Helicopter Strike Strains Tense U.S.-Pakistan Ties

Pakistani security personnel stand beside trucks carrying NATO supplies at Torkham, Pakistan. i i

Pakistani security personnel stand beside trucks carrying NATO supplies at Torkham, the main border crossing in Pakistan's Khyber district, on Oct. 1. Pakistan halted the convoys on Sept. 30 after officials blamed cross-border NATO helicopter fire for the deaths of three Pakistani soldiers. A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani security personnel stand beside trucks carrying NATO supplies at Torkham, Pakistan.

Pakistani security personnel stand beside trucks carrying NATO supplies at Torkham, the main border crossing in Pakistan's Khyber district, on Oct. 1. Pakistan halted the convoys on Sept. 30 after officials blamed cross-border NATO helicopter fire for the deaths of three Pakistani soldiers.

A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has apologized to Pakistan for a helicopter airstrike last week that killed at least two Pakistani soldiers.

A joint U.S.-Pakistan investigation found that U.S. forces mistook the Pakistani soldiers for insurgents. The incident prompted Pakistan to close an important border crossing for NATO supplies into Afghanistan and has frayed relations between Washington and Islamabad.

This is not the first time relations between the two countries have soured, says Teresita Schaffer, the director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pakistan may be a critical partner for the U.S., but the alliance has long been fragile and marked with mistrust.

'Increased Difficulty'

"I don't believe the U.S.-Pakistan relations have ever spent much time on a steady trajectory," Schaffer said. "It's been a turbulent relationship really going back to the 1950s. And we're obviously in a period of increased difficulty."

Schaffer says that "increased difficulty" now stems from U.S. pressure on Pakistan to root out militants on its soil, particularly in North Waziristan province. The area is a key staging ground for cross-border attacks on U.S. and NATO soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan, and a sanctuary for members of al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani network, an independent insurgent group in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is closely allied with the Taliban.

Eradicating those militant safe havens is vital to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

Pakistan Seeks Political Resolution

Shuja Nawaz, the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, says the Obama administration is under pressure to show progress in its strategy, and so is pushing Pakistan hard to go after the Taliban sanctuaries.

"The U.S., because of its pressure of a timetable for beginning a transition out of Afghanistan will want Pakistan to act rapidly to deny the Afghan Taliban their sanctuaries," Nawaz said. "That is not going to be possible for Pakistan on the U.S. timetable."

Nawaz says Pakistan believes there should be less emphasis on military operations and more focus on political resolution.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Pakistan has other reasons for hesitating to go after Afghan militants in North Waziristan. It wants to use those militants as leverage if the U.S. does begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next July.

"They didn't really want to move against the Haqqani network because they see that as a hedge against the event of precipitous American withdrawal from Afghanistan next year," O'Hanlon said.

Escalating Drone Attacks

He says that President Obama has not yet managed to convince many Pakistanis that the U.S. is in Afghanistan for the long haul, so the Pakistanis want that hedge.

O'Hanlon says the recent floods that devastated many areas of Pakistan both hampered — and gave the military an excuse for not launching — an offensive against militants in North Waziristan. O'Hanlon says that hasn't stopped the U.S. from pushing ahead on its own.

"What you're seeing, I believe, in this kind of a situation in the last few weeks is the United States deciding that we have to do a little bit more against these sanctuaries along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border even if the Pakistanis don't agree and don't want to help," he said.

Over the past few weeks, the U.S. has sharply escalated its drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan. Pakistan tolerates — some say cooperates — with the drone attacks but does not allow the U.S. to carry out any other military operations in its territory. But last week, U.S. helicopters, operating under NATO auspices, crossed into Pakistani airspace and launched a series of attacks.

'A Dangerous Move'

Nawaz, of the Atlantic Council, says those incursions are cause for serious concern in Islamabad. "The fact that there have been a number of actual incursions by helicopters is not a good sign; it means the U.S. is trying to, or NATO is trying to, push the envelope, and that is kind of a dangerous move to make because it could force Pakistan to react," he said.

The reaction to the helicopter attacks was swift. Pakistan closed a critical border crossing for NATO supply convoys heading into Afghanistan. However fraught relations between the two countries are at the moment, it is clear each side needs the other. Pakistan receives billions of dollars in American aid, and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for the region, says the U.S. has to find a way to work with Pakistan.

"Success in Afghanistan, however you define success, is not achievable unless Pakistan is part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said, adding that it doesn't mean the relationship isn't without its frustrations.

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