Pakistan to Boycott Afghanistan Conference in Protest at NATO Airstrikes

Posted November 29th, 2011 at 8:15 am (UTC-5)
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Pakistan has decided to boycott an international conference on Afghanistan’s future in protest at NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a Pakistani-Afghan border region last week.

Officials say the Cabinet of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed on the boycott during a meeting in Lahore Tuesday. The conference is due to be held in Bonn, Germany next Monday. U.S. and Afghan officials had urged Pakistan to attend the forum, which is aimed at developing a strategy to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw in the coming years.

The top U.S. military officer said Monday Pakistan is justified in being angry about the NATO airstrikes that struck several Pakistani border posts on Saturday, but he declined to apologize, citing the need for an investigation.

In an interview with British television network ITV, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said Islamabad has a “reason to be furious” that the weapons that killed the Pakistani troops were the “ordnance of a partner.”

Speaking on a visit to London, General Dempsey appealed for patience from Pakistan to “find out what happened.” The airstrikes hit Pakistani positions in an area of poorly-marked and disputed borders between Afghanistan’s Kunar province and Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region.

The U.S. military said Monday an Air Force general will lead an investigation of the incident and compile an initial report by December 23. The military says Brigadier General Stephen Clark will work with representatives of NATO and the Afghan and Pakistani governments to determine how to prevent similar situations in the future. The United States has expressed regret for the loss of Pakistani lives.

NATO and Afghan officials say their troops called in NATO airstrikes in response to incoming fire from areas near the Pakistani border posts. Pakistan’s army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, has denied that Pakistani troops fired first and accused the NATO and Afghan officials of making excuses.

In a report published Tuesday, the Associated Press quotes unnamed U.S. officials as saying military investigators believe Taliban militants attacked a U.S.-Afghan patrol in the border region to try to create confusion and draw U.S. and Pakistani forces into firing on each other.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Monday relations with the United States are no longer “business as usual” following the killings of the Pakistani soldiers. In an interview with U.S. television network CNN, Mr. Gilani said Pakistan is not receiving the “mutual respect” that he says is necessary for the U.S. relationship to continue.

The Pakistani government also has responded to the incident by shutting down NATO’s Pakistani supply routes into Afghanistan and ordering U.S. personnel to evacuate an air base in Baluchistan province within two weeks. Experts believe the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been using the Shamsi air base to launch drones that patrol and fire missiles on militant targets in Pakistani-Afghan border regions.

In his interview, General Dempsey said U.S.-Pakistani relations are “on about as rocky a road as I have seen.” But, he said the situation is not irretrievable and military-to-military ties remain “solid” due to common interests such as fighting terrorism.