Tenuous Ties on 'AfPak' Frontier

A NATO air attack that killed at least twenty-four Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border has further damaged a U.S.-Pakistan relationship that has lurched from crisis to crisis this year. After the attack, Pakistan requested U.S. personnel to vacate Shamsi Air Base, which is used for launching CIA-operated drones against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan also shut down two supply route lines to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and decided to boycott the December 5 international conference in Bonn to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

What's at Stake

Pakistan's air base and supply lines have been critical for the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. Islamabad has used this leverage to express its displeasure with U.S. acts in the past. Pakistan closed the border for about ten days in September 2010 after NATO helicopters killed two Pakistani soldiers and again for three days in April this year to protest drone strikes.

The Debate

The breakdown won't affect the war in Afghanistan much in the short term, argues journalist Marc Ambinder, because "NATO has several months worth of pre-stocked supplies, a contingency designed to anticipate cyclic breakdowns in the Pakistani-U.S. relationship." Also, given their vulnerability to terrorist attacks, the United States has been pursuing alternative routes, namely the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia. Over the past four months, of the materiel received by Americans in Afghanistan, 40 percent was driven over Afghanistan's northern borders from Central Asia and only 30 percent came via Pakistan's roads, reports the Economist.

But the northern network may suffer if Russia carries out a threat to cut off supply routes unless NATO reconsiders its objections to a missile shield for Europe. According to some estimates, it costs almost double to send supplies through the NDN as compared to Pakistan routes. In addition, any effort to increase supplies through the NDN could pose logistical and security challenges, writes Bishkek-based journalist Deirdre Tynan on Eurasianet. A 2010 report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies also looked at the Central Asian and Caucasus states that belong to NDN -- Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- and said some of them are "unwieldy and volatile partners."

Policy Options

Besides the logistical challenges with alternative routes, Pakistani cooperation remains critical for taking out terrorist safe havens on its side of the border and negotiating any peace deal with the insurgents seen as central to ending the war in Afghanistan. But a downturn in U.S.-Pakistani ties over the last year and the Pakistani army's refusal to go after militant groups such as the Haqqani Network has led several U.S. lawmakers to intensify calls for cutting aid to Pakistan. Analysts like George Perkovich of Carnegie Endowment say Washington should stop trying to pay the Pakistani military to persuade it to fight militant groups that Pakistan does not consider as its enemies. But others like Bruce Riedel at Brookings argue against breaking off ties, pointing to the growing nuclear arsenal that could become vulnerable to terrorists.

The solution to cross-border attacks like the latest one and in order to achieve a long-term improvement in regional security can only come if the Pakistani state stops "aiding and abetting the 'good' Taliban" and tackles all militant groups, as the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times notes.

Background Materials

The latest downslide in U.S.-Pakistan relations is unlikely to cause a rupture, "but it is likely that their cooperation will now be reduced to the bare minimum," writes TIME's Omar Waraich.

A timeline of U.S.-Pakistan relations in this CFR Crisis Guide explores how bilateral ties, shaped by the Cold War, continue to be plagued by distrust.

This article first appeared on CFR.org.