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Pakistan border row exposes USA’s vulnerability in the region

October 4, 2010

WASHINGTON: The United States and Pakistan have never had an easy partnership, but despite heated feuds on everything from drone attacks to terror plots, the two governments have found a way to work together.

Now, Pakistan has played what some experts consider the ultimate trump card – closing its main border crossing with Afghanistan to US-led forces who depend on the route for oil, ammunition and other war supplies.

Islamabad took action after accusing NATO helicopters of killing three Pakistani soldiers on their own territory, a stark reminder of Pakistan’s sovereignty concerns as it cooperates with the US. Gunmen torched more than two dozen NATO supply trucks Friday in southern Pakistan.

Former US State Department official Marvin Weinbaum said Pakistan felt obliged to act tough at a time when the civilian government is under growing pressure, including from the powerful military, after its response to major floods.

“They have to show their trump card because it’s for domestic political reasons, especially with a weak government. But it is serious and it points out our vulnerability,” said Weinbaum, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute.

A prolonged closure of the border would mark “a fundamental change in our relationship with Pakistan. For the US, Pakistan can be reluctant to do this or reluctant to do that, and that is all ultimately tolerable as long as the supply routes remain largely open and protected,” he added.

Repercussions: But Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council think-tank, feared political repercussions from the border violence. He faulted NATO for initially saying it acted in self-defense.

Such incidents “feed the paranoia inside Pakistan’s military and civil establishments that perhaps there is some sort of master plan to take advantage and cross the border at will,” Nawaz said.

“There is a very strong possibility that it could get out of hand,” he added.

Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who serves as US pointman on Pakistan and Afghanistan, said ties with Pakistan were “more complicated than any strategic relationship I’ve ever been involved in.”

“But at the end of the day, success in Afghanistan – however you define success – is not achievable unless Pakistan is part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he told a forum in Washington.

Fundamentally, Pakistan’s chief objective is to limit the influence of rival India in Afghanistan, US National War College associate professor Bernard Finel said.

But without Pakistani cooperation, the US would have to scale back any goals of nation-building in Afghanistan and adopt a lighter footprint, Finel said. (AFP)

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