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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.

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Mr. Schneider says the incident is evidence of the military flexing its political muscle inside Pakistan. He points to reports there that say that Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has pressured civilian President Azif Ali Zardari to purge some of his loyalists from his cabinet – and a growing feeling among the officer corps that they are more competent to handle the aftermath of devastating flooding than the civilian government.

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Retired general and former president Pervez Musharraf hinted at this over the weekend. Speaking in London, he speculated that General Kayani may be feeling the "pressure" to "act for Pakistan's good."

"The evidence of the incapacity of the Pakistan civilian government to manage flood relief in an effective way, and the very public chastising that Kayani gave to Zadari and the civilian leadership, does seem to pose a new or more overt additional problem with respect to the US-Pakistan relationship," says Schneider. "I don’t think we want to see a military government back in power in Pakistan, but I don’t see us doing everything we might to avoid that.... I think a lot more needs to be done, as you move beyond the immediate emergency, so that the US is taking steps to bolster civilian rule there."

With the border shutdown, Pakistan's military has emphasized to the US its own importance in aiding the war effort in Afghanistan, even though they work at cross purposes at times.

The border crossing was closed after US helicopters killed three Pakistani soldiers while pursuing Taliban militants in Kurram. The Afghan Taliban frequently stage attacks from inside Pakistan, and seek to retreat to safety back across the border, often operating in view of Pakistani military installations and patrols.

About 70 percent of NATO supplies for Afghanistan flow through the Pakistan port of Karachi. A border crossing that resupplies NATO forces in southern Afghanistan was not closed.

Though the US has engaged in similar "hot pursuit" operations into Pakistan since at least 2004, the death of Pakistani soldiers clearly infuriated the military there. "We do have hot pursuit all the time, and it’s understood we can go a certain amount to Pakistan," says Weinbaum. But this time, "they can’t get around the fact that there were three dead [Pakistanis]."

Weinbaum says Pakistan has been seeking to score political points at home, where the government's relationship and tacit approval for at least some drone strikes are deeply unpopular. "It’s a golden opportunity to stand up for Pakistan, even though everyone knows that it’s merely a gesture," he says. "But it’s one thing to let it hang for a week or so, but to go longer would be to put our forces in great jeopardy, and this would clearly be going over the line."

Retaliation?

Pakistan insists that the closure is not a case of retaliation for the attack, but rather a security precaution against a likely increase in convoy attacks in response.

"This was done because of security concerns," says a Pakistan government spokesman. He says the border will be reopened soon, conditions permtiting. "The helicopters crossed the border and there was resentment because of that. This has nothing to do with retaliation."

Perhaps, but that's not how NATO and the US have taken it. On Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he had apologized to Pakistan's foreign minister for the incident, called for Pakistan to work with NATO to "prevent militants from crossing the border to attack and kill Afghans and international soldiers," and expressed his "hope that the border will be open for supplies as soon as possible."

The Taliban, for its part, insists that its anger has been directed at the US drone strikes on its positions, not over the death of Pakistani soldiers. Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told AFP that attacks on convoys have been to slow the flow of material to war effort in Afghanistan and to "avenge drone strikes."

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