WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled diplomatically Tuesday to repair the damage caused by a NATO air assault that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, hoping Pakistan won't play spoiler in the U.S.-backed plan to shore up Afghanistan's security and bring international forces home.
Senior State and Defense Department officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Islamabad, while the first battlefield accounts suggested that NATO and Pakistani forces may have attacked one another in a tragic case of mistaken identity, with each believing the other was Taliban.
A U.S. investigation was under way into the incident, the deadliest among allies in the decade-long fight against al-Qaida and other extremist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. Its findings may not come fast enough as Pakistani repercussions are already mounting: closed border crossings for NATO supplies and troops, and Tuesday's decision by Islamabad to withdraw from a U.S.-backed meeting on Afghanistan taking place next week in Bonn, Germany.
"Pakistan has a crucial role to play in supporting a secure and stable and prosperous Afghanistan," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday. "It's absolutely critical that Afghanistan's neighbors play a role in its future development, and certainly its relationship with Pakistan has been critical in that regard."
The breakdown of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership comes at an awful time, only weeks after a high-level delegation traveled to Islamabad. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus went to patch up the relationship marred by fights over the arrest of a U.S. intelligence contractor, the American operation to kill Osama bin Laden and repeated disagreements over the links between Pakistani intelligence and militant groups in Afghanistan.
Last week, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn reported improved cooperation along the border and a tapering in incidents of gunfire from Pakistani territory. Officials also have described better U.S.-Pakistani understanding at the political level, which will only become more significant as the United States pulls its troops out of Afghanistan in the next three years and relies on Pakistan to broker reconciliation talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban-led insurgency.
The improvements are now at risk of unraveling. Administration officials are leaving the door open for Pakistan to reverse course and commit to the Bonn conference, but are more perturbed by the idea of a substantial change in Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan. They don't know if the Bonn decision reflects merely another slap at the United States, or if it reflects a broader move away from the U.S. strategy for withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Toner told reporters the conference's goal of a stable Afghanistan was a shared interest. But he demurred on whether Pakistan saw it differently or if it was willing to sacrifice its own interests to retaliate against the United States. He acknowledged: "We are facing a difficult situation, a difficult challenge."
The Dec. 5 Bonn meeting will still bring together representatives from 85 countries and 15 organizations to forge a strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and smooth the planned U.S. drawdown through 2014. Pakistan is perhaps the most important regional country because of its influence on Afghan Taliban factions on its soil. Even before Pakistan's withdrawal, few had high expectations for the conference.
According to the U.S. military records described to The Associated Press, the weekend incident occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested backup after being hit by mortar and small arms fire by Taliban militants. Before responding, the joint U.S.-Afghan patrol first checked with the Pakistani army, which reported it had no troops in the area, the military account said.
A Pakistani army timeline presents a dueling narrative, of Pakistani frontier scouts spotting what they thought was suspicious activity, and opening fire, not knowing a friendly patrol was carrying out an operation in their area. U.S. officials are also investigating if the Taliban lured the joint U.S-Afghan patrol into attacking friendly Pakistani border posts, according to preliminary American military reports.
Pakistan army Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem labeled it a "deliberate act of aggression" on Tuesday.
Asked to respond, Pentagon press secretary George Little said "no one at this point has the complete narrative on what happened, and I think it's important that we wait for the investigation to occur."
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.