Pakistani forces fired at U.S. military helicopters near the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Pentagon said on Thursday. This incident highlights the historically high tension that currently exists between Washington and Islamabad.
While Washington claims the helicopters had not entered Pakistani airspace and Islamabad asserted that only “warning shots” were fired and later claimed only signal flares were used to warn the helicopters off, the event reveals how easily tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan could escalate.
On the one hand, Islamabad is unable or unwilling to wrest control of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas from the Taliban and other terrorists. On the other, because of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Washington is being forced to take matters into its own hands, conducting cross-border unilateral raids into Pakistan to attack the Taliban safe haven and arms supply lines feeding the Afghan insurgency. Meanwhile, however, the more the U.S. engages in unilateral strikes inside Pakistani territory, the more difficult it is for Islamabad to gain support from Pakistan’s anti-American public for its own fight against the Taliban.
Another incident this week also contributed to the mounting tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. On Tuesday, a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (uav) reportedly crashed in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt. Local tribesmen in South Waziristan claim to have shot down the drone, though this is denied by Washington. uavs are being used by the U.S. to carry out cross-border airstrikes in Pakistan.
It had been hoped by some that the massive bombing in Islamabad over the weekend would help Islamabad take a stronger stance against the Taliban. But, as Stratfor points out, “the attack has had an impact on U.S. thinking as well, which was echoed by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Gates said that Pakistan faces an existential threat from jihadists in its border areas with Afghanistan and acknowledged that Islamabad could not publicly support U.S. military action against militant targets on Pakistani soil, and warned that any deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani ties would hurt American interests. What this means is that the United States is limited in terms of how far it can act unilaterally” (September 24; emphasis ours).
So, it seems, instead of expecting more from Islamabad as a result of the attack, Washington is expecting less.
Ironically, relations between the two allies have now deteriorated to the point where, with the shooting incident yesterday, it seems Pakistani troops are turning their weapons on the nation that is Islamabad’s biggest weapons supplier—just as the Pakistani military threatened to do earlier this month.