The past ten days or so has once again brought into limelight the extraordinary nature of relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Ostensibly strategic partners Pakistan did not allow supply trucks to pass through after two soldiers of the Frontier Constabulary were killed in a fratricidal incident in the tribal areas allegedly by intruding NATO fliers. An apology by the US Ambassador in Islamabad and the Secretary General of NATO defused tensions and convoys carrying fuel and stores for troops fighting in Afghanistan have once again started rolling across the Khyber.
When allies are fighting a counter insurgency campaign fratricide is not uncommon while it is normal for the victim to protest it does not warrant blocking convoys carrying supplies on the plea that these are being attacked by locals who are outraged by the killing of the soldiers. The excuse appears specious particularly so when each day drone attacks have been killing many tribal fighters and the Taliban would have greater grouse against these strikes than a lone attack across the Durand Line.
Concomitantly there have been rumblings from Washington that Pakistan is not doing enough to control terrorism from its soil and lack of cooperation is also seen on talks with the Taliban. For the United States this seems to be a stranger partnership wherein the Pakistani military has been provided aid to the tune of $ 10 billion dollars plus over the past many years and has yet failed to deliver. The US military aid has even led the most benign Mr A K Antony India’s Defence Minister to raise an alarm recently.
The US Ambassador to Pakistan having issued an apology for the strike inside Waziristan should resolve the current impasse and smooth flow of NATO convoys in case the Pakistani military leadership feels assuaged by the same. However long term implications of the incident will lead to more differences between US and Pakistan over how to combat the challenge of Af-Pak militancy for the commitment of Rawalpindi has come into question.
While a fratricide when allies are fighting a pitched counter insurgency campaign is not unknown even where it involves a strike across the border of a country which is in partnership in the war against the Taliban the unjustified stand by Pakistan at the behest of the Army is likely to fray the relationship as it is seen to be making much of the current incident. While claims are being made that the Taliban is torching convoys even in Islamabad this could not have happened without security official’s turning a blind eye if not instigating the strikes.
The Interior Minister Rehman Malik stated that NATO’s apology for violating Pakistan border limits has been accepted, but this will mark a new low in the US Pakistan relations per se. The Pakistan army wanting to control the strategic space has possibly drawn its own red lines and this had resulted in blocking move of NATO convoys ostensibly on the plea that these were vulnerable to public ire. That this was a managed affair was more than evident from the very start.
While the incident may be a tactical victory for the Pakistan army, it will raise serious concerns on its reliability as a partner by the West. How this impasse is resolved remains to be seen, for while both require each other, Pakistan thinks that it can black mail NATO to get away with such acts without doing enough within to stop terror.
In the long run it appears that the Pakistani establishment’s conflict with the US is unlikely to die down given differential in approach of the two. The US and NATO engagement with Pakistan appears to Islamabad a temporary sojourn before they depart either before or after stabilizing Afghanistan. Stable Afghanistan is seen by many in Pakistan’s establishment as anathema and therefore this has become a very sensitive issue for the strategic community in the country. On the other hand there is also concern that without engaging with the US the much needed military and development aid is not likely to flow in.
However there is growing realization in the US that Pakistan is only playing for time and seize the initiative in Afghanistan, and is supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani group thereby keeping these in good shape to follow up once the Western forces leave the country.
The sense of distrust and difference in strategic goals between the United States and Pakistan is likely to impact the way in which their long term relationship develops. Already the US is looking towards India and but for geography may have embraced New Delhi rather than Islamabad. Nevertheless in the short term both sides are likely to recalibrate their relationship to mutual advantage.
Caught in the cross fire is Afghanistan which requires all the support it needs to emerge as a strong and stable nation state which can secure its sovereignty against non state actors strongly supported by the State from the East, Pakistan. The US should commit to this relationship rather than Rawalpindi (Pakistani GHQ) whose demands are not just unreasonable but increasingly appear counter to US aims and objectives in the region.