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Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) burn a US flag during a protest in Multan on November 28, 2011, against a NATO strike on Pakistan troops. (S.S. MIRZA/S.S. MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) burn a US flag during a protest in Multan on November 28, 2011, against a NATO strike on Pakistan troops. (S.S. MIRZA/S.S. MIRZA/AFP/Getty Images)

A breaking point or a turning point for U.S.-Pakistani relations? Add to ...

Just how angry is Pakistan? It may seem like a repetitive question. Making guesses about the backlash from what is often called “the world’s most dangerous country” has become an entire industry for analysts, in a year filled with tense moments between Islamabad and its purported allies.

But the NATO air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border early Saturday morning have provided a moment of serious reflection about how much further those relationships can deteriorate. A columnist for The Guardian suggests that this foreshadows an outright war between the United States and Pakistan; the military-linked Pakistani newspaper The Nation says that Islamabad must quit the war on terrorism; and even the moderate Express Tribune emphasizes that this incident show how U.S. and Pakistani interests clash.

Protesters in the streets are calling for an end to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, and Pakistan’s chief military spokesman is sending foreboding messages to major news organizations, warning of “ serious consequences.

NATO authorities promise a full investigation, and several competing claims have emerged about what happened at those border posts in the mountains, but at this point neither side is likely to believe the other’s version of events. The mistrust is well-founded: Afghanistan does not recognize the legitimacy of the border, which is not clearly marked, and it’s widely believed that Afghan intelligence runs operations in the neighbouring territory.

The United States sends unmanned drones and the occasional special forces team into Pakistan, without acknowledging those incursions. Pakistan runs even bigger secret operations than the other two combined, allegedly maintaining links with the militant groups in that part of the border region. The large number of armed men clambering around those rocks with different agendas has already resulted in dozens of border skirmishes in recent years. Most have been quickly dismissed as accidents, or misunderstandings, but the scale of this incident produced a flood of media coverage that is proving hard to ignore (this YouTube clip gives the best sense of the aftermath).

Pakistan initially reacted the way it usually does when U.S. attacks grab attention in the border areas: by shutting down the transit routes for military supplies into Afghanistan. But it also went a step further by announcing the expulsion of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency from an airfield in the southwest, used for the drone program. The political fallout could also affect the Dec. 5 conference in Bonn, Germany, where all players in the Afghan war were scheduled to sit down and discuss solutions to the conflict.

Now, with Pakistan threatening to pull out of the conference, those talks seem more fragile than ever – and U.S. hopes of securing Pakistani cooperation for its 2014 handover plans in Afghanistan appear to be fading.

Kamran Bokhari, vice-president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs for the consulting firm Stratfor, says journalists have been calling him to ask whether this incident marks some kind of breaking point in the fraught U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

“I could probably accept this is a turning point,” Mr. Bokhari said, by telephone from Islamabad. “But this talk in the media, do you think this is the last straw? I don’t think that’s the case. There’s no way of going around the fact that both sides need each other. That’s a reality. But is it a turning point? Yes.”

Pakistan depends on billions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid, and fears a return to the isolation that followed the previous major withdrawal of U.S. presence in the region at the end of the 1980s proxy war against the Soviet Union. For its part, the United States relies on two Pakistani border crossings as shipment routes for the majority of the fuel, food, and other supplies for military bases in Afghanistan. The U.S. also needs Pakistan’s quiet cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts, and permission for aircraft crossing its skies.

But the anger inside Pakistan could make it difficult for that relationship to continue as before, Mr. Bokhari said, because military and civilian leaders will face internal dissent if they fail to muster a strong response.

“There’s a lot of public pressure building up,” he said. “What kind of message is going out if they don’t do something about this? What would happen if they were to say, ‘Oh well, this is the latest in a series of setbacks.’ The message to the officers and soldiers would be that this leadership is impotent, and that would open the door to criticism from within and splits within the military. Same with the civilian leadership, they could lose a lot of support.”

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