U.S.-Pakistan relations further strained after airstrike

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.

"It is the one making these decisions, but it isn't the one left holding the bag in terms of public opinion," said Cyril Almeida, an editor for the English-language newspaper Dawn. "The civilian government is unpopular, and this becomes another stick to beat it with."

Pakistan denounced the airstrike as a violation of its sovereignty, expressing its protest through the ongoing blockade of the vital border crossing for NATO trucks, though officials have said the closure is also meant to prevent attacks on convoys.

Morrell said that the United States hopes the Pakistanis will reopen the Torkham crossing soon but that the closure has not adversely affected military operations in Afghanistan.

He noted that Pakistanis profit from the major supply routes running through their country. "It is a huge commercial enterprise for them," he said. "They have incentive to protect the convoys."

Even so, the airstrike has led to calls for ending the alliance with the United States and support for its war in Afghanistan, which many Pakistanis view as the catalyst for instability in their country. In a newspaper interview, a brother of one of the Pakistani soldiers who died said the attack "amounted to a declaration of war."

"Pakistan is the only coalition partner that is being targeted by the U.S. itself," Sher Baz Khan, 32, a student, said in an interview Tuesday in the northwestern city of Charsadda.

Some Pakistani government officials and politicians also view the NATO air incursions as part of a U.S. campaign to bully them. American officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, who visited Islamabad last week, have boosted pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants in the North Waziristan tribal area, citing urgent concerns that militants there have been planning terrorist attacks in Europe.

Pakistan has declined to target the region, saying it is overburdened fighting militants based elsewhere in the semiautonomous tribal border areas.

Said a senior Pakistani official: "How far can Pakistan be pushed? We have to survive as a country and as a government. People across the board are saying that one rash action has wiped out all the good feelings toward the U.S. during and post-flood."

The United States has been the single largest donor to flood relief in Pakistan, and its aircraft evacuated 21,000 flood victims. U.S. officials said they do not know whether those efforts boosted the low U.S. approval rating in Pakistan, - 59 percent of the population considers the United States an enemy, according to one poll - although one official noted, "This is not a popularity contest."

But anti-Americanism here is an issue of growing importance in Washington. Last year, Congress approved a five-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package for Pakistan, in part to help redefine what had been a mostly military-to-military alliance. At a confirmation hearing last month for Cameron Munter, the incoming U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) called the money an American "sacrifice" for Pakistanis.

"Do they have even a modicum of appreciation for what Americans are doing for them?" he asked. Munter replied that he had no "higher priority than addressing that issue."

Rifaat Hussain, a defense and security studies professor in Islamabad, said the NATO airstrikes would make that mission harder. So, too, he said, will moves such as President Obama's scheduled visit next month to India, Pakistan's arch rival, which is viewed in Pakistan as a snub, he said.

"Despite this effort to redefine the relationship," Hussain said, "the relationship has been that you have one positive, then that's overwhelmed by three negatives."

Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Charsadda and staff writers Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock in Washington contributed to this report.

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