The United States has recognized that Pakistan's border areas are inherently part of the Afghan theater of war. Pakistan, for its part, has a domestic audience to reassure about the country's territorial integrity, even as it wants to curb its own mounting insurgency. Tensions on the border continue to rise as Washington devises a new war strategy that will address Pakistan one way or another.
The Pakistani army has ordered its forces to open fire on any U.S. troops attempting to cross the border from Afghanistan, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Sept. 16. Using the words "open fire," Pakistan is clearly trying to deter continued unilateral U.S. action inside its borders, as it has been doing with talk of firing on U.S. helicopters and intercepting U.S. "spy planes" in South and North Waziristan. Indeed, tensions are on the rise between Pakistan and the United States. The Pentagon has now recognized that, in addition to hunting high-value al Qaeda targets, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Islamabad is struggling to balance the need to fight the mounting insurgency inside its own borders and the need to demonstrate to a domestic audience that the nation's borders are indeed inviolable (even if the reality on the ground indicates otherwise). There are several things driving Pakistan's growing assertiveness. First, Islamabad must counter domestic perception that the army and the government are in bed with Washington and are allowing the borders to be violated. Second, the army's position in the country has already been weakened. If it does not do what it is mandated to do — defend the borders — then it risks losing even more credibility. There is also a lot of resentment within the army against U.S. actions, and the army's leadership cannot risk trouble within the ranks. Then there is the fear that this resentment could be exploited by the jihadists. This is all complicated by the fact that, in many ways, former President Pervez Musharraf never really took the army into his confidence when he decided to allow covert U.S. operations inside the country. As the United States formulates a new strategy for Afghanistan — a strategy that will necessarily address cross-border issues with Pakistan one way or another — Islamabad feels it must send strong signals to Washington about the importance of territorial integrity. Maj. Gen. Abbas' statement on Sept. 16 fits quite clearly with the flurry of activity on Sept. 15 regarding alleged incursions by U.S. aircraft. While political rhetoric and orders to fire are two different things, the continued increase in tensions could be compounded by the fact that uniformed army and frontier corps personnel in Pakistan's border areas often have conflicting loyalties. For the United States, it is not clear how far the Pentagon is willing to dial back its operations while the new strategy for Afghanistan is devised (Gen. David Petraeus hands over command of U.S. forces in Iraq on Sept. 16 and is expected to formally take over U.S. Central Command — now vacant and run by a deputy — in late October). But given the military value of targets in Pakistan, cross-border operations are unlikely to cease altogether. Though the United States may be hesitant to lose manned aircraft or involve ground forces in clashes with Pakistani soldiers, assassinations of suspected high-value targets can continue from unmanned aerial vehicles. The main crunch could come from curtailed ground incursions to gather intelligence. Ultimately, U.S. cross-border operations pit well-armed and -trained U.S. forces against Pakistani forces increasingly likely to use force. The chances of an incident between the two are rising — be it in the air or on the ground — despite the fact that Islamabad's primary goal at this point may only be to deter the United States from acting too overtly and too aggressively. In the same vein, Washington's strategy for both Afghanistan and Pakistan is in limbo as the military continues to focus foremost on consolidating its gains in Iraq. U.S. policies and objectives are in the process of being redefined, so it is not clear how the Pentagon will balance operational needs with the need to keep tensions low with Islamabad.
U.S., Pakistan: Balancing Act on the Afghan Border