Afghan endgame: Pakistan boycotts key peace meeting

Pakistan announced it would boycott this weekend's Bonn Conference, which aims to chart out a strategy for Afghanistan, in response to a NATO strike.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Supporters of Mutahida Qabail Party (MQP) burn the NATO flag while shouting anti-American slogans during a protest rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday. Pakistan says it will boycott this weekend's international conference, which aims to chart out a strategy for Afghanistan, in response to the NATO strike.

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In response to the NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on Nov. 26,  Pakistan says it will boycott an international conference next week. The conference is meant to bring together all the countries who will be critical players in Afghanistan's post-US future. The absence of Pakistan – which shares a long border with Afghanistan and has influence over insurgent groups that operate in the country –  is significant.

The predominant fear is that Pakistan will pursue its own interests over international ones in Afghanistan, which could be detrimental to the US and its allies in the region. According to the Associated Press, "Pakistan is perhaps the most important regional country because of it influence on Afghan Taliban factions on its soil."

On its own, the Nov. 26 NATO strike might not have been enough to send US-Pakistan relations into such a nosedive. But it follows a CIA contractor's murder of two Pakistanis, the unilateral US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May, and US accusations of Pakistani intelligence complicity with militants – just this year. Cooperation between the two countries in the border region had only just started improving, according to the AP.

Pakistani newspaper The News International reports that US Gen. Martin Dempsey said during a London forum Monday on US-Pakistan relations, "It certainly does look like it's on about as rocky a road as it has been in my memory. And my memory with Pakistan goes back some 20 years or so." However, he said he did not consider the situation "irretrievable."

The US and NATO have apologized for the raid, which they described as a "tragic, unintended incident," and pledged both US and NATO investigations into why NATO fired on two Pakistani border outposts – which according to Pakistan was unprovoked, Reuters reports. Afghan officials claim that the NATO forces were reacting to gunfire coming from the Pakistani side of the border.

According to an initial US report, NATO forces may have been "lured" into attacking the border posts by the Taliban, the Associated Press reports. It appears a joint US-Afghan patrol was attacked by the Taliban that morning and, while pursuing the militants in the ambiguous border region, the patrol mistook Pakistani border outposts for Taliban encampments.

US officials say the reports suggest the Taliban may have deliberately tried to provoke a cross-border firefight that would set back fragile partnerships between the US and NATO forces and Pakistani soldiers at the ill-defined border.

According to the US military records described to the AP, the joint US and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants.

Before responding, the joint US-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.

Some two hours later, still hunting the insurgents — who had by then apparently fled in the direction of Pakistani border posts — the U.S. commander spotted what he thought was a militant encampment, with heavy weapons mounted on tripods.

The joint patrol called for the airstrikes at around 2:21 a.m. Pakistani time, not realizing the encampment was apparently the Pakistani border post.

In an editorial in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, written before the announcement that Pakistan would boycott the Bonn conference, the newspaper writes that the public pressure on the Pakistani government to break ties with the US is concerning because Pakistanis do not realize how important the US-Pakistan relationship is.

 As the deadline for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, there are several areas in which the two need to cooperate. One is security. Coordination along the Pak-Afghan border and the denial of safe havens to militants are necessary for ensuring the security of all three nations. Second, Afghan reconciliation. Attempts to bring Taliban insurgents into the political process are necessary if there is to be any chance of avoiding a repeat of what followed the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. Pakistan will have to be a key player in any process that is effective and durable, but rumours are already afoot that it may boycott the Bonn conference. Third, military and development assistance for Pakistan as tools to combat militancy should be maintained. Saturday`s Nato strike has put all these aspects at risk.

The Pakistani government is also under pressure from its political rivals to keep up a hard-line stance. Pakistan's The Express Tribune reports that the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) said his party supports the government's response so far, which has included cutting supply lines into Afghanistan for the international coalition forces.

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