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For the past year, every disruption in the US-Pakistan partnership has prompted the question, "Will this incident be enough to break it?" NATO's recent deadly air strike on Pakistani soldiers raises real doubts over whether the relationship can be sustained.
Pakistan announced today that its military commanders in the border region can return fire without getting permission first – a change in the rules of engagement for what is meant to be predominantly a defensive force. The new policy, reported by Reuters, stems from a NATO strike on Nov. 26 in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
NATO has said that it thought it was attacking a militant outpost and has apologized for the accidental strike on the Pakistani military, while Pakistan claims the attack was unprovoked. The strike has infuriated the Pakistani public, and the government and military are scrambling to appease their calls for a break with the US.
Reuters reports that the Pakistani military said today that it would have responded to the NATO strike if not for difficulty mobilizing its air force in time.
According to a preliminary explanation from US officials, constructed through accounts from several people involved, the assault force on the ground contacted a US-Afghanistan-Pakistan border control center. Unaware that it had troops on the ground, Pakistan gave the go-ahead for NATO airstrikes on the outpost, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The assault force, which was Afghan-led but included a number of American troops, was "hunting militants" in the border region when it came under fire. The group assumed the fire came from militants, but it turned out to be a temporary Pakistani military encampment. The assault force had not notified the center that it would be in the area targeting militants, according to US officials – but it did call in a request for an airstrike and received an all-clear. While Pakistan does not have veto power over airstrikes, NATO tries to keep it in the loop to avoid incidents like this one, according to the Journal.
According to Reuters, Pakistan has denied authorizing the strike.
Pakistan may not have, but it could also be hedging, unsure of how to handle the immense public anger. The Los Angeles Times reports that "the rage coursing through Pakistani society" makes this time different, and that public pressure to break with the US is "higher than ever." The pro-US Pakistani government, which has been working with the US since 9-11, will have to take a harder line, or risk losing power.
"If you're a politician and you're disconnected with the streets, you're in trouble. Any politician who speaks against what the prevailing sentiment is in the country today is done for," said Karachi-based security analyst Ikram Sehgal, according to the L.A. Times.
Robert Grenier, the former director of the CIA counterterrorism center and former chief of the CIA station in Islamabad, writes in an commentary for Al Jazeera English titled "Pakistan: Going rogue" that there is something different – and more foreboding – in the Pakistani reaction this time around.
It is hard to judge such things from a distance, but the Pakistani reaction this time feels qualitatively different from the crises preceding it over the past few months, from January's Raymond Davis affair, to May's Abbottabad raid on bin Laden, to September's public accusations of Pakistani perfidy from the outgoing US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One has the sense that a political and psychological barrier has been broken, and that even if the outward forms of cooperation and civility are restored, and the border crossings for NATO supplies into Afghanistan are reopened, things will not be the same for a very long time.
Observers far closer to the action than me say there is little chance of an outright break in relations. They are probably right. But while the situation may not become so obviously dramatic, the inner reality of US-Pakistan relations is likely to be so insidiously bitter and caustic as to preclude any real co-operation on anything touching regional security and stability.
Pakistan has no qualms about going "rogue" if it feels that the US is working against its interests, Mr. Grenier writes. In the 1990s, after the US "heavily sanctioned" Pakistan for pursuing a nuclear program to counterbalance archrival India's – something Pakistan considered essential to its national security – Pakistan turned to other "rogue" states.
The notion of Pakistan as a nuclear-weapons state seeking other sources of aid and countervailing strategic alliances to oppose a perceived Washington-Kabul-New Delhi axis is one that should give the US considerable pause.
It is time for the US to get serious. The unintended consequences of its grossly disproportionate engagement in Afghanistan are simply becoming unbearable. With a much smaller presence and a sustainable policy, the United States can protect its core counter-terrorism interests in Afghanistan, and do so without further contributing to the international alienation and domestic unravelling of its far more important neighbour to the east.