U.S. and Pakistan: Uneasy allies

News that the U.S. has resumed drone strikes in Pakistan, killing at least three suspected militants last week in the tribal areas of North Waziristan along that country's border with Afghanistan, could hardly come at a more delicate moment for U.S.-Pakistani relations. Rather than signal an improvement in ties between the two uneasy allies in the war against Islamic insurgents, it may end up pushing the two sides even further apart — or, in the worst case, precipitating a rupture.

It may have been coincidence that the latest strike inside Pakistan took place just as a rapidly escalating domestic crisis there has dangerously split the country's civilian and military leaders. If so, the U.S. may have inadvertently waded into a minefield. Pakistan's generals are outraged over a memo, purportedly written at the behest of the government, seeking American help in stopping a possible coup by the Pakistani military, which was humiliated by the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May.

That memo, which the government denies any role in drafting, was delivered to former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen through an intermediary last year, but in recent weeks it has figured prominently in a bitter internal power struggle that threatens to bring down Pakistan's fragile, democratically elected government.

The Pakistani generals' resentment over the killing of bin Laden, which saw U.S. forces enter their country without any advance notice, was exacerbated in November, when U.S. and NATO airstrikes killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers manning an observation post on the Pakistani side of the border. A NATO investigation later concluded the deaths were the result of a tragic accident caused by a combination of miscommunication and distrust on the part of both Pakistani and NATO commanders.

But Pakistan's military rejected that finding and instead called the incident a deliberate provocation, though it provided no evidence to back up the accusation. In retaliation, Pakistan's generals blocked the main border crossing into Afghanistan used to supply U.S. forces there. It remains closed.

The brewing caldron of resentments and mistrust stemming from these events came to a head on Wednesday, when Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani fired the his powerful defense secretary, whom he accused of disloyalty, and replaced him with a civilian aide. The prime minister's action was seen by supporters as an attempt to reassert civilian control over a military that long has done largely as it pleased.

But Mr. Gillani's actions may have backfired this time: Later that same day, the army put out a statement that stopped just short of threatening to overthrow the country's elected government. Given Pakistan's long history of military coups, few doubt the threat is real.

It may simply be bad luck that the U.S. chose to resume drone strikes in Pakistan just as the country's domestic crisis threatens to bubble over. After the November incident that killed Pakistan's soldiers, American commanders ramped down the drone attacks as a conciliatory gesture, in hopes the hiatus would give both sides time to cool down. That hasn't happened, however, and no one should be surprised if Pakistan's military chiefs now take the resumption of U.S. drone attacks as an opportunity to further pummel their civilian rivals.

The U.S. is right to attack militants on the Pakistan side of the border if that country's military can't or won't deal with the threat themselves. And there's no doubt that the Taliban and al-Qaida militants based in Pakistan pose as grave a threat to Pakistan as to the U.S. and NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan.

But American officials need to tread carefully if they are to avoid becoming ensnarled in the internecine hostility between Pakistan's Islamist-leaning military and the country's civilian leaders, who at least seem willing to engage with the West.

A coup by Pakistan's military — or a prolonged standoff between it and the government — would be a potentially disastrous setback for U.S. efforts to enlist that country's help in brokering peace talks with the Afghan Taliban ahead of the scheduled American troop withdrawal in 2014. Unfortunately, the die already may have been cast. The domestic situation in Pakistan suddenly has become so explosive that the U.S. may soon find itself running out of options to influence what happens there next.