On Nove-mber 25, less than 24 hours after the Nato commander in Afghanistan met Gen. Kayani in Islamabad to discuss matters related to the Pak-Afghan border, troops at a Pakistani border check post at Salala became targets of Nato fire that killed twenty-four of them. This was by far the deadliest incident of its kind, although not the first. A similar strike in September 2010 took the lives of two soldiers and another in June 2008 killed 11.
The incident couldn't have happened at a worst phase, both in the so called GOWT in Afghanistan and in the state of US-Pakistan bilateral relationship. Pakistan has reacted predictably. Strategically significant is its decision to close the Nato supply route to Afghanistan and ask the US to vacate the Shamsi Airbase Baluchistan used by the US as a base for drone attacks on militants in FATA. And Pakistan has expressed its intention to bring under review the entire gamut of Pak-US relationship.
Relationship between the two had had been going from bad to worse for quite sometime. The level of mistrust of Pakistan in the US mind had shot up particularly with the increasing perception about Pakistan's tendency to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. And Pakistan has done very little to remove the impression about its double game-play in Afghanistan. The blame-game on the other hand is seen by some observers as an attempt to shift the responsibility for the US failure in Afghanistan on Pakistan.
In the backdrop of the US plans of phased withdrawal from Afghanistan the latest incident assumes more significance than merely being a "mistake" for which a "detailed investigation" has been launched. American apology accompanied by the usual excuse of firing in self-defence has been dismissed by Pakistan.
The real question is not whether the relationship will be derailed but what will be the extent of the setback and the consequent impact of it on not only the future of Pak-US ties but also on the strategic equation in the region and the global war on terror. Some have even gone so far as to ask whether this is a prelude to an US intervention in Pakistan.
Perhaps there are basically three options open to Pakistan and each of them in its own way bears heavily on how things turn out in the future.
Firstly, Pakistan can choose to go along with the process of inquiry that Nato/ISAF have promised with the hope that, as one analyst suggests, the crisis will get "papered over," but with the distinct possibility that the "U.S. will face even less prospect that Pakistan will really crackdown on insurgent groups in the border area." The sense of outrage in Pakistan is much too deep for the government to allow it to die down. And given that the GWOT has no public support in Pakistan, anything that looks as compromise risks not only the future of the government but may well ignite a serious upheaval in the country that is likely to be exploited by the religious extremists. That is a situation that neither the people of Pakistan nor the US would like to see happen. Therefore, for the Pakistan government, "just to grin and bear it" as suggested by some, is just not an option.
The second option is to reassess the pattern of relationship with the US, as has been repeatedly stated by the Pakistani prime minister. The situation in Afghanistan is in a very critical state and the US is fully aware of the imperative of Pakistan's role in stabilising the situation. By the same token it cannot be lost on Pakistan that it is Afghanistan that makes it relevant to the US and that twice in three decades the developments in Afghanistan had brought the two countries together as strategic partners. The first being the erstwhile Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan starting in December 1979, and the second being the Coalition invasion of the same country under the banner of "Operation Enduring Freedom" starting October 2001.
Pakistan is still suffering the consequence of the first foreign intervention in Afghanistan and is grappling with the problem of how to emerge unscathed from the second. Therefore, what will be the character of their ties after reassessment is a matter of conjecture. But no Pakistani policy maker can either overlook history or Pakistan's strategic compulsions in composing its strategic narrative.
The third possible option is de-linking from GWOT. Given the deep dependence of the US on Pakistan's support in pursuing its campaign in Afghanistan this option has ominous consequences for Pakistan. US' need for unhindered supply through Pakistan, although there are other alternatives, and for operational intelligence and admin support, may force the US to take any step to ensure Pakistan's cooperation, at least till it withdraws completely from Afghanistan. What might be the form of that persuasion is left to the readers' imagination.
The Pak-US conundrum has come to such a pass that it is perhaps time for Pakistan to choose between the devil and the deep sea. One wonders which is the better of the two.