Obama expresses 'condolences' to Pakistan President Zardari in bid to ease tension

That Obama expressed 'condolences' in a phone call to Pakistan President Zardari, was a crucial move for US-Pakistan relations, but it doesn't mean business will be back to normal, say analysts. 

Anjum Naveed/AP
Members of the Azad Welfare Society burn a replica U.S. flag during a rally to condemn NATO airstrikes on Pakistani troops, Sunday, Dec. 4, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Pakistan is refusing to participate in the U.S. investigation of last week's NATO airstrikes along the Afghanistan border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

President Obama telephoned Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari last night to convey his condolences over a cross-border NATO strike last week that sparked a diplomatic crisis, in the strongest gesture of reconciliation by the US following that attack. 

The move, which comes as a major international conference on the future of Afghanistan gets underway in Bonn, Germany despite a Pakistan boycott, is being “seen as a good sign that the US is trying to mend fences at a time when both the Pakistani civilians and military are unhappy with the US,” says a senior Pakistani official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, such an effort was crucial to relations. Retired General Talat Masood, a security analyst, says the call was the least the US could have done, “I think they were expecting a phone call and at least condolence if not an apology.” 

Still, it’s unlikely that Pakistan’s government will revert to business as usual. Pakistani officials are now seeking to rewrite the rules-of-engagement with NATO, according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune. “It is not possible to continue cooperation under the existing arrangements following the NATO attack,” a senior military official told the paper. 

The new agreements are aimed at underlining Pakistan’s “red lines” rather than scrapping the bilateral relationship, which could ultimately prove productive for both the United States and Pakistan, argues Mr. Masood. 

“Making the military rules of engagement more clear should help improve the relationship. It will also strengthen the hand of democratic forces in Pakistan,” who end up taking much of the blame for US violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty, he says. 

According to a White House statement, Mr. Obama expressed regret over the incident and expressed a “full investigation,” adding that the attacks were not deliberate. Previously, Obama had issued a statement of regret through his spokesman while the US ambassador to Pakistan had made a similar statement.

Last week The Wall Street Journal published what appears to be the US version of events, quoting a senior official as saying a Pakistani liaison officer gave the go-ahead for the attack apparently unaware that Pakistani troops were located at the target site. Pakistan’s military, on the other hand, claims that the attack, which left 24 soldiers dead, was a deliberate and unprovoked act of aggression.

That narrative fueled Pakistani government and public anger, and led to the closure of the NATO supply lines from Pakistan to Afghanistan. On Monday, that roadblock stretched into its 10th day at the border post in Chaman, Balochistan as well in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency. Monday and Tuesday are religious public holidays inside Pakistan and it is expected that any changes will occur after.

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