Just when it looked like U.S.-Pakistani relations could not sink any lower, they have. The new nadir comes in the wake of a disastrous NATO airstrike over the weekend that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers in what may be the worst friendly-fire episode in Pakistan. The soldiers were killed while manning outposts on their border with Afghanistan in the remote, mountainous tribal regions that are used by Taliban fighters as a refuge and free-fire zone to attack NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.
As happened before, NATO and Afghan forces pursuing extremists near the border took fire from the Pakistani side. U.S. troops called in a NATO airstrike after reportedly seeking clearance from Pakistani officers. The magnitude of the death toll angered Pakistanis possibly more than the secret U.S. raid inside Pakistan a few months ago to kill Osama bin Laden.
Pakistani leaders have grown weary with what they see as a partner that does not respect their nation’s sovereign needs, borders, priorities and citizenry. Similarly, American officials reasonably suspect that Pakistan nurtures, protects and manages the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan for their own political purposes.
Yet both sides are bound by mutual interests. Pakistan needs infusions of American cash and aid. And the U.S. needs to confirm that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, borders, supply routes to Afghanistan and political direction are secure.
There is presently no politically viable out for either side, but neither is it certain that Pakistan will continue a tattered relationship with Washington. The weekend’s friendly-fire calamity is another stark reminder that the risks of war in Afghanistan include an increasingly rocky relationship in Pakistan that could crumble before the tentative 2014 military wind-down in Afghanistan. Washington’s balancing act has only gotten more precarious.