NATO's alleged deadly airstrike on two Pakistani military posts last Saturday has left US-Pakistan relations in tatters.
The murky details complicated matters even more, with Pakistani officials saying the attack on two Pakistani border posts was unprovoked and Afghan officials asserting that Afghan and American commandos called in airstrikes after coming under fire from Pakistani territory.
The sharp spike in tensions threw fresh doubt on US efforts to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in rooting out militants on its side of the Afghan border and in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table to try to wind down the 10-year-old war.
Current and former US officials said the timing of the crisis couldn't be worse for the Obama administration, which plans to accelerate the drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan next year and then possibly shift to a more limited train, advise and assist mission. A sustained breakdown in cooperation with Pakistan could make it more difficult for the US to make and sustain security gains, particularly in eastern provinces, and thereby make it harder to pull out.
NATO has said it is conducting an investigation to determine the details of the Saturday airstrikes. The alliance has not commented on Pakistani claims that the attacks killed 24 soldiers, but it also has not questioned them.
A key question to be examined by the US is who approved the airstrikes and why.
The attack could become the deadliest friendly fire incident against Pakistani troops since the war began a decade ago. It also raises serious questions about the extent of cooperation between supposed close allies in fighting terrorism.
NATO officials previously have complained that insurgents fire from across the poorly defined frontier, often from positions close to Pakistani soldiers, who have been accused of tolerating or supporting them.
The incident threatens to send US-Pakistani relations to an all-time low.
"No first fire came from Pakistan troops," said a senior Pakistani military official. "But they did respond in self-defense after NATO gunship helicopters and jet fighters carried out unprovoked firing."
In retaliation, Pakistan indefinitely shut NATO supply lines through the country and said it was re-evaluating its military, intelligence and diplomatic links with the US. Authorities there gave the US two weeks to pull out of a Pakistani air base that Washington has used in the past to launch drone strikes on Taliban militants, attacks that have become increasingly unpopular among Pakistani people.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, communicated her "deep sense of rage" for the attack, which she said had set back efforts to improve relations, Pakistan's foreign ministry said.
US officials were already reeling in the wake of the raid in May on Osama bin Laden's hideout in a Pakistani garrison town. The Pakistan government was outraged it had not been told about the operation beforehand, and US secrecy surrounding the operation underscored a deep mistrust between the two allies.
Furor surrounding a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has prompted very different assessments of future US-Pakistani ties from two high-ranking American senators.
The Senate’s number-two Republican, Jon Kyl of Arizona, says Pakistan remains a critical partner in America’s war on terrorism.
“It is very important to maintain the relationship for the long haul,” said Mr. Kyl.
One Republican presidential contender weighed in with a different perspective. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman says the United States should be prepared to seek a new strategic partner in South Asia.
“I would recognize exactly what the US-Pakistani relationship has become, which is merely a transactional relationship," he said. "And I think our expectations have to be very, very low in terms of what we can get out of the relationship. I think, we thought we could get more, and we have been proven wrong time and time again.”
US and NATO officials have offered condolences to Pakistan for the airstrike.
A week after the incident, President Obama phoned Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zadari to offer condolences for the deaths of the soldiers. President Obama's phonecall to President Zadari stopped short of a formal apology and he made it clear that the airstirke was not a deliberate attack on Pakistan. Analysts noted that although the two Presidents affirmed their commitment to the US- Pakistan bilateral relationship, a phonecall alone will not appease public anger in Pakistan.
Report: Airstrike Ravages US- Pakistan Ties [The Wall Street Journal, 28 Nov 2011]
Analysis: In Fog of War, Rift Widens Between US and Pakistan [ The New York Times, 27 Nov 2011]
Report: Obama expresses 'condolences' to Pakistan's president [CNN, 5 Dec 2011]