NATO airstrike undermines U.S. goals in Pakistan

By Karin Brulliard
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

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.

A joint investigation into the airstrike continued Tuesday, and 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.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said results of the probe are expected to be released Wednesday, adding that the relationship between the Pentagon and the Pakistani military is "stronger than it ever has been."

Privately, the Obama administration and U.S. military have appeared exasperated by Pakistan's response to the strike. Senior military officials eschewed the 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.

A U.S. official said the public relations damage would probably not extend to the Pakistani army. "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 the 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 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.

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

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