In Fog of War, Rift Widens Between U.S. and Pakistan
WASHINGTON — The NATO air attack that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers over the weekend reflected a fundamental truth about American-Pakistani relations when it comes to securing the unruly border with Afghanistan: the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy that leaders of both countries say they share.
The murky details complicated matters even more, with Pakistani officials saying the attack on two Pakistani border posts was unprovoked and Afghan officials asserting that Afghan and American commandos called in airstrikes after coming under fire from Pakistani territory. NATO has promised an investigation.
The reaction inside Pakistan nonetheless followed a now-familiar pattern of anger and tit-for-tat retaliation. So did the American response of regret laced with frustration and suspicion. Each side’s actions reflected a deepening distrust that gets harder to repair with each clash.
The question now, as one senior American official put it on Sunday, is “what kind of resilience is left” in a relationship that has sunk to new lows time after time this year — with the arrest in January of a C.I.A. officer, Raymond Davis, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May and the deaths of so many Pakistani soldiers.
In each of those cases, Pakistan had reason to feel that the United States had violated its sovereignty. Even if circumstances on the ground justified the American actions, they have nonetheless made it difficult to sustain political support inside Pakistan for the strategic cooperation that both countries acknowledge is vital to winning the war in Afghanistan. “Imagine how we would feel if it had been 24 American soldiers killed by Pakistani forces at this moment,” Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat from Illinois, said on “Fox News Sunday.” The rift is one result of the United States’ two-pronged strategy in Afghanistan, which relies on both negotiating and fighting to end the war.
The latest breach in relations came only five weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led a senior American delegation to Pakistan to deliver a blunt warning to the country’s leaders to intensify pressure on extremists carrying out attacks into Afghanistan, while at the same time urging them to help bring more moderate members of the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Mrs. Clinton called the administration’s approach “fight, talk, build,” meaning the United States and its allies would continue to attack militants in Afghanistan and beyond, seek peace talks with those willing to join a political process and build closer economic ties across the region. All are essential to any hope of peace and stability in Afghanistan, and all rely on Pakistan. That has forced the two countries into a strategic alliance whose tactics seem to strain it over and over again.
Mrs. Clinton’s diplomacy — bolstered by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and David H. Petraeus, the director of the C.I.A. — appeared to smooth out the roughest edges in relations, according to officials from both countries.
Recognizing that heightened military activity along the mountainous border with Afghanistan increases the risks of deadly mistakes, American and Pakistani forces have in recent weeks tried to improve their coordination. That cooperation had been largely suspended after the killing of Bin Laden, which President Obama ordered without informing the Pakistani authorities.
Just last Friday, Pakistan’s military commander, Army Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, in Rawalpindi to discuss “measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures” between the Pakistan Army, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan Army, “aimed at enhancing border control on both sides,” according to a statement by the Pakistani military.
“Then you have an incident that takes us back to where we were before her visit,” said Vali Nasr, a former deputy to the administration’s regional envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, and now a professor at Tufts University.
The problem, Mr. Nasr said, is that the United States effectively has not one but two strategies for winning the war in Afghanistan.
While the State Department and the White House believe that only a negotiated political solution will end the war, American military and intelligence commanders believe that they must maximize pressure on the Taliban before the American military withdrawal begins in earnest before 2014. The military strategy has led to the intensified fighting in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, increasing tensions. A major offensive last month involving 11,000 NATO troops and 25,000 Afghan fighters in seven provinces of eastern Afghanistan killed or captured hundreds of extremists, many of them using Pakistan as a base.
In recent months American forces have complained that they have taken mortar and rocket fire from positions in Pakistani territory, as officials said they did early Saturday in the Mohmand region, just north of the Khyber Pass, prompting American troops to call in airstrikes. “It’s a case of the tail wagging the dog,” Mr. Nasr said. When they respond forcefully along the border, “U.S. commanders on the ground are deciding U.S.-Pakistan policy.”
As the Pakistani public and press seethed over the latest attack, the country’s leaders closed supply routes to Afghanistan that NATO relies on, as they have at least twice before, and ordered the C.I.A. to vacate a base it has used to launch drone strikes.
It is unclear how long the Pakistanis will keep the supply routes closed, and whether the promised investigation might help assuage the anger over the deaths of Pakistani soldiers.
On one level, it does not matter whether the strikes are justified as self-defense or acknowledged as a catastrophic error, though if an investigation shows that the Pakistani soldiers were complicit in attacking the NATO-Afghanistan forces across the border, the tensions could worsen further.
The damage to the American strategy has been done, and the question is how long it will take for officials from both countries to resume cooperation where it is in their interest to do so.
Asked on “Fox News Sunday” how he would respond in such a situation, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., President Obama’s former ambassador to China who is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said, “I would recognize exactly what the U.S.-Pakistani relationship has become, which is merely a transactional relationship.” He said that American aid to Pakistan should be contingent on keeping the supply lines to Afghanistan open and continuing counterterrorism cooperation.
“And I think our expectations have to be very, very low in terms of what we can get out of the relationship,” he said.