The recent NATO airstrike on two Pakistani military outposts near the village of Salala have triggered yet another flash point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Officials in Islamabad have reportedly confirmed that at least 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by strikes that involved both NATO helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
The cross-border incident has already claimed its first victims, as the U.S. subleased Shamsi airbase—a launching pad for drones flying over the tribal areas—and the crucial supply routes through Torkham to Western forces in Afghanistan have been sacrificed at the altar. Details of the strike are still shrouded in mystery however, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern over the ramifications the attack will have on the future of an already tumultuous relationship.
The United States and Pakistan have coped with crisis after crisis all year, from the Raymond Davis episode to the raid that killed Usama bin Laden. However, the recent air strike has brought Pakistani anger to a new apex especially since Pakistani blood now stains the soil. Some in Pakistan insist that this is the last straw and that rhetoric should be reinforced with action, implying the immediate severing of ties. But the partnership—as frustrating as it is—is durable and will remain firm into the foreseeable future. Essentially, after the smoke clears and the public diatribes are over, the U.S. and Pakistan will undoubtedly return to business as usual.
Given the Pakistani public’s rampant anti-Americanism, it is standard procedure for Pakistani representatives—both civilian and military—to publicly berate the U.S. when relations hit a critical point in order to preserve their domestic political support bases. Behind the scenes however, the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledge that they have vital overlapping interests including the neutralization of al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the survivability of the CIA drone program. Indeed, these are the nuances of the relationship that nullify the prospect of a full-blown amputation of cooperation between the two.
Both Washington and Islamabad share the ambition to once and for all eliminate al Qaeda from the South Asian region. The terror network, while at first focused mainly on the disillusion of Arab autocracies had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state until former president Musharraf pledged his unflinching support for the U.S.’s War on Terror. Left with no choice but to categorize Pakistan as a kafir state, al Qaeda began engineering the ideological cultivation of Pakistan’s tribal areas after it sought refuge there following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.1
Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella term used to represent a phalanx of radical Islamist militant groups sworn to destroy the Pakistani state and replace it with a system heavily influenced by Sharia law.2 The al Qaeda affiliated TTP is responsible for notable attacks such as the Marriot Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left 54 dead, at least 266 people injured, and a gaping crater sprawled out in the street, and the siege of Mehran Naval base in Karachi earlier this year. The South Asian Terror Portal has also linked the group to a slew of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).
It is hard to believe that Pakistanis would shed a tear if the al Qaeda affiliated TTP were somehow dissolved. Indeed, the CIA’s drone program—operating out of Shamsi—located near the town of Washki in southwestern Pakistan—is tasked to do just that. In a deal forged during the Bush Administration, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. drones to operate on its soil since it would assist in the killing of mutual enemies. These included senior al Qaeda members such as Sheikh Essa and TTP leader Baitullah Meshud, who was later incinerated along with his wife in 2008 by a Hellfire strike from a Predator. The U.S. was quick to accede and Pakistan has benefited from the vanquishing of its adversaries. In short, the Pakistanis want the drone program just as much as the U.S. does as long as it does not disrupt the operations of militants on the ISI payroll like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir. In essence, the Pakistani security establishment knows that the country needs the drones for its own security.
There is also little to fear from Pakistani demands for the CIA to vacate Shamsi and the subsequent closing of the cross-border supply routes. According to Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations, the squeezing of U.S. assets does little harm to U.S. operations in South Asia. It is reasonable to assume that given the nadir of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after JSOC’s foray in Abbottabad that the CIA has prepared for a possible eviction and will wage its drone war elsewhere with Pakistani approval. Naturally, the Pakistanis have demanded the CIA leave the base, not end the drones.
Tom Gjelten at National Public Radio (NPR) also reports that the U.S. is exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of routes from Europe across Central Asia that enter Afghanistan from the north, all avoid running through Pakistan.13 The NDN if successful, would help remove a critical piece of Pakistani leverage over the U.S.
Ultimately, while the death of Pakistani soldiers is tragic, the NATO attack on Salala is but a minor hiccup, leaving the crisis-laden partnership unscathed given the need for mutual cooperation on the counterterrorism front. In the coming days, a series of diplomatic meetings will likely cool Pakistan’s temperature and restore the alliance back to what it once was. Nonetheless, the U.S. and Pakistan are destined to experience these mishaps again and again.
1 Shahzad, Syed S., Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban, London: Pluto Press (2011) p. 8
2 Abbas, Hassan. “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” CTC Sentinel 1, No. 2 (January 2008)
The author is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is currently working on a project detailing the history of US foreign policy towards Pakistan.