A Hot Flash in the Cold War With Pakistan

A NATO attack kills 24 Pakistani soldiers and Pakistan responds by closing U.S. supply routes into Afghanistan. Is the relationship between Washington and Islamabad about to disintegrate?

The relationship between Pakistan and the United States is, for both sides, like a raw nerve that keeps getting exposed. And at a tenuous time too: the NATO coalition in Afghanistan that errantly killed at least 24 Pakistanis on Friday is relying on Pakistan's help to broker peace negotiations between militants and the Afghan government as the coalition prepares to withdraw. The U.S. claims to be on the verge of defeating al-Qaida's core, thanks to the latest bombardment by unmanned armed drones launched from Shamsi Air Base inside Pakistan.

What happened is still not clear. Because insurgents so often attack Afghanistan from the relative safe haven of Pakistan, the two countries have a border alert system that allows commanders to warn the other side if troops are operating in an area. But it wasn't used this time, perhaps because NATO commanders don't trust the Pakistanis manning border positions, many of whom have ties to militants, not to expose the location of NATO troops. The Pakistani government counters that the two checkpoints where most of the Pakistani soldiers died were well-marked on U.S. maps.

A familiar cycle of recriminations has begun in Pakistan: the press is using the incident to once again question why Pakistan keeps re-engaging with its own ally from hell, the United States, even though the U.S. seems to demonstrate a complete lack of respect for Pakistani sovereignty, much less for the tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers who have been killed fighting a common enemy. Pakistan has shut down supply routes into Afghanistan, about as direct a punishment as there can be. It won't affect the war in Afghanistan much in the short-term, because NATO has several months worth of pre-stocked supplies, a contingency designed to anticipate cyclic breakdowns in the Pakistani-U.S. relationship. Further, it has asked the military and the C.I.A. to vacate Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan, where about half of U.S. military and intelligence activities inside Pakistan are coordinated.

The U.S. government is urging calm, both privately and publicly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called President Asif Ali Zardari, asking for forbearance and offering an apology. A rare joint statement from the Departments of Defense and State stopped short of apologizing, since NATO hasn't figured out what provoked the shootings, and included a pointed reminder to Pakistan that it is in their "mutual interest" to maintain a relationship. The backdrop to this incident is what's known in the country as "Memo-gate." Husain Haqqani resigned last week as the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan after being accused of using an intermediary to suggest to the U.S. military that it participate in a coup to enshrine a pro-American civilian government inside Pakistan. Whatever denials come out of Washington, Pakistanis believe it, and the government, which dips into anti-American sentiment whenever it needs a booster shot of legitimacy, has opened several investigations.

Meanwhile here, a chorus of American lawmakers called on Sunday for tougher diplomacy against Pakistan. President Obama has said nothing so far, which is may be the most galling to Pakistan. As much as it pains U.S. officials to admit it, when they step into the shoes of the average Pakistani, there is not much to like about our country. A large amount of the money sent in aid is consumed by the army, which lives well in an otherwise poor country. Strategically, the U.S. seems only concerned about Pakistani vis-à-vis its geographic proximity to Afghanistan and as a stick in the eye of India, with whom the U.S. is establishing a strategic partnership to counter Chinese influence in the region. Pakistan sees itself as a U.S. stepping stone to something else.

And yet this incident will not end the relationship. Pakistan's Army, which runs the country, needs its money, and at the same time as it publicly creates a vision of the U.S. as an enemy, relishes the direct contact it has with leaders of the world's most powerful country. Pakistan is playing a significant, unheralded role in semi-secret peace talks between factions on both sides of the border, even as it plays factions against once another, gambling to see who will have influence when Americans leave.

What's needed is probably what will be forthcoming: humility from NATO, a series of hurried and contentious private meetings, and a return to the cold war that, just barely, justifies the interest each side has in maintaining ties to the another.