Pakistan threatens to abandon frontier after US aid cut

Pakistan has made the latest chess move in the escalating feud with the US after the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden just yards from Pakistan’s most elite military academy.  Saying that they will “fight the menace of terrorism in our own national interest using our own resources,” Pakistan’s defense minister publicly threatened to fight terrorism by, er, moving the army out of the region where the terrorists operate:

Pakistan’s defense minister has said that the country might withdraw thousands of troops from its volatile border areas in response to a suspension of U.S. military aid, a move that would undermine Washington’s interests in a region that is home to al-Qaeda and a stew of other Islamist militant groups.

In an interview that aired Tuesday on a private Pakistani television station, Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar contradicted statements earlier in the day by the nation’s powerful military, which said forces would continue counterterrorism operations despite a decision by the Obama administration to delay $800 million in promised aid and reimbursements. Although the reason for the inconsistency was unclear, Mukhtar’s comments are a sign that Pakistan is likely to react to the U.S. decision with greater defiance rather than cooperation.

The proximate cause for this threat came from a suspension of American aid that occurred after Pakistan refused to grant visas to more than a hundred Special Forces trainers.  Hillary Clinton announced the suspension as only a temporary measure “to ensure cooperation,” but the Pakistanis seem to be less interested in cooperation than ever before.  They are also coming under political pressure from the ramped-up drone strikes, including four this week that killed over 50 suspected militants:

In a development likely to exacerbate tensions, the CIA this week continued its controversial drone campaign in Pakistan’s remote tribal belt, killing more than 50 suspected militants in North and South Waziristan in four strikes starting Monday night, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and residents in the area. Pakistani officials tacitly approve the strikes, but their support has grown warier amid public anger and the widening bilateral rift.

One might think that Pakistan would take alarm at a porous border that allows a free flow of radical Islamists into their country, but for some, that’s a bug rather than a feature.  The proof of that is the threat to withdraw from the region.  Pervez Musharraf once inked a deal with radicals in the tribal territories to allow him to pull out, only to find that the US was not impressed and that the terrorists don’t honor agreements.  His military action on the frontier were very unpopular, and thus far the same kind of operations aren’t making the elected Gilani government any more popular, either, and the drone strikes are making Pakistani cooperation with the US even less so.

If Pakistan follows through on its threat, we will find our already tough slog in Afghanistan even tougher, unless Barack Obama decides to react by sending forces over the border in “hot pursuit” of Taliban forces trying to hide behind it, which will clearly be a provocation to Islamabad.  A withdrawal will give the US an even better excuse to continue escalating drone strikes, and at least this way the Pakistani army will be known to be out of the way when those are launched.  However, if we want to remain in Afghanistan to give Kabul time to stand up its own army, we’d better be careful about pushing so hard that we get an entire break with Pakistan and lose our lines of communication for NATO forces across the border.