Pakistan flexes its leverage -- while it still can
U.S.-Pakistan relations are once again in a deep freeze after a recent nighttime border clash that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan responded to the death of its soldiers, killed by U.S. airstrikes during the battle, by shutting down the supply lines that run through Pakistan to NATO bases in Afghanistan. Although the United States and Pakistan will likely repair this latest breach, as they have in the past, the nature of the conflict ensures that there will be more such incidents and more periodic breakdowns in the relationship, even after the United States reduces its military presence after 2014.
According to the Washington Post's account of the incident, a joint Afghan-U.S. special operations patrol, attempting to raid a suspected Taliban camp very near the border, came under fire from a nearby Pakistani army outpost. The patrol then called in air strikes. Pakistani officials are upset that the air strikes continued for well over an hour, even after Pakistani officers contacted their NATO counterparts to call them off. Some Afghan officials, frustrated by Pakistan's alleged support for the Afghan Taliban, apparently have scant remorse for the Pakistani casualties.
The 140,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan receive 48 percent of their supplies through Pakistan, with the remainder coming from the north through several Central Asian republics or by cargo aircraft. Pakistan's control over its portion of the NATO supply network is its best leverage over the United States; some new assistance package to Pakistan will likely get the trucks rolling again. While the Pakistani routes remain shuttered, Russia did not miss its opportunity to wield leverage of its own. According to the Wall Street Journal, Moscow is now pressing for more concessions on U.S. missile defense plans in exchange for keeping the northern supply routes into Afghanistan open.
Although U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani officials will attempt to improve coordination to prevent a repeat of this incident, more such episodes are inevitable. There will be more fights along the border because that is where the Taliban maintain their camps and assembly areas. Afghan and U.S. commandos believe their raiding tactics against the Taliban are effective and thus will continue to employ them. For their part, Pakistani officials are under political pressure to show that they are protecting Pakistani sovereignty, which will lead to an active defense on its side of the border. Finally, as long as the United States maintains a large force in Afghanistan requiring long supply convoys through Pakistan, Islamabad will perversely have an incentive to maintain a certain level of friction with the United States, since past blow-ups have usually resulted in the arrival of new gifts.
But the pending wind-down of the U.S. role in Afghanistan will change the current structure of these relationships and the leverage available to the players. By 2015, the U.S. military headcount in Afghanistan may be down 80 to 90 percent from its current level. That will reduce U.S. need for supply routes, and with it, Pakistan's leverage over U.S. policies.
By 2015, U.S. policymakers hope that Afghanistan's government and security forces will be leading what remains of the fight against the Taliban. Some Afghan officials, with perhaps an expanded security relationship with India, may prefer a more aggressive strategy than the U.S. has thus far employed against Afghan Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan. The United States will have to adjust to more self-reliant Afghan counterparts and likely a much larger Indian role in the country.
The location of the Taliban's camps and the perverse incentives that result from U.S. dependency on Pakistan ensure that more incidents of this type are likely. But by 2015, the game in Afghanistan will have a new rulebook.