By Adam Levine
Just days after a top American commander in Afghanistan said the situation on the border with Pakistan was improving, the U.S. once again finds itself back in the nadir of relations with the Pakistanis.
The killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers at two military outposts, hit by NATO helicopters near the border area, has pulled the rug out from underneath American efforts to calm a relationship that had been rocked by Pakistani anger at America. (Read the latest on Saturday's incident HERE).
After American special forces snuck into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, an American intelligence contractor killed two Pakistanis, and American officials accused the government of harboring and helping the Haqqani terror network, much work had been done to revive this critical counterterrorism effort though the two countries were barely on solid ground again before Saturday's incident.
A recent Pentagon report to Congress said the ability of insurgents to hide across the border in Pakistan is the greatest threat to success in Afghanistan. The report pointed directly at Pakistani authorities for aiding the strength of insurgents on that side of the border.
The 2012 presidential campaign has also brought forth much heated rhetoric by Republican candidates vying to be seen as standing up to the Pakistanis in a way the Obama administration has not. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry have called for a zeroing out of foreign aid to the country.
"We were told, a perfectly natural Washington assumption that our killing bin Laden in Pakistan drove U.S.-Pakistan relations to a new low. To which my answer is, well, it should have because we should be furious," said Gingrich at this week's CNN national security debate. "you tell the Pakistanis, help us or get out of the way, but don't complain if we kill people you're not willing to go after on your territory where you have been protecting them."
In the past few weeks, the U.S. was dragged into a Pakistani government scandal when it was reported that President Asif Ali Zardari asked the U.S. government in May to help him hold on to power because he feared a military coup. A Pakistani businessman claimed he'd been asked to pass the message on to U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, then Washington's top military official. In the end, the ambassador from Pakistan, Husain Haqqani, stepped down and a new ambassador was appointed just a few days ago. The new ambassador, Sherry Rehman, has yet to come to Washington.
But there were signs the two sides were mending fences.
The American commander of international forces was just in Pakistan to meet with Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The two discussed "measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures between Pakistan Army, ISAF and Afghan Army, aimed at enhancing border control on both sides.
Also this week, the commander for U.S. and NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan, Major Gen. Daniel Allyn, told reporters at the Pentagon that the Pakistanis had been cooperating in trying to stem Haqqani attacks that emanated from the Pakistani side of the border and were aimed at U.S., NATO and Afghan troops. Allyn described it as a "positive step forward" and said the Pakistanis had even been adjusting positions at the request of the NATO forces. The result was attacks "tapered somewhat in the past several weeks" to just "three to four cross-border firing incidents a week."
"Now, whether or not there's more to the explanation than that's where the enemy is choosing to shoot from, I can't answer that. I do know the positive sign from our perspective is the responsiveness with which the [the Pakistani military] border force have coordinated actions against the firing," Allyn said.
U.S., NATO, Afghan and Pakistani troops had been conducting communications excercises, said Allyn, to help coordinate border security. Another was scheduled for November.
Clearly, this incident has jeopardized that good will. Pakistan quickly and angrily, in messages from multiple officials, have condemned the killings, calling it "unprovoked." The country shut down two critical border crossings used to bring supplies to NATO troops. Pakistan is also ordering U.S. military personel out of Shamsi Airbase within two weeks. Shamsi had at one point been used to launch CIA drone strikes within Pakistan. In June, after the bin Laden raid, Pakistan ordered all U.S. personnel to leave Shamsi and said drone operations had ceased. At the time, a U.S. official told CNN that American counterterrorism operations in Pakistan continued and a source familiary with the drone operations said Shamsi was "still open for business."
Promises of investigations were quickly proffered by Gen. Allen and the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Cameron Munter. But Washington was quiet with little to say on-the-record or even on background, as the U.S. looks to figure out how what happened and how to placate the Pakistanis.