ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — U.S. efforts to enlist Pakistani cooperation for peace talks with the Taliban were in limbo Sunday, as the circumstances surrounding a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers remained in dispute and Pakistan threatened to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan’s future.
The military coalition in Kabul said it was still investigating the Saturday morning incident, but a spokesman suggested a joint U.S.-Afghan operation had called in the NATO helicopters for support after coming under fire. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasumussen called it a “tragic unintended accident.” But Pakistani officials maintained that the air assault was unprovoked, sustained and continued even after the Pakistani military informed its coalition counterparts at two joint border centers that an official checkpost was under attack.
Pakistan has blocked vital supply routes for U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan after coalition aircraft allegedly killed 24 Pakistani troops. The Obama administration has pledged a full investigation into the incident. (Nov. 26)
The disagreements underscored the vast fissures between the warily allied countries amid efforts to engineer a negotiated settlement to the war in Afghanistan, which U.S. officials say requires Pakistani participation. U.S. and Pakistani officials have worked to improve relations despite regular blows to their alliance, and military officials have focused on border coordination. But officials on both sides said the NATO airstrike appeared to represent a monumental failure of communication.
“This is a mess,” said a U.S. military official in Kabul, who, like other officials, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation.
In a phone call Sunday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the airstrike inside Pakistani territory “negates the progress made by the two countries on improving relations.” Her office said it was now undecided about attending the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in early December. Afghan and American officials view Pakistan’s attendance — and its help with peace talks -- as important because of the influence it is believed to have over the Taliban.
The incident once again ground regular diplomatic encounters to a halt, as has happened after other recent crises, including the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. Pakistan said it is reviewing its intelligence and diplomatic relations with the United States, and officials said Sunday that various upcoming U.S.-Pakistan meetings on reconciliation and other topics had been put on hold.
“This is pretty serious,” a U.S. official said. “We should not expect this to blow over soon.”
As Pakistan buried the 24 soldiers Sunday, its two main border crossings remained closed to cargo trucks that carry nearly half of the supplies to coalition troops in Afghanistan. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the move, enacted Saturday in response to the air assault, would be permanent. American officials view that as unlikely, but they say the blockade could last longer than the 10-day stoppage after a NATO airstrike killed two Pakistani soldiers last year.
Anger over the incident gripped Pakistan, leaving the unpopular government little incentive to soften its stance.Thousands of people protested the strike outside the U.S. consulate in the southern city of Karachi. Religious parties and banned militant outfits demonstrated in various cities, calling for retaliation against what they described as an offensive attack.