The joke did not go over well next door. “I view it as an intended insult,” a senior Pakistani military official said of Panetta’s “ridicule” while on the territory of Pakistan’s traditional enemy. Panetta “let it rip again” the next day in Afghanistan, the official said, when he said at a Kabul news conference that the United States was “reaching the limits of our patience with Pakistan.”
“It is not the exclusive domain of the United States to lose its patience,” the Pakistani official said darkly.
Years of mutual mistrust and tactical mistakes, now complicated by upcoming elections in both countries, have brought the strategic relationship between the United States and Pakistan closer than ever to a dead end that neither appears able or willing to avoid.
The Obama administration considers Pakistan key to resolving the Afghan war and wants its nuclear arsenal tethered to a solid U.S. partnership. Pakistan remains dependent on U.S. military and economic assistance and wants a prominent role in whatever happens in Afghanistan.
Yet the two countries appear to have reached a stalemate on issues that have long divided them — from the U.S. use of armed drones on Pakistani territory to Pakistan’s continued harboring of the Taliban and other groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, and countless matters in between.
On Monday, a Pentagon team came home empty-handed from Islamabad after a months-long effort to negotiate the reopening of Pakistani border crossings for the transit of NATO supplies into Afghanistan. While nearly all elements of an agreement are in place, Pakistan has renewed a demand that the United States apologize for the incident that led to the border closing.
The administration has said it “regrets” the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers killed by U.S. airstrikes in an inadvertent border skirmish in November. But a Pentagon investigation found both sides at fault, and the White House, despite State Department urging, has refused to authorize the use of what one U.S. official called “the ‘sorry’ word.”
“It took us by surprise,” a senior administration official said of Pakistan’s renewed demand for an apology. The official said the matter is being debated again by President Obama’s top national security advisers, but there seems little cause for optimism. U.S. and Pakistani officials spoke on the condition of anonymity lest they be blamed for igniting yet another firestorm.
The November incident is only the most recent of repeated clashes and perceived slights over the past 18 months, none of which has been fully resolved. Last year began with the shooting death of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor the administration insisted was a “diplomat,” continued with the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on the Pakistani compound where bin Laden was found to have lived unmolested for six years, and ended with the border air raid.