In the list of irritants between the United States and Pakistan, NATO’s helicopter incursions into Pakistan on Thursday rank above the much-criticized “drone” strikes in that country’s remote areas near the Afghan border.
One involves the pilotless US Predator drone, the other, real NATO soldiers, Americans – a worse violation of territorial sovereignty in the eyes of Pakistan.
One takes out terrorists that Pakistan is largely happy to see eliminated, but that can also kill innocent civilians. Thursday’s “hot pursuit” of insurgent suspects by airborne US soldiers, however, ended up with the accidental killing of three Pakistani border guards and the wounding of three more. That’s collateral damage supersized.
“We will have to see whether we are allies or enemies,” said Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik after the cross-border attack. Pakistan has since blocked a crucial NATO supply route into Afghanistan. Other supply routes remain open.
In reality, it’s neither enemies nor allies. Rather, the US and Pakistan are locked in an uneasy alliance, beset by mistrust, that can undermine the war in Afghanistan and the fight against global Islamic terrorism.
Washington wishes that Islamabad would do much more to root out Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda from their bases in Pakistan. The Obama administration has to win Pakistan’s cooperation with substantial military, economic, and development aid.
Pakistan needs that aid, but it fears US abandonment, and its people resent US interference. Neither does Pakistan view all terrorists equally, though public opinion has been galvanized against Pakistani Taliban and their deadly and destabilizing attacks inside the country.
The tension between the two countries has increased of late. The US has stepped up the controversial drone attacks, in part to disrupt plots to carry out “Mumbai-style” attacks in Europe. America and its coalition partners fighting in Afghanistan have urged Pakistan to launch an offensive against various terrorist groups in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area.
But Pakistan now says its armed forces are spread too thin, having to respond to the biggest flood in its history. That flood has set back the country’s economic prospects as well, and highlighted the fragility of the government – none of this good for the joint antiterrorism effort.
More fundamentally, the US and Pakistan look to be on different time schedules. President Obama feels an urgency for signs of antiterrorism success, now that his surge is in place in Afghanistan. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has an unpopular government to hold together and a massive flood clean-up to conduct.
One hopes that the two countries will be able to move beyond this cross-border controversy, as they have in the past. That will take talking to each other about the specifics, and also reinforcing each other’s common interests – especially as strategic partners in this dangerous corner of the world.
And if Pakistan would like to see fewer border incursions, it can do something about it – by committing more resources to anti-Taliban efforts.