After NATO strike, can US-Pakistan relations be patched up one more time? (VIDEO)

Pakistan announced it was closing its borders permanently to the transport of NATO supplies into Afghanistan. The move was one more retaliatory measure in a long-troubled relationship.

People condemn NATO strikes on Pakistani posts, in Lahore, Pakistan on Monday. The NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers went on for almost two hours and continued even after Pakistani commanders had pleaded with coalition forces to stop, the army claimed Monday in charges that could further inflame anger in Pakistan.

As Pakistanis burned American flags over NATO airstrikes on Saturday that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the government in Islamabad announced a full review of US-Pakistan relations – signaling a new low in a relationship that already appeared to be at the breaking point earlier this year.

At the same time, the crisis showed signs of taking on regional dimensions, with China weighing in on the side of Pakistan in an apparent tweak of the United States.

Pakistan said on Monday it was closing its borders permanently to the transport of NATO supplies into Afghanistan after the weekend’s deadly airstrikes on a Pakistani border outpost. The measure promised hardship for US and allied military operations, but it also had a familiar ring, as one more retaliatory measure in a long-troubled relationship.

Twice already this year – in May, when US special forces launched a raid into Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, and a few months before that, when Pakistan arrested a CIA officer in the killings of two Pakistanis – relations between the two wary partners were described by some policymakers in both capitals as nearing a divorce.

Each time, the relationship was revived to some degree by high-level visits and an unvarnished taking-stock of mutual interests. But now, the weekend strike was the deadliest on Pakistani forces in the decade-long Afghan war. And a range of Western and Pakistani military and civilian officials are questioning how long repair will take, or whether it will be possible at all.

Pakistan’s relations with the US and NATO will not be “business as usual” after Saturday’s deadly strikes by helicopter gunship, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said in interviews Monday.

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NATO officials promised to conduct a full investigation of the weekend incident, but on Monday the attack and its diplomatic aftershocks showed signs of reaching new regional dimensions, with China uncharacteristically wading into the fray.

“China is deeply shocked by these events,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said in a televised statement Monday. “China believes that Pakistan’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity should be respected and the incident should be thoroughly investigated and be handled properly.”

The Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministers also held a lengthy telephone conversation on the incident, according to their offices.

Some Pakistani media announced that the government would refuse to take part in reconciliation efforts with the Afghan Taliban, but Mr. Gilani insisted that decision had not yet been made. The US is especially keen to see Pakistan involved in those efforts, since it does not believe reconciliation in Afghanistan can advance without Pakistan’s support.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik did announce that the closing of border crossings to NATO supply convoys would be permanent. The closure posed an immediate logistical problem, with NATO convoys and their supplies already starting to stack up inside Pakistan. 

On the other hand, less than half of the supplies used by US and NATO forces in Afghanistan enter from Pakistan. That’s because the history of tit-for-tat relations between the US and Pakistan had led the US to diversify its supply routes into Afghanistan away from a heavy dependence on Pakistan.

The result is that, while still troublesome, the border closure today constitutes less of a chokehold, as a growing slice of supplies enter Afghanistan through the so-called northern route from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Some analysts of US-Pakistan relations say they assume the two countries will paper over their differences once again. But they also say this incident is likely to reinforce Pakistan’s determination to stick to its own interests to the detriment of a US it believes is set on pulling up stakes in the region anyway. 

“Even if – as seems most likely – Pakistan does reopen its supply routes to the US and [international forces in Afghanistan], relations will remain so tense that new incidents and crises in US and Pakistani relations are inevitable,” says Anthony Cordesman, in comments Monday on the Center for Strategic and International Studies website. “This will undermine the already uncertain chances the US can actually achieve any stable benefits from the war after 2014 – either in Afghanistan or Pakistan.”

More broadly, the NATO airstrikes may have opened the way to new rivalries in the region. Opening a northern supply route into Afghanistan required Russian approval, a process that took some time as Moscow weighed the pros and cons of aiding NATO’s, and in particular America’s, presence in Afghanistan.

Russia ultimately decided it had no interest in seeing Afghanistan sink back into instability or even renewed Taliban rule. But China’s motivations in taking a public stance on Saturday’s attack appear to be more focused on Pakistan – and on US involvement there and in Asia more broadly.

China’s comments followed on the heels of President Obama’s extended trip to Asia, which was widely interpreted in Beijing as part of a US effort to reassert its interests in the region and to contain China.

For its part, Pakistan has repeatedly brandished its relations with China as a potential alternative to its ties with Washington. When the US signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan’s archrival India, for example, some Pakistanis warned that their country could turn to Beijing if Washington did not offer Pakistan a similar deal.

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