It seems to have become an established pattern of U.S.-Pakistan relations over this past year: just when things look as if they can't get much worse, they do. The long-deteriorating relationship between the two fractious allies suffered a fresh setback on Nov. 26, when 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by a NATO air strike. As investigations continue, it remains unclear what exactly happened: whether NATO struck without warning, whether the alliance was responding to Afghan troops calling in air support, or whether the strike was in retaliation for attacks on NATO from Pakistani territory. But as far as the Pakistanis are concerned, it was an unprovoked attack that yet again questions about the viability of the alliance.
To manifest its outrage, Pakistan sealed the two routes used for NATO supplies, ordered the CIA to evacuate an airbase in the southwestern province of Baluchistan within 15 days and threatened to boycott the forthcoming Bonn security conference in Germany, in which the fate of neighboring Afghanistan is to be discussed. Further steps may be taken. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has warned that his country may review its relationship with NATO altogether. He is being goaded in that direction by street protests, an inflamed army, the political opposition and a hostile media.
Amid the anger, there is little patience with NATO's pleas for understanding. On Sunday, the Western military alliance's secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, offered condolences to the families of the slain soldiers and pledged to investigate the matter. "This was a tragic, unintended incident," he said in a statement. But Pakistani generals bristle at any suggestion that there was anything short of a deliberate attack. "There is no element of confusion that NATO is now trying to claim," a senior military official tells TIME. "This was evidence of a very callous attitude."
In the early hours of Saturday morning, NATO and Afghan forces were combating militants in Kunar province, along Afghanistan's eastern border. The Pakistanis had been informed of the military operation as part of the joint mechanism on border control. NATO spokesmen have said that during the encounter with militants, close air support was called in. Afghan officials have even said that there was firing from the Pakistani side, triggering a retaliatory air strike a claim the Pakistanis angrily deny. "There was no fire from this direction," says Major General Athar Abbas, the Pakistan military's chief spokesman. "If there was any fire, where are the casualties on their side? Where's the effect of our firing to be seen?"
The Pakistanis say their border checkpoints were 300 m inside Pakistani territory, near the village of Silala in the Mohmand tribal agency. The long, treacherous border is porous and ill defined. After dark, visibility is desperately poor. These posts were established after a military offensive in the area pushed militants across the border into Afghanistan. Some 25 soldiers and officers were positioned at each post to prevent the militants from returning. "These are very visible checkpoints, and NATO has been informed of their locations," says a military official. "There are no militants hiding in the area, either. They were cleared out two months ago."
The firing, the Pakistani military official says, carried on for nearly two hours. Soon after it began, Pakistani troops sent messages up their chain of command until it reached the army's headquarters. At that point, the Pakistan army's Director General of Military Operations lodged a complaint with a NATO commander in Afghanistan, the military official adds. "You should stop this fire," the Pakistani military quotes one of its generals as telling NATO. But there was allegedly no response. It isn't clear if NATO jets were involved, but the Pakistanis allege that the "precision" of the strikes suggests that they were.
This isn't the first time that such an incident has taken place. As far back as June 2008, a NATO air strike was responsible for the deaths of 11 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers in the same tribal area. But Sunday's strike marks the deadliest of such incident and comes at a time when relations between Washington and Islamabad have neared rock bottom. One of the Pakistani military officials says that the deaths of soldiers are the gravest indignity they can suffer. "What do we say to the men who have been fighting the militants in that tough area?" he asks, rhetorically. "How do we even show our faces to them?" Adopting a wounded tone, he further asks, "Who is our enemy, the militants or NATO?"
While the question sounds dramatic, it is likely to cross the minds of the Pakistan army's lower ranks, which have long suffered doubts about their alliance with the U.S. In the Pakistan army's narrative, it consistently casts itself as the victim of U.S. pressure or aggression. The U.S. raid on May 1, which killed Osama bin Laden, was seen principally by the Pakistan army as a violation of its prized sovereignty. In the ensuing weeks, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani busily toured his bases to calm the feelings of rage that passed through them. "This crisis will exacerbate the situation," says retired Brigadier Shaukat Qadir.
The pro-U.S. civilian government is under greater pressure. It is still reeling from a scandal that saw Husain Haqqani, the ambassador to the U.S., accused of using a secret back channel to ask the U.S. military to rein in its Pakistani counterparts in order to benefit the civilian government. Haqqani, who stoutly denies the charges, has been forced to quit. After appointing a replacement, the government still has to fend off charges of "treason" from the military even as it faces new challenges to its rule from fiercely anti-American opponents. The former cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan has seized the NATO strike as a moment to whip up his campaign against the ruling party. "Pakistan is going to implode if we keep taking instructions from the U.S.," Khan tells TIME. Once marginal, Khan is now polling as the country's most popular politician in a sign of how anti-American sentiment has risen across Pakistan in recent years.
But a rupture in relations, though feared by some senior Pakistani officials, seems unlikely. Even the steps that Pakistan has taken are not necessarily new. The NATO supply routes have been ritually cut off in symbolic protest, only to be reopened days later. Over time, NATO has become less dependent on the routes through Pakistan, with only 40% of nonlethal supplies traveling along a journey that some three-quarters once did. The demand for the CIA to evacuate the Shamsi airbase, leased to the United Arab Emirates government, was made twice earlier this year. Combat drones no longer take off from what was, in any case, a longer flying route. The bases in Afghanistan are much closer to militant targets in the tribal areas. And the Pakistanis were never really keen on the Bonn conference they are now threatening to stay away from. Indeed, a drawn-out Afghanistan endgame suits them.
As Kayani keenly realizes, the U.S. and Pakistan need each other at least until the ultimate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Neither side can secure its interests there without the cooperation. If anything, the current crisis yields him a rare opportunity to exercise leverage. More often than not, it has been the U.S. complaining that Pakistan is linked to Afghan insurgents killing Western troops across the border. There is little prospect of the U.S. and Pakistan breaking off ties, but it is likely that their cooperation will now be reduced to the bare minimum.