NATO strike on Pakistan military 'couldn't come at a worse time'

US officials are scrambling to avoid a further breakdown in US-Pakistan relations after a mistaken NATO strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistani protesters shout slogans against America and NATO in Lahore, Pakistan on Saturday. Pakistan on Saturday accused NATO helicopters and fighter jets of firing on two army checkpoints in the country's northwest and killing 24 soldiers. Banner reads 'Terrorist NATO and America quit our country.'

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As the fallout from a mistaken NATO attack on a Pakistani border outpost on Saturday continues, Pakistan has ordered the US to clear out an airbase it used for drone attacks on targets in Afghanistan.

The US is scrambling to avoid a further scuppering of US-Pakistan ties, which have already deteriorated tremendously in the months since the unilateral US raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout.

Although the US has mistakenly attacked Pakistani targets before, this strike was far deadlier, according to the Guardian. A Pakistani government emergency committee convened in Islamabad announced today that Pakistan would " 'revisit and undertake a complete review of all programs, activities and cooperative arrangements' with the US, and US-led forces in Afghanistan, 'including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence.' "

"It is a very tragic incident and it couldn't come at a worse time," said Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We are all aware of the grave consequences that an incident like this can have."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta released a "rare" joint statement Saturday expressing their condolences.

The Shamsi airbase, located in western Baluchistan (see map), is the base for the US drone program, according to the Guardian. It was given over to the US after 9/11 and was "heavily used for launching the war in Afghanistan." However, the Wall Street Journal reports that the US ceased using the base for drone attacks this summer after Pakistan banned it this summer. 

Pakistan also blocked supply routes for NATO troops in Afghanistan following the attack, in which ISAF helicopters accidentally shelled checkpoints on the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. At least 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed and at least 13 injured.

Agence France-Presse reports that Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar contacted Ms. Clinton to convey Pakistan's "deep sense of rage."

According to a statement from the foreign ministry, Ms. Khar said “such attacks are totally unacceptable. They demonstrate complete disregard for international law and human life, and are in stark violation of Pakistani sovereignty."

“This negates the progress made by the two countries on improving relations and forces Pakistan to revisit the terms of engagement,” Khar added.

Last year, Pakistan closed a border crossing for 10 days after a similar incident in which a NATO strike accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers. After an investigation, the US "deemed the incident an accident" and apologized, the Washington Post reports.

The Pakistani reaction implies that the anger comes not only from the severity of this attack, but the fact that it is only the latest of a string of accidental or misguided attacks, as evident in an editorial from Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune:

Like all cliches, the one about the trigger-happy Yank who likes to go it alone persists to this day because it contains a kernel of truth. … Without implying that the attack was a deliberate one, the shoot-first, ask-questions-later policy that is standard practice for troops in Afghanistan makes such tragedies inevitable.

The fact is that such incursions of our sovereignty have become routine and we have become so dependent on the US that we just have to grin and bear it.

As the Washington Post notes, the border region is at the crux of the troubled US-Pakistan relationship. The US accuses Pakistani intelligence of complicity with militants who launch attacks from Pakistan on NATO troops in Afghanistan while Pakistan says US strikes incense militants who could easily be finding refuge in eastern Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Afghan officials said Sunday that the US attack was provoked by fire from one of the Pakistani outposts. Two of the officials work in the border area and said that the NATO forces were targeting Taliban forces in the area when someone opened fire from the Pakistani base. Another official in Kabul backed them up, saying at an emergency meeting in the capital, "It was a response to incoming fire."

US officials in Washington said a US offensive on insurgents operating in eastern Afghanistan has heightened US-Pakistan tensions in the border region the last few months, according to the Washington Post.

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