Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

When NATO aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a strike near the Afghan border on Nov. 25, U.S. press reports called it a case of “friendly fire.” That seems the wrong term. It has been some years since the U.S. and Pakistan could be accurately described as friends.

The U.S. and Pakistan have a handful of common goals but far more that conflict. The U.S. wants to fight all forces opposed to Afghanistan’s government; Pakistan nurtures remnants of the Haqqani Network and the Afghanistan Taliban as a way of maintaining influence in that country. The U.S. wants to be equally friendly with Pakistan and its archenemy, India; Pakistan considers that a betrayal.

Still, it would be unwise for the U.S. to allow Pakistan to become an enemy.

Pakistan responded to its soldiers’ deaths by closing, at least temporarily, the land routes through which a third of supplies reach NATO forces in Afghanistan, and ordered the U.S. out of the airbase at Shamsi, from which Americans have launched drone attacks. Pakistan also plans to boycott Afghanistan peace talks in Germany on Dec. 5; the U.S. hoped Pakistan would be a helpful participant.

Why must the U.S. maintain strong ties with such a difficult partner? The success of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, scheduled to end in 2014, will depend partly on whether Pakistan plays a constructive role in its neighbor’s future. While Pakistani authorities essentially sanction anti-Indian terrorists and provide support for some elements of the Afghanistan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, they also cooperate with the U.S. against al-Qaeda.

Eyeing the Arsenal

Most importantly, relations give the U.S. a window on Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal --a grave threat to U.S. national security. Some have suggested that the U.S. government abandon Pakistan -- cut off its $3 billion in annual aid, place it on the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list and throw in its lot fully with India. This would be unwise: An isolated Pakistan would be more likely to go to war with India, more vulnerable to disintegration into a nuclear-armed jihadist state and less able to keep its weapons technology secure from terrorists.

To keep the relationship functioning, U.S. officials first need to address Pakistan’s objections to the attack by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces. The U.S. and NATO were correct to order an investigation and invite the Pakistani government to participate. U.S. officials said the probe will determine how to prevent a recurrence. But, to a great extent, it’s already clear how to do that.

The U.S. and its NATO allies repeatedly have breached Pakistan’s borders. In some cases, as with the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the cause was inarguably justified. Yet in this case NATO aircraft crossed the border apparently in response to mortar and rocket fire from what they thought were Taliban elements. Was it worth the risk of violating Pakistan’s airspace and hitting Pakistani troops? It might have been if this were all-out war with the objective of eliminating the Taliban.

But it’s not. NATO’s goal is to militarily weaken the Taliban in preparation for a national-reconciliation deal in which they and perhaps other insurgent groups will participate. When the last NATO combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban will still be around. It makes little sense to try to stamp out every fighter at the risk of alienating the one party -- Pakistan -- that can deliver the Taliban to peace talks and influence their future behavior.

This logic should be carried over to drone attacks as well: The value of the target needs to be weighed against the possibility of civilian casualties and the certain outrage that the strike would generate among the Pakistani public.

Repairing the Relationship

If the investigation shows that NATO forces were at fault, the U.S. and NATO commands should apologize at a high level and see that the Pakistani soldiers’ families receive compensation, as was done after Central Intelligence Agency contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January. Beyond that, NATO will need to recalibrate its overall responses, bearing in mind the limited goal of softening the Taliban and the value of respecting Pakistan’s frontier.

Normally, such matters are handled without such a fuss. Canadian and U.K. soldiers have been killed by NATO airpower in Afghanistan without scandal. But those were cases of true friendly fire.

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