In the aftermath of the US cross-border attack that killed 24 Pakistani military personnel at a checkpost in Mohmand Agency, it is becoming less clear than ever exactly what the status of relations between the two countries really is. The US has been nowhere near as apologetic as it should be for the killings, even if they were accidental, of a supposed ally. Pakistan, meanwhile, has reacted with justifiable anger but it, too, has been confused in its approach. The defence committee of the cabinet, after an emergency meeting, ordered the US to vacate Shamsi airbase, which is reportedly used as a launching pad for drone attacks. But the status of the airbase itself is surrounded in confusion. After the May 2 Abbottabad raid, an air force commander had told parliament that Shamsi airbase was actually controlled by the UAE, a claim which it denied. In June, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar confirmed that Shamsi had been leased to the UAE but said that the Americans would be forced to vacate it soon. Five months later, the charade is repeating itself. Since we are making the same demand again, it stands to reason that the government was not serious about asking the US to leave Shamsi back in June. In all probability, all that sound and fury was meant for public consumption but action was never meant to be taken.
How, then, can we expect this time to be any different? Developments of November 28, however, would suggest that the matter is not going to die down any time soon. In an attempt at damage containment, the US is predictably blaming the incident on the Pakistani military personnel, claiming that they fired first, which has been soundly rejected by the ISPR. In the fog of war, friendly fire is an occupational hazard but when it does occur, contrition rather than scapegoating is the appropriate response. The last thing the two unsteady allies needed is an incident of this magnitude. But as long as the US refuses to take responsibility for its actions and punishes those responsible for the strike, it will be hard for Pakistan to allow Nato trucks to cross through its territory. But as the Shamsi airbase demand has shown, we can never be sure if the state’s private actions match its public rhetoric.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2011.
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