Unfortunately, in the same way that we don’t get to choose who we interact with out of necessity on a daily basis, the U.S. is similarly not at liberty to pick and choose to whom it must direct its most significant quantities of time and energy. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is one such relationship of necessity and also one that is today demanding as much attention as ever.
As if the relationship had not been troubled enough, ties between the two nations hit an all-time low earlier this week when a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani forces at a post on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It appears the offer of condolences by NATO and U.S. officials will not appease the Pakistani government on this occasion; it has insisted it will now seriously review its cooperation with both parties. It has already shut down two crucial NATO supply routes to Afghanistan which may be a sign of worse to come.
Details of the attack remain unclear. Afghan commandos have stated that they, along with U.S. Special Forces, were conducting an operation near the border when they were fired upon, which then resulted in a retaliatory airstrike. However, Pakistan’s account of events is very different, insisting the strike was unprovoked and lasted up to two hours, despite pleas with NATO leaders to cease the attack.
Whichever version turns out to be true, the implications will be equally damaging to the relationship. The U.S. has little patience left for Pakistan’s persistent duplicity, on the one hand accepting massive amounts of aid from the U.S., yet on the other failing to prove its loyalty in the fight against terrorism within its own borders. Similarly, Pakistan is showing increasing resistance to amicable relations, feeling that the U.S. has repeatedly violated its sovereignty by mounting drone strikes and ground operations in Pakistan without its permission.
The most recent strike is only one of a number of major obstacles to have marred the relationship. A similar attack last year resulted in the deaths of two border guards, while in 2008 an airstrike accidentally killed 11 Pakistani forces who were cooperating with the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Animosity was additionally inflamed last year when CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore and was released after a substantial amount of money was paid to the victims’ families, despite demands in Pakistan that he be charged with murder.
Pakistan, however, has not been an innocent victim in all of this. Major questions were asked about its loyalty to the U.S. in the search for Osama bin Laden after the notorious al-Qaida leader was found within its borders earlier this year. Despite pleading ignorance, suspicions remain that Pakistan was aware of bin Laden’s presence. Pakistan is also suspected of supporting the Haqqani terrorist network that has mounted numerous attacks on U.S. and NATO forces within Afghanistan.
Severing ties with Pakistan, including the roughly $3 billion a year in U.S. financial aid, would appear to be the straightforward strategy. In last week’s Republican debate on national security, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas suggested the U.S. should stop writing “blank checks” to a country that is not representing American interests. However, Michelle Bachmann was right to call Perry “naive,” given the complexity of the situation and unfortunate necessity of the relationship between the two countries.
Pakistan has long been recognized as a crucial partner in rebuilding Afghanistan and stabilizing the South Asian region in general. It is also a critical ally in the fight against terrorism, especially since it became a sanctuary for al-Qaida members fleeing Afghanistan. Furthermore, economic and political instability are ominous signs that Pakistan could end up as a failed state, and given its geopolitical significance, as well as its possession of some 100 nuclear warheads, allowing Pakistan to drop off the radar is not an option for the U.S.
The relationship, then, with all its ups and downs, must be handled with care. The government will be undertaking significant damage control in the coming weeks, another unwelcome distraction from important issues at home, but a positive outcome is vital. The government should certainly not give unconditional support to a country that is itself a major threat to U.S. security; however, the alternative may be significantly worse.