A NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers over the weekend has brought U.S.-Pakistani ties to a new level of strain, but experts say it's unlikely to produce a permanent rift in the relationship.
Barely a month ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Islamabad hoping to cement greater Pakistani cooperation to eliminate Taliban safe havens inside its territory. After Saturday's attack, that kind of cooperation appeared to be on indefinite hold.
"Every time we think we've hit rock bottom, we find that there's a bottom beneath that," said Marvin Weinbaum, the head of the Middle East Institute's Pakistan Center.
But relations between the two countries have been far from cordial for months now.
In May, U.S. Special Forces swooped in to kill Osama bin Laden just miles from Islamabad in what Pakistanis viewed as a breach of their national sovereignty. In Washington, finding bin Laden so close to the capital and a major military base raised suspicions that he was being sheltered by elements in Pakistani society.
Next came the September attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. A week later, Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blamed Pakistan's intelligence service for supporting insurgents who carried out the attack.
And now Saturday's attack. The military — which plays a central role in Pakistani society — has taken particular umbrage to the attack, Weinbaum said.
Although civilians have been caught in the cross-border crossfire in the past, the latest incident represents the first time that a large number of Pakistani soldiers have been killed by NATO airstrikes, he said.
Islamabad has complained about the civilian casualties, but "they've been prepared to nevertheless look the other way," Weinbaum said. "But with military casualties, this is going to register far more prominently."
Closing Resupply Routes
The U.S. is slated to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014, but Washington needs Pakistani cooperation to sustain operations at least until then. But hours after Saturday's incident, Islamabad slammed shut key resupply routes for American forces.
It's not the first time Pakistan has closed access to its neighbor in response to U.S. actions, said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. New routes have been opened up through Central Asia for just such a contingency, but in the long term they could prove inadequate, he said.
"We don't have an easy substitute for the Pakistani supply route. You can move through the north, but it is not adequate to meet the needs," Cordesman said.
That's true in the long term, said Weinbaum, but it might take several months for the full effect of the closed routes to be felt.
He said that in the meantime, intelligence-sharing and other types of cooperation at the border may be harder to come by as Pakistan's military and intelligence services give their U.S. counterparts the cold shoulder.
"This hurts our ability to target drones, even though we will be launching most of them, if not all of them, from Afghanistan. We still need help on the ground in the targeting, and that could be affected," he said.
Repairing The Rupture
Getting relations back on an even keel is about more than just keeping supply lines flowing to Afghanistan.
"We're in there through at least 2024, in terms of advice and really substantial amounts of money and military assistance of one sort or another," Cordesman said. "You don't have an end game in 2014."
During Clinton's visit in October, she talked openly of the need to have Pakistan's input in negotiations over the future of the Afghan state. The Pakistanis want a seat at that table, Cordesman said, and that is an incentive for them to keep relations from falling through the floor.
Weinbaum says that the stakes in the region go far beyond the involvement of U.S. combat troops, or even what comes next in Afghanistan.
"Above all, we're concerned about the disposition of [Pakistan's] nuclear arsenal," he said. "We do have a role to play in the country's stability and in ensuring that it doesn't become a jihadi state. If we totally turned our back on this we would, I think, increase the likelihood of that outcome."
Ultimately, Weinbaum said, U.S.-Pakistani relations will likely get through this current crisis intact, if not a bit worse for the wear.
"We'll muddle through," he said. "We have an interest in keeping this relationship going."
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