THE DEPTH of Pakistan’s fury over a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a remote border post last week was on full display yesterday, as Pakistan shut off foreign news channels, including CNN, and refused to attend Monday’s international conference on Afghanistan’s future. This comes on top of Pakistan’s expulsion earlier this week of US personnel from an airbase that launched drones and its halting of trucks supplying the US military in Afghanistan.
It’s clear that the long-troubled US-Pakistan relationship is at a crossroads. But it should be equally clear that the United States and Pakistan still need each other, and that the Obama administration should do all it can to forestall a permanent rupture. While American frustration with Pakistan is understandable - whether over Pakistan’s ties to militants or its failure to arrest Osama bin Laden - an outright break would be far more costly than maintaining the current fragile and sometimes disingenuous friendship.
The core of the alliance is the exchange of American aid for Pakistani help in the fight against Islamic extremists. As imperfect as this relationship is - and as duplicitous as Pakistan’s military can be - a rupture in the alliance would damage counterterrorism operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, undermining a string of successes against Al Qaeda. A rupture would also be a victory for extremists in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state.
Given the stakes involved, the administration’s response has been surprisingly muted. The US military central command launched an investigation into the airstrike, which US officials said took place only after US soldiers came under fire. But a US military investigation is unlikely to sway anyone in Pakistan, where the attack has been described as deliberate and unprovoked. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret over Pakistan’s decision to boycott talks over Afghanistan’s future and over the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers. But her statements hardly seem to reflect the importance that the Obama administration placed on Pakistan just two years ago.
Meanwhile, Pakistanis are understandably shocked by images of their soldiers in coffins, killed by Americans. “We are already virtually at war,’’ Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani ambassador, wrote in a popular newspaper, The News.
Some US officials think it’s only a matter of time before Washington and Islamabad part ways. The CIA quietly shifted its drones to Afghanistan back in April, and the US military has been rerouting increasing amounts of supplies through Uzbekistan. Many American politicians are calling for an end to US aid to Pakistan. That would be a mistake. The Obama administration should do more to explain how costly a break with Pakistan would be, especially as the United States seeks to scale back the war in Afghanistan. If Pakistan is causing trouble in Afghanistan now, as an American ally, imagine what it would do as an enemy.