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.
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
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.
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."
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."