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The Pakistan Veto

October 5, 2010

Pakistan shows who’s the boss

In apparent retaliation for a NATO helicopter attack on a Pakistani border outpost this week, Pakistan has closed the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan to convoys supplying NATO forces. An International Security Assistance Force statement claimed the helicopter attack was a response to an attempted insurgent attack on a coalition base in Afghanistan. Pakistan claimed that the helicopter strike killed three soldiers in its Frontier Corps.

Trucks and tankers bound for NATO bases in Afghanistan are now stuck on the road outside Peshawar. Although this dispute will likely be resolved quickly, it shows that Pakistan has a veto over President Barack Obama’s military strategy in Afghanistan. Specifically, Pakistan has now vetoed the possibility of a U.S. military campaign into the Afghan Taliban’s sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Such a veto is understandable from Pakistan’s perspective, but not so much from those of the NATO and Afghan soldiers who would like to get at the stubborn enemy finding sanctuary inside Pakistan. In a strange irony, the more the United States has built up its forces in Afghanistan, the stronger Pakistan’s veto power over U.S. military decisions has become.

The Sept. 30 helicopter attack that prompted the border closing was the last in a string of such attacks that began a week ago. On Sept. 24, NATO helicopters responded to an attack on a combat outpost near the Pakistan border by firing on insurgents inside Pakistan. Helicopters returned on two following days, were fired on again from Pakistan, and again returned fire.

NATO commanders apparently view these cross-border helicopter strikes as incidents of “hot pursuit” and actions of self-defense while under fire. Pakistani officials, by contrast, no doubt view this string of attacks as a case of NATO probing to see what it can get away with. For Pakistani officials, it became one slice of the salami too much. These officials have accustomed themselves to the CIA’s drone campaign inside Pakistan, a campaign that accelerated sharply in September. If U.S. policymakers thought they could get Pakistani officials to get accustomed to ever more aggressive air raids into the sanctuaries, Pakistan’s closure of the border is designed to bring those thoughts to an end.

According to Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, the Obama administration continues to place Pakistan at the center of its Afghan strategy. The issue for U.S. officials is how to persuade Pakistan’s government to align its behavior with U.S. interests. According to Rogin, the Obama administration has opted for rewards rather than pressure, rejecting the advice of former National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair to conduct airstrikes and raids inside Pakistan as the United States would see fit.

It is sensible to try a strategy of persuasion and rewards first before resorting to pressure and coercion. However, Pakistan’s closure of the Torkham crossing has revealed that the large buildup of U.S. and coalition forces inside Afghanistan has removed the option of applying pressure on Pakistan. Although the United States has negotiated with Russia to obtain an additional supply line into Afghanistan from the north, the tripling of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since Obama took office means that there is no escaping Pakistan’s strong leverage, amounting to a veto, over U.S. military operations. Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars, describes how National Security Advisor James Jones threatened Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari with a strong military response (airstrikes on 150 suspected terrorist camps inside Pakistan) should there be a spectacular terrorist attack inside the United States sourced from Pakistan. Jones’s threat is an empty bluff, or at least it has become one now that there are 100,000 U.S. troops dependent on a fragile supply line through Pakistan.

Pakistan’s closure of the Torkham crossing shows that it will allow NATO to execute any military operations it wants just as long as these operations don’t serious threaten the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s invaluable proxy ally. Obama and his generals would no doubt like to wield the leverage that Pakistan wields over them. But creating such a reversal of fortune would require a military strategy that doesn’t require endless daily supply convoys snaking through Pakistani territory.

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