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.
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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.