Patching up ties between Pakistan and U.S. not a given this time

Pakistan and the United States have been here before: a crisis followed by saber rattling, recriminations — and moves behind the scenes to patch things up.

This time feels different.

The rage coursing through Pakistani society over the Nov. 26 airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers suggests there may be permanent damage to a relationship already scarred this year by the killing of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor, and by the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Public pressure to disengage from the U.S. is higher than ever, and it comes at a time when Washington needs Pakistani help to disengage from Afghanistan. Fiercely anti-American voices such as former cricket star Imran Khan are finding ways to channel the anger seething on the streets.


Khan has been a fringe player in Pakistani politics, but his popularity has skyrocketed amid widespread frustration with President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been unable to rein in corruption and get the economy moving.

The day after the airstrike, Khan told thousands of people at a rally in the southern city of Ghotki that Pakistan was paying too high a price for its involvement with the United States.

“I am telling this government that this is the time to withdraw from this American war,” Khan told the crowd. “We don’t even know what we are achieving through this war, and neither do the Americans. They are wandering in the dark, and their slaves here in Pakistan are following their orders.”

Khan and other opposition leaders are tapping anti-American sentiments at a sensitive moment. The government has been further tainted by recent charges that the civilian leadership sought Washington’s help in forestalling a possible military coup after the Bin Laden killing.

Zardari’s pro-U.S. government has been forced to take a harder line against Washington.

“Khan is speaking the language of the streets,” said Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based security analyst. “If you’re a politician and you’re disconnected with the streets, you’re in trouble. Any politician who speaks against what the prevailing sentiment is in the country today is done for.”

Diplomacy and billions of dollars in aid have helped the U.S. and Pakistan maintain their tense partnership through the decadelong war in Afghanistan. The U.S. argues that Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan, is at risk from Islamic militancy. The government has tacitly permitted continuation of Washington’s campaign of drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt near the Afghan border despite strong public opposition.

The U.S. also needs Pakistan’s help bringing Taliban commanders and their allies to the negotiating table as America begins to withdraw with an eye toward handing responsibility for security to the Afghan government in 2014.

But many U.S. officials doubt that Pakistan is totally committed to battling Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their affiliates. Some elements of the Pakistani security apparatus are widely thought to cooperate with the militants, regarding them as a useful proxy for extending influence into Afghanistan and countering Pakistan’s traditional rival, India.

Pakistanis question their country’s alliance with the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks, saying it has made Pakistan a target for suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed more than 4,000 people. And many Pakistanis are suspicious that the United States will abandon the country after America pulls out of Afghanistan, much as it did after assisting the insurgents battling the Soviet army there in the 1980s.

The level of anti-American fervor that has welled up within the ranks of the country’s military is an especially difficult problem.

Brigadiers, colonels and other high-ranking officers are putting pressure on the military’s powerful leader, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, to radically reduce cooperation with the U.S. in counter-terrorism and in Afghanistan, experts say.

That pressure was intense in the weeks after the Bin Laden raid, and the airstrike last weekend rekindled it.

“Kayani has to command his troops at a time when there is a lot of anguish among the soldiers and the public about relations with the U.S., and a lot of questions about what are we fighting for, and what are we sacrificing lives for,” said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general.

“This creates a huge challenge for Kayani and the military leadership,” Masood said. “That’s why they’re trying to steer the whole event in such a way that it pacifies the troops as well as the public.”

The U.S. is still combing through communication logs and other evidence to piece together how and why the attack occurred, the Pakistani military has publicly concluded that the airstrike was unprovoked and deliberate.

At a briefing for Pakistani journalists and analysts this week, military leaders said NATO helicopters fired on the soldiers shortly after midnight, departed and then returned to attack once more despite a call from Pakistani commanders to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization saying that the checkpoints under fire belonged to the Pakistani army.

They said they expected that the U.S. investigation would be biased, or wouldn’t uncover what actually happened, said Masood, who attended the briefing.

U.S. and Afghan officials have said a team of Afghan and coalition troops conducting a nighttime operation on the Afghan side of the border came under fire from the direction of the checkpoints and called in air support. Masood said he doubted that the U.S. would deliberately target Pakistani troops.

“Could the Americans, when they need Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan, launch a deliberate aggression against Pakistan?” he said. “It seems to me to be nonsense.”

But Zardari’s government is showing no sign of softening its stance. It has already shut down border crossings used by convoys delivering supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, and ordered the U.S. to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that has been suspected of being a launchpad for CIA drone attacks. This week, Pakistan announced that it would boycott an international conference on Monday in Bonn, Germany, to discuss Afghanistan’s future.

In previous crises, Pakistan’s willingness to find common ground with Washington has been influenced by the flow of U.S. aid, which opposition leaders are now urging the government to jettison. Many Pakistanis think China could fill the void.

“If the U.S. refuses to give aid, this would be God’s greatest blessing: to free Pakistan from the curse of aid,” Khan told the crowd in Ghotki.

U.S. officials have urged Islamabad to be patient and wait for the outcome of their investigation. They have also emphasized the danger of allowing the airstrike, albeit tragic, to derail the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

“Nothing will be gained by turning our backs on mutually beneficial cooperation,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday in South Korea.

Pakistani leaders have made it clear that they want radical changes in the relationship.

“Business as usual will not be there,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told CNN this week. “We have to have something bigger that satisfies my nation.”

Gilani and his government have yet to spell out what that means, and it’s unclear whether the U.S. can do anything to satisfy Pakistani public opinion.

Sehgal, the security analyst, describes himself as pro-American, but said that even he was disgusted by the Nov. 26 attack. “What do you think the man on the street feels?”