Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
Relations between Pakistan and the United States reached a new low after the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 26 in a NATO strike. As in the case of the Abbottabad operation that led to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the incident has raised questions about the failure of Pakistan's military to resist attacks, and the pro-Washington orientation of the government. However, the immediate consequences of growing domestic anger seem more severe for President Asif Ali Zardari, his administration and U.S.-Pakistan ties than for the Pakistan Army.
To appease public opinion, Islamabad has announced a review of its cooperation with the United States, and boycotted this week's Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. However, this posturing is not without risks: troubled relations with Washington will undermine the stagnant Pakistani economy and fuel anxiety in Islamabad that it may be excluded from talks on Afghanistan's future.
By comparison to the government, public criticism of the military, by far the strongest state institution in the country, has been muted. Nonetheless, pressure to project military power and the desire to preserve territorial integrity has led to - and will continue result in - heightened security measures along Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In the near term, the closure of two supply routes - through Torkham in the tribal belt and Chaman in Baluchistan - to Afghanistan will prove problematic for NATO strategy. At their peak, 500 lorries carried fuel and other goods daily from Karachi port to Afghanistan, a number that declined to 200-300 in recent months. Since border closures for two months would reduce the pace of military operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. administration would not wait longer than a month to threaten aid cuts to urge at least their partial reopening.
Eventually, Pakistan's dependence on U.S. aid and Washington's need for Pakistani support in the Afghan campaign will restore bilateral ties. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has already signalled the government's desire for eventual rapprochement and need for political cover, but the administration will fear domestic repercussions of too speedy a reconciliation with Washington.
In the medium-to-longer term, the impact of the NATO strike will be felt most acutely in the domestic sphere. Islamabad has felt sufficiently weakened to rule out the threat of a 'judicial' or 'military' coup publicly, and, with an eye on forthcoming elections, the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has indicated it may withdraw from various levels of political participation. Some other opposition parties and militant groups are aiming to capitalise on wounded nationalism by associating themselves with the Army.
Although this will enhance the Army’s domestic credibility and authority, younger and more religiously minded officers will likely question the value of the U.S. alliance and be more sensitive to criticism of the military as a mercenary force that follows other countries' instructions for financial considerations. This may intensify ties between hardline political and religious forces and younger officers, and possibly drive a wedge between senior and junior ranks.
The structural incentives bringing the pendulum of relations between Islamabad and Washington back to equilibrium are strong. However, many levels of Pakistan's political system will need to express indignation before rapprochement with Washington is possible. A key question is how they will change in 2014, when Pakistan's centrality in the Afghan campaign declines. Public anger in both countries may well erode U.S.-Pakistan ties.
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