U.S. Needs Pakistan To Attain Afghan Goals

U.S.-Pakistan relations have suffered another blow after NATO airstrikes on the Afghan border left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. The cross-border attack by NATO aircraft came at a critical juncture in relations. The two nations were just starting to warm up to each other after a year of serious military and diplomatic setbacks.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pakistan has announced it is pulling out of a long-planned international conference led by the U.S. on the future of Afghanistan. That's a big blow to the conference and it shows how relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have reached a new low after that weekend attack which left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.

NATO airstrikes hit two remote Pakistani military bases along the border with Afghanistan. NATO and U.S. officials say their troops were fired on. Islamabad says it was an unprovoked attack. And both NATO and the U.S. have launched investigations. NPR's Jackie Northam has more.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The cross-border attack by NATO aircraft came at a critical juncture in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The two countries were just starting to warm up to each other after a year of serious military and diplomatic setbacks that left both sides wary and distrustful. But Vali Nasr, with Tufts University, says this latest deadly incident comes at a time when the U.S. dependence on Pakistan is growing.

VALI NASR: We have a set of goals that we have set before ourselves for Afghanistan, and those increasingly need a positive relationship with Pakistan. So we're caught in a bad situation in which just as our need is increasing, this relationship is falling apart.

NORTHAM: As the 2014 NATO drawdown from Afghanistan nears, the U.S. is looking to Pakistan to both help root out the Taliban and its allies in the border region and to get militants to the negotiating table. Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani, said the NATO attack was a setback to that effort.

Senior administration officials quickly called their Pakistani counterparts to express condolences and assure them investigations would be launched. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington is concerned about the impact of the attack, but that it's a relationship that has weathered significant setbacks in the past.

MARK TONER: It's one that's also, through every challenge and through every setback, has moved forward because it's so vitally important to both our countries.

NORTHAM: Hassan Abbas, with the Asia Society, says it's unlikely Pakistan will break with the U.S. Washington pumps billions of dollars into the country in military and economic aid. Abbas says this latest crisis will only sow more distrust between Washington and Islamabad, but the relationship isn't based on common bonds or friendship.

HASSAN ABBAS: This is about interests. If their interests will converge, the relationship can be repaired and they will both be able to at least work together.

NORTHAM: But the problem is that the U.S. and Pakistan often have different foreign policy and national security goals, says Tom Johnson with the Naval Postgraduate School.

TOM JOHNSON: I think that it's very important for both Islamabad and Washington to recognize where our national security interests merge and where they part. And I think that there's been a real tendency in both countries to look at the others and think that they should fall in line with their own policies, and that's just not the case.

NORTHAM: But each crisis serves to weaken Pakistan's leadership, says Vali Nasr, with Tufts University. He says people in Pakistan see America violating their sovereignty.

NASR: We forget that the Pakistani public is increasingly angry at this course of action by the United States, and we run the risk of even the government and the military in Pakistan no longer having the political capital or the maneuvering room to cooperate with us even if they wanted to.

NORTHAM: The U.S. is putting a lot of stock in an international conference in Bonn, aimed at drawing up a roadmap to end the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan is pulling out of the conference.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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