ISLAMABAD — Despite its cooperation with the United States in the war on terror, Pakistan can hardly be said to have started the new year on a pleasant note. A brief military encounter between American soldiers and a group of Pakistani paramilitary troops close to the Afghan border — following a shot fired by a Pakistani — left at least one American soldier injured.
The U.S. side responded to the incident by calling in aerial support and dropping a 220-kg bomb on a village that Pakistan claimed was on its side of the poorly demarcated border. Many observers have wondered whether this incident will mark the beginning of the end of Pakistan’s support for the U.S.
In the days and weeks following the border incident, both Pakistani and American officials have gone out of their way to reaffirm their close alliance. At least one Pakistani official described the shooting as no more than a “blip,” although others have called it a major hump along what had been a smooth road.
The incident was a powerful reminder of the fractured relations between the two countries before 9/11 — when Pakistan backed Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime. They must find common ground to promote further cooperation.
Pakistan cannot escape the truth that antagonizing the U.S. could make it as much of a pariah as Washington’s “axis of evil” states of Iran, North Korea and Iraq. And the U.S. cannot ignore the reality that without the deployment of Pakistan’s ground forces along the Afghan border, a weak link would develop in the campaign against terror. In the past year, Pakistani forces have been instrumental in arresting more than 400 alleged members of the al-Qaeda group led by Osama bin Laden. All were subsequently handed over to the U.S.
Continuation of the U.S.-Pakistani alliance hinges on three factors:
* Pakistan must recognize that its support of the U.S. has caused considerable resentment among its own politicians, especially Islamic activists who vociferously demand an end to the alliance. The issue of cooperation is becoming a major one for domestic politics. Responding to the challenge posed by nationalists and skeptics who oppose the alliance remains a major hurdle for the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in advancing its relationship with Washington.
Disarray in Pakistani politics also stems from criticism by opposition parties of the conduct of elections last October. Political peace in Pakistan must go hand in hand with the country’s ability to pacify hardline critics.
* As Washington prepares for a war on Iraq and the rest of the world braces for the political fallout, there arises the prospect of increasingly polarized relations between the Western and Islamic worlds. Ultimately the ability of Pakistan to continue its support of the U.S. will depend on how willing Washington is to resolve conflicts through political rather than military means.
* The extent to which the U.S. succeeds in responding to its internal affairs will affect its relations with the world. In recent weeks, criticism by foreign residents in the U.S. over changes to immigration procedures highlights anger within foreign communities. There is the possibility that this bitterness will spill over in the form of demonstrated anti-U.S. sentiment in the countries from which these immigrants come.
In Pakistan, domestic newspapers have recently gone out of their way to emphasize hardships faced by Pakistani emigrants to the U.S. For example, requirements that Pakistani visitors and immigrants be photographed, fingerprinted and newly registered are viewed by many in Pakistan as a betrayal.
Although the U.S. may not be able to change its immigration regime anytime soon, Washington must realize that the perception of its new registration laws influences Pakistani attitudes toward it.
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