized it was hurting itself by keeping the border closed.

Still, powerful forces in Pakistan want the border to remain shut. Jihadist groups have coalesced since last fall into a lobby called the Defense of Pakistan. Led by Hafez Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror group that attacked Mumbai in 2008, the pro-closure forces have held huge demonstrations in Pakistani cities demanding no compromise with America and NATO, no border opening and an end to all drone attacks on terror targets. This spring, the United States put a $10 million bounty on Saeed for his role in the Mumbai massacre that killed six Americans. He laughed in Washington’s face on Pakistani TV. He knows he has powerful backers in the Pakistani army and the intelligence service, the ISI. He knows America is incredibly unpopular in Pakistan, thanks to decades of lousy relations, the drones and the humiliation of last May’s SEAL raid that killed America’s No. 1 enemy.

Zardari, the husband of murdered former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is an accident of matrimony in Pakistani politics. He is best known for his nickname, Mr. Ten Percent, for allegedly getting big kickbacks on contracts signed when she was in office in the 1990s. He has very little popular support aside from being Benazir’s widow. But he has proven to be remarkably determined to survive in the violent world of Pakistan’s politics.

The Mumbai attack was in many ways aimed at him, because before it he advocated a rapprochement with India, an end to Pakistan hosting terrorists like Lashkar and Saeed, and an end to ISI’s double dealing with terror. He understood that after Benazir, he was next on the hit list of al Qaeda, Lashkar e-Taiba and the Taliban. He survived the army’s attempt to oust him last winter over an alleged memo in which his then- ambassador in Washington sought American help to prevent a coup by the army after Obama sent the SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the home of the army’s military academy.  Even his survival in the memo-gate crisis, as it is called in Pakistan, was largely a fluke. The chief accuser behind the plot was discredited only after a video came out featuring him serving as the master of ceremonies at a female nude mud-wrestling contest in Belgium. Only in Pakistan can political escapades be this ridiculous.

Maybe a deal can still be worked out to get the border open in the days ahead. But the imagery of Zardari failing will cast a long shadow.

Zardari has tried to reset relations with India this year, traveling there to visit a Muslim shrine and to meet with Prime Minister Singh. Zardari, unlike the jihadists and the ISI, understands that for Pakistan to prosper, the country needs to end its rivalry with India, open its border to trade and try to hook its economy to the growth of its bigger and richer neighbor. Zardari understands that Pakistan will remain poor and backward as long as it pours its resources into the army and into the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world. This spring power cuts in Karachi and other Pakistani cities are reaching twenty hours a day because the economy is so badly managed.

Zardari wants to reset relations with Washington as well. But his room for maneuver is very limited by the army and the parliament, which are demanding an apology for last November’s deaths and the end to the drone war. The jihadists just want to kill him. Now he has been snubbed by Obama, who would not meet with Zardari without a border deal. He got a session with Secretary Clinton instead.

Given how unpopular America and Obama are in Pakistan, a snub in Chicago may not hurt Zardari’s own abysmal approval rating. Maybe a deal can still be worked out to get the border open in the days ahead. But the imagery of Zardari failing will cast a long shadow.

Many in Pakistan believe NATO is bound to fail in Afghanistan. They read the polls and they noted that French President Francois Hollande has stood by his pledge to pull France’s Task Force Lafayette out of the country by the end of this year. Most European leaders would secretly like to do the same thing with their toops. So do many Americans. Pakistan can also veto any effort to start a political process between the Afghan Taliban and the Karzai government; after all the ISI controls the Taliban’s leadership which lives in Karachi. The army and the ISI will privately be very pleased that Zardari crashed in Chicago.