U.S. strikes against the Taliban on its home turf may just be the beginning.
In diplomacy, it is important to be armed with carrots as well as sticks. In recent days, the United States has been using both in its attempts to get its relationship with Pakistan back on track. The uneasy but vital alliance was rocked by the recent deaths of three Pakistani soldiers, killed by friendly fire from American helicopters that had invaded Pakistan’s territory to engage Taliban forces operating there. The Pakistani troops, stationed at a border monitoring station, witnessed the battle between the American Apache helicopters and the militants (who were wiped out) and when the helicopters approached their position, the Pakistani soldiers unwisely fired warning shots. The American gunships, mistaking the warning shots for hostile fire, engaged with missiles. The resulting deaths have placed a serious strain on an already frightfully complex relationship.
Pakistan is a troubled nation, with deeply divided loyalties. It cannot be said to have one true central government, as it is ruled by a turbulent combination of military officers, elected civilian officials, intelligence agents and, increasingly, Islamic extremist radicals and tribal warlords. These various groups are constantly competing against each other, and working with or against the Western Allies, as they see fit. Cooperating with the West, when there is cooperation, is not a matter of ideology or of shared goals, but simply of mutual necessity.
While struggling with modernization, Islamic insurgencies, natural disasters and constantly keeping an eye on its chief rival, nuclear-armed India, Pakistan cannot afford to be our enemy. But nor can such a divided country really be our friend. Given Pakistan’s extremely valuable strategic location, however, directly south of the primary front of the war against Islamism in Afghanistan, the preservation of a working relationship with Islamabad is, frustratingly, essential.
The friendly fire incident that set off this latest crisis, while an unusually serious event, did not happen in isolation. President Obama, who has gone far out on a political limb by taking ownership of the war in Afghanistan, has ramped up the pressure on enemy forces seeking refuge in the largely lawless northern PakistanI tribal areas, including an ever-growing number of missile attacks by unmanned Predator drones on terrorists inside Pakistan. These attacks were deeply troubling to Pakistan, and embarrassing to its military. An actual invasion by manned aircraft, resulting in the deaths of Pakistani soldiers, was too much for it to take, and last week, Pakistan shut down a vital overland crossing from its territory into Afghanistan. This route is key for NATO’s efforts to resupply its combat forces currently waging war against the Taliban in the American and Canadian operational areas to the south of Kandahar City.
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.