KABUL — The Afghan police general watched on television as Pakistani soldiers solemnly saluted the coffins of 24 of their comrades who were killed in a U.S. military airstrike Saturday.
The general stood up in disgust. “That’s the best thing America has done in 10 years here,” he said.
While U.S. officials from the war zone to the White House offered contrite condolences to the families of the dead and scrambled to repair the tattered relationship with Pakistan, Afghan officials have taken a tougher line. Frustrated by a Taliban insurgency they are convinced is supervised by and based in Pakistan, they have expressed little remorse, even accusing Pakistan of exaggerating the gravity of the situation to deflect attention from its own meddling in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said the strike — which followed an operation by U.S. Special Operations forces and Afghan army commandos — was justified because the troops came under fire first from a Pakistani border post. “We have absolutely nothing to apologize for,” a senior official said.
The decision by Pakistan’s cabinet Tuesday to boycott next week’s international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, seemed likely to keep the mutual suspicion between the neighbors at a strong simmer. The conference was once considered a chance to lure Taliban representatives to negotiate, but that plan never materialized.
The meeting’s importance will now depend on whether it can show that the countries in the region, as well as the West, are committed to supporting Afghanistan’s government and working together to end the war. Pakistan’s cooperation is crucial in this regard — particularly given its influence over the Taliban — and its absence would be a clear symbol that peace remains elusive.
The Pakistani cabinet, after a meeting in the eastern city of Lahore, said in a statement that it supports “stability and peace in Afghanistan and the importance of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of reconciliation.” But Pakistan, it said, had decided to bow out of the conference “in view of the developments and prevailing circumstances.”
According to an account by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s office, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had called Gilani to plead against a boycott, arguing that it would not encourage peace in Afghanistan. Gilani responded: “How could a country whose own sovereignty and territorial integrity were violated from the Afghan soil . . . play a constructive role?”
Karzai expressed his condolences to the Pakistani people and told Gilani that “insecurity in the region causes these kinds of incidents,” his office said.
One Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity called the boycott “very unfortunate,” adding, “Pakistan is taking itself from the table precisely when it should be contributing to a solution in Afghanistan.”
In addition to bowing out of the Bonn conference, Pakistan has blocked NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and told U.S. officials to vacate a base in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. In a bid to repair the rift, coalition officials have offered sympathy and expressed hope that an investigation, led by U.S. Central Command, will clarify why the airstrike took place.
“The events of Saturday morning were tragic, from our point of view, and that is why the commander has not only expressed immediately his condolences but also expressed his feelings as a fellow soldier,” said Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a NATO spokesman in Kabul. “When it comes to the incident itself, all the questions — who was where, how was the situation developing, what was the use of close air support and who talked to whom — is part of the investigation, and we have to wait for the outcome.”
Pakistani officials have not appeared appeased. Pakistan has to do “some serious introspection” regarding the international effort in Afghanistan, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered.” Pakistan’s role, she said, “has not be appreciated enough. And on top of that, to have an incident in which we feel, at best, giving the benefit of doubt, our soldiers lost their lives to this extremely callous attitude — this episode has obviously created a lot of rage in Pakistan.”
Two senior Pakistani military officers who briefed local editors and commentators Tuesday reiterated Islamabad’s contention that coalition forces had ignored appeals by Pakistan for NATO helicopters to stop firing on its checkpoints.
All Pakistani soldiers at the post, as well as the reinforcements sent to assist them, were uniformed, said Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, the director general of military operations.
“All coordination procedures were violated. At multiple levels in ISAF, it was known that they were attacking Pakistani posts, but they continued with impunity,” he said, according to an editor who was present. Nadeem said the Pakistani military concluded that the strike was an “attack of blatant aggression.”
That assessment appeared to be gaining ground in Pakistan, where newspaper editorials and street protesters, including members of an association of Pakistani truckers who carry supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, called for an end to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States.
Asked whether she thought the attack was deliberate, Khar said, “We would like to wait for the investigations. Currently, the briefings that we have gotten seem to be pointing toward a direction which is not a happy place to be in. If it is a deliberate attempt,” she said, then the question of Pakistan’s future policy “would obviously be much, much, much more serious.”
In Lahore, Shahbaz Sharif, the top official of the opposition-led province of Punjab, met with the wife of a soldier who was killed in the airstrike. According to a statement from Sharif’s office, the widow, “despite being in a deep state of grief and sorrow, said, ‘Those we are fighting for are not our friends.’ ”
To Afghan officials frustrated by Pakistan’s perceived lack of cooperation, those sentiments ring false.
“It’s simply overreaction,” said the senior Afghan official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have suffered, they have suffered, I mean, come on. Our police and army people die in scores every day. And Pakistani civilians die every day. . . . This time, it’s been military casualties.”
A former Afghan official said Karzai is regularly frustrated by what he sees as the United States’ failure to take stronger action against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan or pressure Pakistan’s military or intelligence agency to address the problem.
“We put all our eggs in the American basket,” he said. “The problem is, that basket has a huge hole in it, and it’s called Pakistan.”
Brulliard reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Special correspondents Javed Hamdard in Kabul; Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan; and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.