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Relationship Sours After Airstrikes In Pakistan


Exactly what happened this past weekend on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains unclear, but at least 24 Pakistani soldiers died after NATO helicopters and fighter jets fired on two army bases. A top Pakistani general called the incident a deliberate act of aggression. In retaliation, Pakistan cut off routes used to supply troops in Afghanistan, ordered the U.S. to abandon a drone base and announced today it will not attend an upcoming meeting on the future of Afghanistan. President Obama expressed condolences. An investigation is under way, but already rocky relations have reached a new low.

If you have questions about the options and the way ahead with Pakistan, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stephen Tankel joins us here in Studio 3A. He's an assistant professor at American University in Washington and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in the South Asia program. Nice to have you with us.

STEPHEN TANKEL: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Pakistan says this was an unprovoked attack. Afghan and U.S. troops say they were taking fire from these two locations and called in air support. Do we know a lot more than that?

TANKEL: Right now, we're still trying to sort out all of the details, and it will probably be some time before we're able to. What we do know historically is that there have been firings from the Pakistani side of the border into Afghanistan. Pakistanis claim vice versa. There's been sort of a cold border war going on for some time. So it's not out of the realm of possibility at all that there was firing from the Pakistani side into Afghanistan.

And I think it's also important to remember that when we're talking about the Durand Line, the border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are points along that border where it's very difficult to know which country you're in, which further complicates all of these measures.

CONAN: Nevertheless, an investigation underway. It's hard to believe that any investigation that finds, well, it was just a terrible case of misunderstanding, we're so sorry, that it's going to cut much ice with the Pakistanis.

TANKEL: No. I mean - and you're absolutely right. At this point, you know, especially with some of the rhetoric that has been, you know, on display in Pakistan - understandable to a degree - but some of that rhetoric has been quite cutting, saying that this is an unprovoked attack, in particular. It's going to be very difficult to walk back off of that, whatever the proof may show.

And what I think is particularly important to note is that that creates a ratcheting effect on both sides. This creates space for further anti-Americanism, for hardliners. In Pakistan, you get pressure on the civilian government, and that's how you end up with, you know, the closing of Shamsi airbase, as you mentioned, pulling out of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan, closing of supply lines. That, in turn, opens up space for people in the U.S. who are already rethinking the relationship to push further in that direction, and it makes it all the more difficult to walk it back.

CONAN: And Pakistan, I think, can already be described an ally, yeah, but a very difficult ally.

TANKEL: Yeah. You know, Pakistan is an ally in some regards, and in others is not. And I think it's no secret, you know, that Pakistan and the U.S. have different strategic objectives, particularly when it comes to Afghanistan. The relationship was already under serious strain. When you get an incident like this, if you have a strong relationship, it's much easier to bounce back, you know.

At this point, things had deteriorated to the degree that it makes it much more difficult to walk things back, you know. And this does come at a time, I think, that it's important to note, military-to-military relations between U.S. and Pakistan just beginning to stabilize, you know, after the Raymond Davis affair and then the Osama bin Laden raid, you know, to kill Osama bin Laden in May. Intelligence-to-intelligence relationship also just beginning to stabilize, and then this happens. So, a very serious setback.

CONAN: The Raymond Davis - people will remember the raid to get Osama bin Laden...


CONAN: ...but the Raymond Davis affair was a CIA contractor who...


CONAN: ...opened fire on two people he said were about to assault him on the street, killed them and then, well, finally, was bought back...

TANKEL: Right.

CONAN: some blood money in - a terrible incident avoided there. But this – as Senator Durbin said on TV over the weekend, imagine if 24 Americans had been killed by Pakistani soldiers. What would the reaction be here?

TANKEL: I mean, and there's no question that there - that this is a tragedy and that many Pakistani - the Pakistanis are right to be angry over this. To put things in context, many people in the U.S. are angry about the fact that what they see as militant groups supported by Pakistan are killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. And that's part of what makes things so difficult is that both sides are predisposed to blame one another. And I should add, I was in Pakistan over this summer for about a month doing research on some of the militant groups that are attacking the Pakistani state.

And what I heard again and again from interlocutors inside and outside the security establishment is that some of these groups, they believe, are acting as proxies for either India or the U.S. So there's a predisposition to see some of the attacks in Pakistan as already stemming from, you know, groups backed by the U.S. These are conspiracy theories, of course, but many people believe them. And so then when you get a direct incident, such as this one, where NATO forces kill Pakistani soldiers, it just - it endorses that narrative of war between the two countries.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: Paul is with us from Hailey, Idaho.

PAUL: Hi, guys. I'm just wondering. The communications is a snafu. There's - you've got so many agent provocateurs and so many insiders and so many groups. How does anyone to make any sense of this at all?

TANKEL: I - well, I mean, and that's one of the big challenges that people have had with Pakistan for sometime is that we're talking about wheels within wheels. Added to this now is the fog of war that we get, you know, within conflict. So, A, it's trying to separate out what Pakistani officials are saying publicly from what they might be saying privately to their U.S. counterparts and vice versa. And then, you know, as you pointed out, trying to unpack what has actually happened along the Durand Line.

You know, when were communications issued? Was firing taking place? How long was there between when U.S. military forces notified Pakistani counterparts to when they returned fire? These are questions that are going to be unpacked over time. Unfortunately, you know, Neal, to your point earlier, by the time we actually have an answer, you know, much of the damage to the relationship has already been done.

CONAN: One of the questions the Pakistanis said is if you were taking fire from these bases, where are the casualties? Do we know if anybody was injured?

TANKEL: We don't know of anybody who's injured, but that doesn't necessarily mean that, you know, casualties doesn't necessarily mean, you know, that there was or was not firing. It was possible that you could have had firing but without casualties. And certainly, you know, from the reports that I've gotten and people I've spoken to in Pakistan, it seems that the Pakistanis have said, yes, they did.

You know, what they say is they returned fire from those bases in terms of, you know, launching anti-aircraft munitions against the helicopters once the bases were receiving fire. And this, as you can imagine, very quickly escalates into a situation in which one side thinks the other side is attacking it.

PAUL: And to your knowledge, how important is the communication between NATO and the U.S. at this point when so much is already so fractured?

TANKEL: Well, I mean, the communication between NATO and U.S. and Pakistan is incredibly important, and, you know, they've been working on improving those communications over time. This isn't the first time, unfortunately, that there has been a cross-border raid that has resulted in Pakistani casualties. This is only, you know, the most significant, you know, number of dead.

CONAN: Yeah. There were two Pakistanis killed, what, a couple of years ago.

TANKEL: Yeah. And at that point, in September of 2010, again, there was an investigation. There was finally a formal apology issued. And it was at that point that the cross - that the supply lines were reopened.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call.

PAUL: Thank you so much.

TANKEL: Thanks, Paul.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Chad. Chad, with us from Huntington in West Virginia.

CHAD: Yes. My question is as far as keeping Pakistan in line with being our ally and also to check this kind of rockiness that the U.S. has had with them, why hasn't the U.S. proceeded any kind of formal negotiations with India, to become allies with India to kind of check Pakistan similar to what President Obama did with China with increasing troops in Australia?

CONAN: In fact, there was a recent agreement signed with India and Pakistan in Kabul.

TANKEL: Yes. And to - Chad, to your question about U.S.-India relations, I mean, U.S. and India are pursuing, you know, bilateral relations along a host of issues, including trade as well as, you know, discussions about counterterrorism. Of course, any policies that the U.S. pursues with India inevitably has impact in Pakistan and creates, you know, fears of encirclement or that the U.S. and India are ganging up on Pakistan and can have negative impacts in terms of making Pakistan all the more recalcitrant.

You know, I would also add that I speak with a number of my Indian colleagues about this and, you know, they are not always so keen about the idea of forming a, quote, "alliance" with the U.S. against Pakistan, I mean, you know, to the degree that India wants that, I think, is very much in question, you know? So it's - unfortunately, while that may be an appealing solution, you know, the truth is that, ultimately, the U.S. and Pakistan are going to need to continue to find some way to work together bilaterally as well.

CONAN: Chad, thank you.

CHAD: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Al in Tennessee: I was deployed near the border to stop trucks of personnel coming across the border into Afghanistan. We were, at times, pinned down by sniper fire from the Pakistan border, including several dead. We were not allowed to return fire. And I think those are the rules of engagement.

TANKEL: Yes. First, thank you very much for your service. And this is something that I've heard from colleagues of mine who served in the armed forces over in Afghanistan, and it's something that I think a lot of us are familiar with when we follow these issues is that, you know, quite often, U.S., NATO, Afghan forces on the Afghan side of the border are engaged and can't return fire. There's also question of hot pursuit. The raid in 2010 was an issue of pursuit where NATO helicopters were pursuing militants from Afghanistan. They crossed back into Pakistan, and that's when you got those several Pakistani soldiers who were killed.

But that's been, you know, that is the exception to the rule, and that's quite frustrating, obviously, for our servicemen and women, you know, who sometimes are not able to engage across the border. And, you know, that is one of the most frustrating aspects of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is the fact that safe havens do still exist on the Pakistan side of the border.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in the South Asia program, author of "Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me ask you about one other factor, which gets a lot of attention in Pakistan, not a lot here: Memogate. This is the memo supposedly from the ambassador here in Washington, D.C., the Pakistani ambassador, asking for American help because the military in Pakistan is about to stage a coup.

TANKEL: Yeah. This came on the heels of the - or allegedly came on the heels of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden in May. The story goes that the civilian government was so concerned that the military would step in to stage a coup, to take over following that raid, not least because the raid was very embarrassing for the Pakistan military that the civilian government or elements within it looked to the U.S. to step in and in exchange promised to cut ties with the Haqqani Network, which is the most feared insurgent force in Afghanistan and is believed to enjoy passive, if not active, support from elements of Pakistani army and ISI.

CONAN: Certainly what Admiral Mullen said.

TANKEL: Right. Certainly what Admiral Mullen said as well as other militant groups and the Afghan Taliban. And, you know, the U.S. didn't, it appears, I think, you know, smartly so pay much attention to this, you know, in that it didn't act on it, but it was enough to lead to Ambassador Husain Haqqani's resignation.

CONAN: No relation Haqqani.

TANKEL: No relation to the Haqqani Network. You know, which that, in and of itself, you know, speaks to, I think, also the troubled relationship between the civilian government and the military in Pakistan, you know, which is another historic issue with Pakistan is that the military has primarily taken charge when it comes to foreign policy and national security. They were able to force Haqqani's ouster before an investigation had even taken place. He is seen as somebody who was critical of the military for a long time.

CONAN: Stephen Tankel, thank you very much for your time today.

TANKEL: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.