Pakistan, its government and its people have every right to express their sense of rage. Which country would not if the armed forces of another state had crossed its borders in the dead of night and fired on sleeping soldiers in a border-control post, killing 26 of them and wounding many others? Those who died were buried with full military honours on Sunday at a funeral attended by General Kayani, and the diplomatic storm gathered weight and power as the bodies were lowered into the ground. The incident has plunged the frosty Pak-US ties into deeper crisis. Responding in strong terms, Pakistan has sealed its border with Afghanistan, shutting down the supply lines for some 130,000 US-led foreign troops in that country, and called on the United States to leave within 15 days the Shamsi Airbase reportedly used by CIA drones. These decisions were taken at a meeting of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, the country’s highest strategic decision-making forum where it was also decided that all arrangements with the United States and Nato, including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence activities, would be reviewed. More importantly perhaps, Pakistan has also decided to boycott the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan where thorny issues regarding the withdrawal of occupying forces from the war-torn country and dialogue with the Taliban are to be taken up. Needless to say, Pakistan’s absence from the conference will be a major setback to US-led efforts to bring the Taliban to the dialogue table.
So far, there is no apology from Nato/Isaf, though Nato has expressed regret over the “tragic, unintended” deaths of Pakistani soldiers. US secretary of State Hilary Clinton too has offered her condolences. A formal apology is the least that is expected and deserved by the Pakistani side. Pakistani, US and Afghan officials always trade complaints about responsibility for cross-border attacks, with each side accusing the other of not doing enough to prevent insurgent assaults on military positions. Nato troops frequently carry out operations against Taliban insurgents close to the border with Pakistan. The extent to which these operations are coordinated with Pakistan is unclear, though Pakistan has always insisted on more cooperation. This is time for US/Nato/Isaf forces to understand the dark side of wanting to go it alone and think about accepting Pakistani offers for enhanced coordination. They also need to consider the effects of a prolonged closure of the border on Nato supplies. Nato has reduced the amount of supplies it ships through Pakistan by using routes through Central Asia, but these are costly and less efficient. It would likely be difficult to increase significantly the amount of supplies shipped on these alternative routes in a short timeframe if Pakistan’s borders remain closed. This combined with Pakistan’s indispensable intelligence assets makes Pakistan an undeniably crucial partner. Losing Pakistan’s trust and cooperation would significantly impact the Afghan endgame. The US and allied forces would benefit from keeping this in mind as the investigations into the incident begin.