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Pakistan keeps Khyber Pass closed as US strikes drone on

Pakistan said it will keep the Khyber Pass - a crucial supply line for the US war effort in Afghanistan - closed because of security concerns, as a US drone strike pounded alleged militants inside Pakistan.

By Staff writer / October 5, 2010

A Pakistani border guard stands near Afghanistan-bound NATO trucks parked on the roadside in Pakistani tribal area of Khyber, Friday, Oct. 1. Pakistan closed the Khyber Pass supply route for US and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Thursday after a coalition helicopter attack mistakenly killed three Pakistani soldiers at a border post.

Qazi Rauf/AP

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A US drone strike in Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan may have killed eight German Muslims who allegedly hoped to return to Europe some day and murder civilians, but the real danger continues to lie in Pakistan's closure of the Khyber Pass – a key supply route for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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That's not because US and NATO troops are going to run out of food or bullets soon – analysts and politicians are united in predicting that Pakistan will reopen the Torkham border crossing long before that becomes an issue. And it's not because the Taliban in Pakistan have shown they're capable of attacking convoys, with at least three drivers killed and 30 trucks destroyed since the border crossing was closed last week. Convoy attacks in Pakistan are nothing new – in 2008, around 500 trucks and containers were destroyed by militants, both on the roads and at container terminals in Peshawar, near Torkham.

Instead, the danger lies in what the border closing says about the Pakistani military's ability to call the political shots two years after the restoration of civilian rule, their ongoing ambivalence about the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's complicated interests in Afghanistan.

"It’s been this way for the longest time: they help us, they work against us, whether its ground troops or [Pakistani intelligence]," says Marvin Weinbaum, who was a Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department until 2003 and is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "I don’t think it’s possible to make a general statement here. There’s evidence of Pakistan both facilitating our operations and facilitating the insurgents."

Pakistan vs. US view of events

As the US public has grown more aware that Pakistan, which is receiving about $2 billion in US aid this year, provides support to Taliban units who kill both US soldiers and Afghan security forces across the border, anger at America's erstwhile ally has grown on the home front.

But the simple fact is that Pakistan sees events in Afghanistan not in terms of "defeating the Taliban" or "stopping terrorism" but in terms of protecting its own interests, particularly in regard to its old adversary, India. Pakistan's military supported the rise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s as a reliable proxy against Indian influence there, and today is keeping its options open for preserving influence there, analysts say.

"We look at Pakistan in relation to US objectives in Afghanistan," says Mark Schneider, a senior vice president at the International Crisis Group in Washington. "Pakistan looks at all of these questions in connection to its relationship with India … and sometimes we fail to recognize how that bilateral geopolitical prism effects Pakistan’s behavior."

Military flexing a political muscle

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