ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Neither the United States nor its ally Pakistan will let a clash between their forces on the Afghan border escalate since both countries depend on each other for different reasons, analysts said on Friday.
U.S. and Pakistani forces exchanged fire on the Afghan border on Thursday after Pakistani forces shot at two U.S. helicopters from a Pakistani border post, the latest in a string of incidents that has ratcheted up diplomatic tension between the allies.
The Pakistani military said its soldiers fired warning shots after the helicopters intruded over Pakistani territory, but a Pentagon spokesman insisted the helicopters had not entered Pakistan. No one was hurt.
Alarming as the sight of the nuclear-armed allies shooting at each other might be, Pakistani analysts said hostilities were unlikely to intensify although more such incidents were possible, with both sides driven by different compulsions.
“Don’t expect Pakistan and the U.S. to go to war, that is not likely to happen,” said political analyst, Hasan Askari Rizvi. “Pakistan needs the United States for economic reasons and the U.S. needs Pakistan for conducting its war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Both recognise the need, but both are also trying to maximise their gain by building pressure on the other.”
The United States and its allies are struggling in Afghanistan with an intensifying Taliban insurgency, which has raised doubts about the success of the West’s seven-year involvement.
U.S. officials say Taliban and al Qaeda-linked fighters use the ethnic Pashtun tribal regions along Pakistan’s side of the border as an operating base to launch attacks inside Afghanistan, in Pakistan and to plot violence in the West.
Targeting those safe havens has become a priority as frustration grows that Pakistan has not been doing enough to clamp down on fighters in the remote region.
As a result, the United States has stepped up strikes on militants on the Pakistani side of the border by missile-firing drones. This month, U.S. commandos mounted a helicopter-borne ground assault on a Pakistani border village. But Pakistan says such attacks violate its sovereignty and the army has vowed to defend Pakistani territory. “Pakistan does not want to engage in a conflict with the U.S.,” said Talat Masood, a retired general and analyst. “But at the same time it’s saying ‘please respect our sovereignty’ and it’s giving some sort of clear signal, while trying to be as conciliatory as possible,” he said.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said his country’s forces had only fired flares at the U.S. helicopters to tell them they had crossed the border.
Zardari and his government have pledged its commitment to the U.S.-led campaign against militancy and the army has killed up to 1,000 militants in recent offensives in the northwest. But the alliance with the United States and the attacks on militants are unpopular with many Pakistanis, and cross-border strikes by U.S. forces erode the public support the government is trying to nurture, said Masood.
“It’s very bad as far as winning the people over, which is essential for the war on terror,” he said.
The U.S. attacks into Pakistan also put pressure on the government to stand up to what many see as U.S. aggression. “If they let U.S. activity go unchecked they lose domestic credibility. So they have to do this kind of thing but not with the intention of destroying U.S. helicopters,” said Rizvi.
Even during the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet forces in the 1980s, Pakistan did not try to shoot down intruding Soviet aircraft but only to scare them away, Rizvi said. “I don’t think things will get worse but if they do, even then Pakistan will avoid shooting down American helicopters.”
The United States is the biggest donor of aid to Pakistan, desperately in need of foreign inflows as it struggles with a sharply deteriorating economy.
Pakistani analysts also see the stepped-up U.S. strikes as an attempt by the U.S. administration to score points in the run-up to a November presidential election.
As such, the U.S. attacks into Pakistan, particularly the drone missile strikes, were likely to continue and more minor clashes were possible, they said. “You cannot rule out the possibility of such an incident in future but things will not spin out of control,” said Rizvi.