By Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 9:10 PM
Political upheaval in Pakistan and a sudden rupture in relations with the United States have heightened the Obama administration's concern about the stability of a crucial partner in its Afghanistan war strategy.
Pakistani authorities closed the principal U.S. military supply route into Afghanistan on Thursday in response to an early morning U.S. airstrike that they said killed three Pakistani soldiers. A Foreign Ministry statement demanded "immediate and full explanation of this serious incident," the latest in a series of air incursions that have occurred amid a sharp spike in CIA drone attacks inside Pakistan.
A Pentagon spokesman said that the airstrike was under investigation.
Thursday's events came within the context of ongoing political disruption in Pakistan, where the unpopular civilian government is under siege for corruption and incompetence in dealing with floods that have left millions homeless.
U.S. officials pointed to recent signs that Pakistan's powerful army and opposition parties are positioning themselves to install a new civilian government to replace President Asif Ali Zardari and his prime minister in the coming months. In a meeting with them Monday, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani "conveyed the concerns of the people" in no uncertain terms, according to a senior Pakistani security official.
"There's a fair degree of disarray," said one of several administration officials who discussed the increasingly tense situation on condition of anonymity. "The government can't really handle the crisis of the flood, and there's lots of political jockeying" as government and opposition figures look for advantage in a potential new lineup.
U.S. officials indicated that the administration has begun to contemplate the effects of a change, engineered through Zardari's resignation as head of his political party, the dissolution of the current coalition government, or a call for new elections under the Pakistani constitution, rather than any overt action by the military. Some suggested that a new, constitutionally-approved government that was more competent and popular, and had strong military backing, might be better positioned to support U.S. policies.
None of the officials had a clear sense of who might head such a government. Although Nawaz Sharif, head of the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has grown increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Zardari, U.S. and Pakistani officials and analysts said it was unlikely he would be interested in taking over the government at this point.
"The best outcome here is that the instability will be taken advantage of by the military in ways that aren't bad, getting rid of lots of cronies" who currently fill government positions, the administration official said.Worse-case scenario
From the U.S. point of view, he said, the worst-case scenario would be an attempt by Pakistan's Supreme Court to oust Zardari by revoking his immunity from prosecution in a dated Swiss money-laundering case that could render his 2008 election illegal and throw the government into chaos. Scheduled to rule last Monday, the court has postponed action for two more weeks.
"If things happen in a constitutional way, there is no burning issue here," a second U.S. official said. "At the end of the day, we're committed to a civilian government and a constitutional process. . . . But if the [political] crisis becomes a distraction" to the war effort or crucial flood reconstruction, "or becomes destabilizing and brings people into the streets - something that could very well happen - that's not a good thing. "
Although President Obama's war-fighting strategy is focused on Afghanistan, the administration has long believed that Pakistan is the key to success in vanquishing the Taliban and eliminating al-Qaeda's activities in the region. Both groups, and numerous allied organizations, are based in the Pakistani border area, where the Pakistani military and intelligence service see them as a hedge against an unfriendly government in Afghanistan and have resisted U.S. entreaties to launch all-out attacks against them.Soaring public criticism
The administration has poured massive amounts of military and economic assistance into Pakistan, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in flood aid that U.S. officials believed had begun to reverse widespread anti-American feeling among the Pakistani public. It has assiduously courted the Pakistani military hierarchy, sending top military and intelligence officials for regular meetings with their Pakistani counterparts.
Pakistan has privately agreed to the highly unpopular U.S. drone attacks against suspected terrorists and insurgents but publicly denounces them. U.S. officials have said they understand that the criticism is necessary for a beleaguered government that worries about appearing too close to the Americans.
But a sharp September spike in the attacks, along with the helicopter incursions over the past week, have sent public and media criticism soaring and strained relations both publicly and privately.
"It's been building up," a senior Pakistani government official said of the bad feelings. "On the one hand, there is a genuine comfort level and a feeling of partnership - at least on the surface. But the Pakistan government and military are feeling very frustrated. They feel they are doing all they can in a very complicated domestic setup - a fragile democracy, more fragile after the floods - and that the U.S. doesn't really care about anything besides [its own] needs. They are not true partners."
Wednesday's helicopter incursion appeared to have crossed a line for the Pakistanis that "could lead to some very serious consequences," a senior Pakistani military officer said. The Americans, he said, "underestimate the reaction" to something that "amounts to no more and no less than attacking the Pakistani army."'Allies or enemies'
According to a Pakistani military statement, the attack occurred at 5:25 a.m. at the Mandata Kandaho border post manned by six Frontier Corps soldiers about 600 feet inside Upper Khurram agency, a part of the tribal region that borders Afghanistan's insurgent-heavy Khost province.
The Pakistanis said that after U.S. helicopters "engaged through cannon fire" with the post, the soldiers fired warning shots with their rifles. The helicopters responded with two missiles that destroyed the post, killing three soldiers and wounding the rest.
Within hours, Pakistan had ordered the nearby border crossing at Torkham closed and NATO supply trucks were idling there, according to transporters stuck at the pass and officials in the region. The pass, which lies north of Peshawar, is the main entry point for U.S. and NATO fuel and supplies transported from the Pakistani port of Karachi over land into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani parliament unanimously condemned the attacks and Interior Minister Rehman Malik said of the Americans, "we will have to see if we are allies or enemies." The foreign ministry statement said that Pakistan's ambassador to Brussels had been instructed to lodge a strong protest at NATO headquarters.
"Incursions and strikes of this nature are not only unacceptable but could oblige Pakistan to consider response options," the statement said. The government did not officially announce the border closure, leading some U.S. officials to believe it was only a temporary measure.
A NATO spokesman in Afghanistan said the helicopters were launched after ground troops in Afghanistan's Paktiya province determined that a cross-border mortar attack by insurgents was imminent. "Operating in self-defense, the aircraft entered into Pakistani airspace, killing several armed individuals," Lt. Col. John Dorrian said.
It was not clear whether that was the same incursion that Pakistan said killed its soldiers. "We're still investigating whether we're talking about one incident or two," a senior Defense official said.
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted that the Pakistanis acknowledged that their forces opened rifle fire on NATO helicopters, apparently as a warning not to cross the border. "You fire at a helicopter in a combat zone, you know, they usually take that as hostile and return fire," Lapan told reporters.
It was unclear whether any senior U.S. officials in Washington had contacted their Pakistani counterparts on Thursday to discuss the incident. CIA Director Leon Panetta, in Islamabad this week on a previously scheduled visit, met with Zardari on Thursday. A statement from Zardari's office said the president had told Panetta that "the government of Pakistan strongly disapproves any incident of violation of its sovereignty."
The Obama administration's Pakistan policy has its own domestic difficulties. Many in Congress have grown impatient with what they see as the administration's coddling of Pakistan despite its foot-dragging against the militant sanctuaries. Human rights organizations have cited the Pakistani military for abuses in its fight against domestic insurgents, criticisms that are likely to increase with the emergence on YouTube this week of a video that purports to show Pakistani soldiers summarily executing a row of blind-folded men in civilian dress.
U.S. law prohibits assistance to any foreign military units shown to have engaged in such abuses. A U.S. official suggested it was the least of the administration's current worries on Pakistan, but said that if the video were authenticated it "could be fairly cataclysmic."
A Pakistani intelligence official said the video was being investigated by "experts," but expressed skepticism about its authenticity. "Anyone could wear the military uniforms and carry out such an act to malign the army," the official said.
Brulliard reported from Islamabad. Ernesto Londono in Kabul, Craig Whitlock in Washington, and special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.