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To be sure, this act by Pakistan does not, by itself, pose a mortal danger to the NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan. NATO can sustain its forces through other overland routes and through air transport (including, interestingly, flights through Russian airspace), though at much greater cost. That being said, given that the Pakistani land routes account for roughly half of the supplies NATO ships into Afghanistan, the disruption, while not immediately fatal, is highly worrisome. As NATO supply convoys have stood idle inside Pakistan, awaiting permission to cross the border, Taliban militants have enjoyed something of a shoot-off, attacking and destroying several large shipments of fuel and supplies badly needed by the forces to the north. American units are attempting to find novel solutions to the disruption to fuel supplies, but a full and proper resolution to the situation will require the cooperation of the Pakistani authorities, both to permit the convoys to proceed into Afghanistan, and to provide increased security to protect them while they remain inside Pakistan.
Towards this end, America has deployed its diplomatic carrots and has apologized on several occasions to Pakistan for the unfortunate loss of their soldiers. This included an official apology by the United States to Pakistan, delivered by Joint Chiefs commander Admiral Mike Mullen to his Pakistani counterpart. Officials on both sides, speaking anonymously, consider it likely that the American apologies will likely be sufficient to permit the pro-American elements within Pakistan’s power structure to begin reopening the border in the near term, which will help put the immediate crisis in the past.
But the fundamental problem remains, which is where America is finding a use for its sticks alongside the carrots. The attacks by unmanned drones have continued. Special operations forces are reported to be actively, and heavily, engaged in northern Pakistan, seeking out and destroying terror cells and then slipping quietly back into the night. (The New York Times reports that sometimes as many as a dozen attacks are launched inside Pakistan each night.) General Petraeus, commanding all Allied forces inside Afghanistan, has also apparently made clear the willingness (and increasingly ability, thanks to the surge) of the Allied forces to invade Pakistan and take the fight directly to the Taliban in their traditional safe havens.
It is unlikely that NATO will choose to invade Pakistan, at least in any large operations. Pakistan is already unstable enough, not to mention nuclear-armed, and large numbers of foreign troops storming its territory, even in an anti-terrorism operation, could easily lead to catastrophe. And the Obama administration is more interested in ending wars than launching new ones. But recent events have served to remind both sides of their interests. Pakistan has certainly reminded the West that its sovereignty must be respected and that they control the routes in Afghanistan. But by invading its airspace and continuing to build up troops in Afghanistan, the Allies are showing Pakistan just as clearly that our needs in the theater are vital and that we will not tolerate Taliban militants destabilizing Afghanistan from inside Pakistani territory.
For now, Pakistan and the West need each other. But given how unstable Pakistan is, and how dangerous that part of the world can be, no one should be surprised if the future brings rapid, dangerous change. Our fighting in Pakistan may just be beginning.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.
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