The United States and dozens of other countries convened in Bonn, Germany, Monday to discuss Afghanistan’s future. But Pakistan, a key player in any Afghan settlement, boycotted the conference.
Pakistani leaders were deeply angered by the killing of 24 of their soldiers in a NATO airstrike along the Afghan border last month.
Many in Pakistan say relations between the United States and Pakistan have never been worse, though there may be signs of a coming thaw.
Pakistan erupted in fury over the NATO airstrike that killed two dozen soldiers on Nov. 26. Thousands of protesters in Karachi and other major cities chanted, “Anyone who is America’s friend is a traitor.”
There were indications that the airstrike was a friendly-fire incident that began when NATO troops and Pakistani soldiers each thought they were being fired upon by the Taliban.
But Pakistani political leaders swiftly denounced the attack, calling it deliberate and demanding an apology and punishment for those responsible.
“You have to see it in the light of the successive events which have taken place, which are very unfortunate in their nature,” says political commentator Talat Masud. He adds that Pakistanis felt deeply aggrieved over a series of incidents this past year.
Those events, Masud says, included the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was eventually released after shooting and killing two Pakistanis in a confrontation in January.
Then there was the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, when Pakistani officials were not informed in advance about the U.S. raid on their territory.
Pakistan’s Wounded Pride
Masud, a retired lieutenant general, says that Pakistanis have also felt publicly rebuked by U.S. officials over the past few months.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Pakistan’s foreign minister in October that “You can’t expect to keep snakes in your backyard and expect it only to bite neighbors.”
Clinton was referring to U.S. suspicions that Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service, the ISI, tolerate and even support jihadi groups that operate in Afghanistan.
The deadly November border incident, Masud says, was the last straw, leading Pakistani officials to make what he thinks was a rash choice: to boycott the Bonn conference on Afghanistan’s future.
The reason, Masud says, is “because they had, you know, hyped the anti-American sentiment in such a way that it had become difficult for them to participate in the conference. But I think Pakistan should have participated. It would have been very helpful to project Pakistan’s viewpoint.”
In addition to the boycott, Pakistan lashed back in other ways, stopping the flow of supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan and telling the United States to vacate an air base in southwest Pakistan. U.S. forces have been using the Shamsi base to launch drone flights along the Afghan border.
But Cameron Munter, the American ambassador to Pakistan, confirmed Monday that the U.S. has begun to pack up its equipment there, and will try to be out of the base by the Dec. 11 deadline.
Going Too Far?
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a national security analyst in Lahore, says there’s a danger that Pakistan’s powerful military may overdo the retaliation.
“It happens from time to time that the state and government would promote anti-Americanism for immediate reasons,” Askari Rizvi says. “Then, when they backtrack — those Islamists who have been strengthened by this kind of policy would then pounce on you, and accuse you of following Americans because you need money from them.”
For its part, the United States has been trying to assuage Pakistani sensibilities.
Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have called top Pakistani officials to offer condolences to the families of the dead soldiers. But they stopped short of offering the apology that Pakistan wants, saying that will depend on the results of an investigation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said last week that it was important to remain aligned with the U.S. in order to achieve peace in Afghanistan.
“Obviously the two countries need each other, however bad their relationship may be,” Masud says. “So I would say that necessity demands that they again try to engage, and try to restore the relationship to normality.”
How long that will take is another matter.
The Pakistani government may take its time in mending relations, because it feels the need to take a strong stand in the eyes of its angry public.