KABUL, Afghanistan — Pakistan resumed some cooperation with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan following NATO strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers by working with the coalition to prevent another cross-border incident from escalating, a spokesman said Wednesday.
The weekend airstrikes have severely strained the already troubled relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., jeopardizing Washington’s hopes of enlisting Islamabad’s support in winding down the Afghan war.
Pakistan is still outraged by the soldiers’ deaths and has retaliated by closing its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies, demanding the U.S. vacate an air base used by American drones and boycotting an international conference aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan.
But NATO said Islamabad communicated with the alliance to prevent an exchange of fire over the border late Tuesday from turning into another international incident.
U.S. forces received mortar and recoilless rifle fire from an area just inside the Pakistan border, said U.S. spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura. U.S. forces returned fire in self-defense while confirming with the Pakistani military that it wasn’t involved. No damage or casualties were reported by the U.S. or Pakistan, he said.
German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, expressed hope that Pakistan’s cooperation in resolving the incident in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia province signaled the two sides could recover from the recent tragedy.
“We are continuing operations and it is of great importance that the incidents of Saturday, as tragic as they were, do not disrupt our capability to operate in the border area and cooperate with the Pakistani side,” said Jacobson.
The Pakistani military did not immediately respond to request for comment on the latest incident.
Pakistani and American officials have offered different accounts of how NATO aircraft attacked two Pakistan army posts before dawn Saturday. But it seems clear that a breakdown in communication contributed to the tragedy.
According to U.S. military records described to The Associated Press, the 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.
Pakistani officials have refuted this claim and said U.S. forces must have known they were attacking Pakistani soldiers because the posts were clearly marked on maps given to NATO and the two sides were in contact immediately before and during the airstrikes.
Pentagon press secretary George Little disputed suggestions that the attack on the Pakistani troops was deliberate.
“In no way, shape or form should this be construed as in intentional attack on Pakistan by the United States. That is simply incorrect,” Little told reporters in Washington.
The Pakistan army on Wednesday released photographs and video of the posts that were attacked in the Mohmand tribal area. The images show small, damaged structures made out of stacked gray stones perched on a steep, barren mountain ridge. A white flag flew next to one of the posts.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said he rejected person pleas from the Afghan president and the German chancellor to reconsider Islamabad’s decision to boycott the conference Monday in Bonn, Germany, on Afghanistan.
Few had high expectations for the conference, but the absence of Pakistan will make even minor progress more difficult. The Taliban called the conference an “American trap” and a plot to “further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation” in statement posted on its website Wednesday, according to Site Monitoring Services, a U.S.-based group that tracks militant websites.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have long had a strained relationship even though the two countries have ethnic and cultural similarities. Islamabad is angry at Kabul because the NATO aircraft that carried out the strikes that killed its soldiers were based in Afghanistan.
“Afghan land has been used against Pakistan, and we are protesting against this,” Gilani told reporters in the southern city of Karachi. “We don’t want the land of our brother country, which is like a twin, to be used against Pakistan.”
Pakistanis have staged small rallies protesting the strikes in the country’s major cities, many of them organized by anti-U.S. Islamist parties.
Re-establishing a workable relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. is important because Islamabad is critical to the process of peace negotiations with the Taliban. Pakistan has historical ties with the group and is seen as the actor with the greatest leverage to push the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai moved forward with those efforts Wednesday, meeting with members of a council he set up to broker peace with the Taliban and reiterating the need for “honest cooperation with Pakistan for providing opportunities for negotiation with the opposition.”
Karzai also told members of the peace council that he was in favor of changing the panel’s composition to include more individuals who might be able to bridge the divide between the insurgents and the government. Tribal leaders, religious figures and clerics also should be given more opportunity to assist with the peace process, Karzai told them.