U.S.-Pakistan relations further strained after airstrike

Pakistani police said more oil tankers intended to supply NATO forces in Afghanistan have been attacked. Around 20 burned in a terminal near the capital Islamabad early Monday.
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:30 AM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - U.S. officials in Pakistan have spent much of the past year toiling to bolster the country's elected government and perhaps improve the United States' image along the way. But much of the progress made toward those goals may have been swept away with the firing of two NATO missiles last week, officials and politicians here said.

The helicopter strike, which Pakistan says killed three of its soldiers, is widely seen here as proof that the U.S. alliance with Pakistan is based solely on self-serving security interests. And it may have put the United States in the position of destabilizing the weak government it wants to fortify, by giving President Asif Ali Zardari's many critics another reason to say he is allowing Pakistan to be an American pawn.

It did not help that the airstrike came at the end of a month in which the CIA targeted Pakistan's militant-riddled tribal areas with a record number of drone strikes, which are secretly sanctioned by Pakistan but deeply unpopular. It also followed reports, confirmed by Pakistani officials, depicting the powerful army chief and U.S. officials as trying to play puppet master by presenting Zardari with lists of incompetent ministers and aides they think should be dismissed to improve governance.

A joint investigation into the airstrike is underway, with results expected to be released sometime Wednesday. U.S. and Pakistani officials said the incident had strained but not fractured the nations' relationship. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said the allies are "working energetically" to resolve the issues.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell struck an upbeat tone with reporters earlier this week, saying that the relationship between the Pentagon and the Pakistani military is "stronger than it has ever been."

Privately, though, the Obama administration and U.S. military have appeared exasperated by Pakistan's response to last week's missile strike. Senior military officials eschewed the effusive apologies and compensation that normally follow inadvertent coalition killings of civilians, noting that the three killed were not civilians and that the United States is not in the habit of compensating the families of soldiers who fire on U.S. forces. The officials said no substantive move will be taken until the probe is completed.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for Zardari, said Tuesday that Pakistan is satisfied with the U.S. response. In the public's eyes, though, she said, the incident "only bolsters the arguments and popularity of the terrorists." The Taliban has asserted responsibility for a string of retaliatory attacks on NATO supply convoys.

On Wednesday, a new convoy attack was reported in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Gunmen killed a driver and burned as many as 25 oil tankers bound for NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported.

It was the sixth attack on war supply convoys since Pakistan shut a vital border crossing point last week. The trucks set ablaze Wednesday were headed for the other primary border pass, which has remained open.

The timing of the airstrike was dismal for the teetering civilian government, which has been beset by a collapsing economy, political infighting, public outrage at its fumbled response to summer floods, and pressure to pursue corruption allegations against senior officials, including Zardari.

"It undermines all we've done in flood relief, it undermines all we've done with the civilian government, which is the centerpiece of our foreign policy," said a U.S. official, who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity. "I don't know if this kind of thing undermines the civilian government, but it does hold out the military as the real defender of the nation."

The official said the public relations damage would probably not extend to the Pakistani army, which has mostly remained quiet, despite its reputation as the driver of foreign and security policy.

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