Pakistan has always bristled at US airstrikes inside its territory, but a helicopter gunship attack earlier this week that killed three Pakistani border guards has led to new frictions and exposed heightened sensitivities over Pakistan’s growing dependence on American support.
US and Pakistani officials have until now managed to paper over unresolved differences over how to deal with insurgents who attack US and NATO forces in Afghanistan from their command-and-control centers in neighboring Pakistan. But this time Pakistan closed a vital supply route for provisioning US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, causing US military and civilian leaders to scramble to attempt to undo the action.
US officials predict the border crossing – one of two Pakistani crossings used by NATO to move supplies into Afghanistan – will reopen soon. The Pakistani government, largely dependent on the US and the West, has no other choice, analysts agree. But the move to close the border crossing, they add, lays bare the government’s inability to react strongly to violations of its sovereignty.
“They don’t have too many cards to play without hurting themselves,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department Pakistan expert now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Closing border crossings used by the US “in some ways is their trump card, but they are not really going to play it.”
“They know full well that if they persevered with this, they’d be putting the whole relationship with the US in jeopardy,” he says.
US and Pakistan: uneasy alliance
About three-quarters of the supplies for the 120,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan move through Pakistan. The US, meanwhile, provides Pakistan with about $2 billion in military aid annually.
The cross-border attack came at a time when the US was already stepping up unmanned drone attacks on Taliban and insurgent refuges inside Pakistan. The US launched a record number of these attacks in August.
The NATO helicopter attack that killed the three border guards – the fourth such manned cross-border strike in about a week – is part of an upswing in manned aircraft strikes. It reflects new NATO willingness to enter Pakistani airspace to pursue insurgents fleeing to refuge across the border.
But Pakistan’s tit-for-tat action also suggests a civilian government that is weak and desperate to demonstrate to the Pakistani public – already estranged by government corruption and an ineffective flood response – that it is standing up to the deeply unpopular Americans.
"I want to assure the entire nation from this house that we will consider other options if there is interference in the sovereignty of our country," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said Friday in a speech to parliament.
Mr. Gilani’s comments, in which he repeated Pakistan’s commitment to fighting Islamist extremists that have targeted the country’s civilian government, came a day after he took a call from Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign relations Committee, seeking to smooth out the rough patch in US-Pakistan relations.
A reminder of the fragility of the Pakistani supply line came Friday when gunmen attacked a convoy of NATO fuel tankers, burning as many as 40 vehicles.
How to 'walk back' now?
The key now will be some US effort allowing the Pakistanis to “walk back” from the border closing while saving face, Mr. Weinbaum says.
“If they [in the government] hadn’t shown some backbone here it could have really been devastating for them,” he says. “But now they will have to walk back on this, and the key will be the way they do it."
“The US can help them do that," he adds.
One possibility is a joint investigation into the incident.
Continuing deterioration in the Pakistani government’s standing with the public has led to speculation of a military coup.
But Weinbaum says he doesn’t see the military itching to topple the civilian leadership. “Yes, the military is putting pressure on the government, but the way I see it the military leadership really does want the government to do better,” he says. Pointing to the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, he adds, “He would welcome the government being able to stand up more so that his hand isn’t forced.”