Pakistan on Tuesday temporarily recalled some troops from border posts meant to coordinate activity with international forces in Afghanistan as relations have been pushed to an all-time low by NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The troops were pulled back for “consultation” on how to improve coordination with NATO and should be back at their posts within the next few days, said Pakistan Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. He did not specify the number of troops who would be recalled, but said some would remain at the border centres.
The decision, however, highlighted current problems with coordination because U.S. military officials seemed to think it was another retaliatory move by Pakistan for the NATO strikes. The officials feared it would hamper efforts to liaise with Pakistani forces and increase the risk for another misunderstanding.
U.S. military officials said late Monday that Pakistan was pulling out of at least two of the three centres along the border and expressed concern about the potential impact. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The U.S. and Pakistan have offered different accounts of what led to the NATO attacks against two army posts along the Afghan border before dawn on November 26, 2011 but the deadly incident seems to have been caused in part by communication breakdowns.
The soldiers’ deaths have further strained already tense U.S.-Pakistan relations, threatening Washington’s attempts to get Pakistan to cooperate on the Afghan war.
Pakistan retaliated immediately 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 held on Monday in Bonn, Germany, aimed at stabilising Afghanistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday that Pakistan wants to repair relations with the United States. But there is still simmering anger in the country and ties have steadily deteriorated despite billions of dollars in American aid.
NATO attacks have killed Pakistani troops at least three different times along the porous and poorly defined border since 2008, but the November 26, 2011 incident in the Mohmand tribal area was by far the most deadly.
U.S. officials have said the strike occurred when a joint U.S. and Afghan patrol requested air support after coming under fire. The U.S. checked with the Pakistan military to see if friendly troops were in the area and were told there were not, they said.
Pakistan has said the Americans gave the wrong coordinates an allegation denied by U.S. defence officials. Pakistani officials have also said the attack continued even after military authorities contacted one of the border coordination centres.
Mr. Gilani said on Monday that negotiating new ties with the U.S. would ensure that the two countries “respected each other’s red lines” regarding sovereignty and rules of engagement along the border.
“We really want to have good relations with the U.S. based on mutual respect and clearly defined parameters,” he said in the interview at his residence in the eastern city of Lahore.
Despite Mr. Gilani’s gentler rhetoric, the gulf between the two nations remains wide. U.S. officials have said the airstrikes have been the most serious blow to a relationship that has been battered by a series of crises this year, including the covert American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. Pakistan was outraged because it wasn’t told about the operation beforehand.
The Obama administration wants continued engagement even as Pakistan’s refusal to attack sanctuaries used by Afghan insurgents along the border has fuelled criticism in Congress the country is a duplicitous ally unworthy of American aid.
Many analysts believe Pakistan wants to preserve its historical ties with Afghan insurgents because they could be key allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
Pakistan has said its troops are stretched too thin battling Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the state. A gunfight between soldiers and Pakistani Taliban fighters in the Kurram tribal area on Tuesday left two soldiers and 12 militants dead, said Wajid Khan, a local government administrator.
Even if Pakistan won’t attack Afghan insurgents, U.S. officials hope Pakistan will cooperate in pushing them to participate in peace talks.