Beyond the bullets and the bluster, the US and Pakistan need each other too much to allow tensions along the Afghan border to derail their relationship.
US missile strikes on suspected militant havens in Pakistani territory have ratcheted up tensions and uncertainty and a brief clash between forces of both nations a few days ago has heightened worries.
But few can envisage sustained fighting on the frontier or US soldiers being killed and wounded — a scenario that could shatter a strategically vital alliance between two countries that have little in common save mutual need.
Washington requires Islamabad’s help to prevent Afghanistan sliding into chaos seven years after the ouster of the Taliban and to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders thought to be hiding in the restive tribal areas along the Afghan border.
Many of the supplies for US troops in Afghanistan also move through Pakistan.
Pakistan’s new civilian rulers, in turn, need US cash to stave off an economic meltdown that is eroding their popularity just six months after taking power following years of dictatorship.
This nuclear-armed nation also requires US help in defeating the homegrown Islamic militants who have built up strongholds in the tribal region and forged ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Those extremists are posing an increasing threat to Pakistan itself — a fact underscored by the devastating bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
“I think this climate of tension cannot prevail for too long,” said Ishtiaq Ahmad, professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in the capital. “The stakes are really too high on either side.”
The frontier with Afghanistan is a rugged, inhospitable land where Pakistan’s government has never had much control. NATO and US commanders say militants sheltering there are mounting rising attacks in Afghanistan and fear the extremists could be plotting another Sept. 11-scale attack in the West.
US forces had been conducting strikes on “high-value” targets across the border in recent years under what many people believe was an unwritten agreement with Islamabad.
But tensions have spiked over a flurry of attacks since late August, including a highly unusual ground raid by US commandos.
With many Pakistanis angry and government critics using the attacks to argue for cutting ties with Washington, civilian and military leaders have protested strongly to Washington.
Last Thursday, US helicopters and Pakistani ground troops briefly traded fire along the poorly defined and marked border, without anyone being hit, officials from both countries said.
Yet almost immediately, both sides were making conciliatory noises.
“I look at US support as a blessing,’’ Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said in New York alongside US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who promised help for Pakistan.
Pakistan needs Western cash to avert economic crisis. The shock of higher oil and food prices has helped push up inflation to 25 percent, wrecked the government’s finances and exacerbated a trade gap that is fast eating up the country’s foreign currency reserves.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir reportedly told a meeting of donor countries in New York that “US$10 billion to US$15 billion was our immediate requirement” to avoid bankruptcy.
US officials must tread carefully in working with Pakistan against extremist groups. While leaders of both side stress they have a common enemy, many Pakistanis blame the rise in violence here on the alliance with Washington and the US border strikes are feeding public anger.
But some analysts see the outrage generated by the Marriott bombing as a possible turning point, however.
“This is a historic moment to create a mass opposition to the militants,” Ahmad said. “The biggest challenge now is being able to say this is not only our own war, but it is also a common war with the Afghans, NATO and the US.”
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