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Why Obama should apologise to Pakistan

In the wee hours of November 27, US-Nato and Afghan forces based in
Afghanistan’s Kunar province engaged a Pakistani military outpost in
Pakistan’s tribal agency of Momand. Little information is publically
available — or likely to be — about what happened or how. What is clear
is that after several Nato airstrikes, 24 Pakistani soldiers were dead
and many more injured. The episode, and the US response, battered the
ever-strained US-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan immediately cut off
ground routes for logistical support of the US-led war in Afghanistan,
and insisted that the United States vacate Shamsi, one of the airfields
from which the US launched drone attacks.

In quick succession,
Pakistan convened a parliamentary commission to determine whether and
how Pakistan will remain engaged with the United States. Pakistan’s
Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled all of its ambassadors to hold a
high-level strategic discussion about how Pakistan should refashion its
relations with the United States. Their recommendations will be
considered by the same parliamentary commission. Pakistanis, whether
civilian or military, whether in the government or on the street, want
out of this relationship and deeply believe that Americans do not value
Pakistani lives. They may not be wrong.
Pakistani military
officials quickly denounced the attack as deliberate, unprovoked US
aggression and demanded both an immediate apology and a renegotiation of
military and intelligence cooperation. That Pakistani officials made
such pronouncements in the complete absence of information about the
attack cast aspersions on their motives. The move appeared to be another
effort to wriggle free fromWashington’s poisonous embrace, abandon
military operations against anti-Pakistan militants, and pursue an
independent Afghan policy.

While rejecting the Pakistani
military’s account, Nato and US officials declined to officially
speculate about the details of the event — much less offer an apology —
until a full investigation was complete. The investigation is now
complete. The report has been issued, and the Pentagon released a
statement on Thursday saying only that “US forces, given what
information they had available to them at the time, acted in self
defence and with appropriate force after being fired upon.” There was,
the statement said, “no intentional effort to target persons or places
known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide
inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials.” Instead,
“inadequate coordination by US and Pakistani military officers…
resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani
military units.” The statement expressed regret, but neither President
Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued a
forthright apology. Unfortunately, neither is likely to do so given the
toxic atmosphere in Washington and the looming presidential campaign.
US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, urged Obama to apologise,
but he was quickly cut down. Munter has sought to mitigate Pakistanis’
anger by saying in Urdu “humay bahut afsos hai” (“We are very sorry”).
On Monday, he joined several interfaith leaders in offering a prayer at
Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque for the Pakistani soldiers killed on November
27, offering, “We share in this grief, and we share in this sorrow.” The
author’s contacts here in Islamabad and in Washington lament that
instead of heeding the sagacious advice of the ambassador, who
understands the raw sentiments of Pakistanis, some within the US
government dismiss Munter as “having gone native.”
While the
Pentagon report apportions blame to both sides, an astute reader can
only conclude that the most heinous mistakes were not made by Pakistan.
The report claims that Nato and Afghan troops came under fire from
Pakistani positions. (Official Pakistani sources refute this.) Believing
they were under attack by insurgents, the Nato and Afghan troops called
for suppressive air fire. The report concedes that, contrary to
established standard operating procedures, Nato did not inform Pakistan
that the operation on the border was taking place. This supports early
US claims that Nato-Afghan forces came under fire. After all, how could
the Pakistani soldiers know that the forces moving near their area of
operations were “allied forces”? (Americans dismiss this and say
Pakistan should have known better. After all, the insurgents do not have
helicopter gunships.) While one can get caught up in the details of who
fired first and why, Nato’s failure to follow established procedures is

But this is not the most egregious mistake. The
worst — and fatal error — was the fact that the Americans provided the
Pakistani army with incorrect coordinates for the designated targets of
AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters. In the early days of the
incident, there were several claims and counterclaims about whether the
coordinates were given, whether they were correct, and whether the
Pakistan army had cleared the coordinates before the attack. However,
the report makes evident that Pakistan’s clearance of the coordinates or
lack thereof is immaterial: The strikes would still have killed those
innocent soldiers because the coordinates were simply wrong.

details of the report, and its efforts to apportion blame across all
sides, will not satisfy Pakistanis, who feel they have suffered too much
and received too little from this partnership over the last 10 years.
They want nothing more than an apology from Obama. Despite the report’s
tedious efforts to parse culpability, it is obvious that most of the
onus falls on the United States and Nato. So why does the United States
steadfastly refuse to do the right thing and issue a clear apology to
Pakistan and its citizenry in and out of uniform?
Like Pakistanis,
American officials and citizens alike are war weary and angry. As the
endgame in Afghanistan approaches, Americans are now — or should be —
confronting the vacuity of our Afghan policy. Vice President Joe Biden,
who has taken a lot of heat for saying, “the Taliban, per se, is not our
enemy,” was right: We invaded Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda. The
Taliban were not the immediate objects of our intervention. (For this
reason, Biden advocated for a robust counterterrorism strategy and
advised against a counterinsurgency policy that implied a war on the
Taliban and affiliated fighters rather than on al Qaeda.) Once the
United States decided to make the Taliban the enemy — for the simple
reason that the Taliban and affiliated fighters are killing American and
allied troops whom they see as occupying Afghanistan — it also made
Pakistan an enemy as well.

Just as Pakistanis are deeply aggrieved
that US forces killed 24 of their soldiers, Americans are increasingly
outraged that thousands of troops have been killed or maimed in
Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan’s proxies.

But neither the
United States nor Pakistan will benefit from a continued and escalating
standoff. America needs Pakistan to conclude its Afghanistan
misadventure. This requires Pakistan to productively assert its
influence to achieve a negotiated settlement that is palatable to most
in the country.
As for Pakistan, it’s an economic disaster case.
Pakistanis have long endured incomprehensible electricity outages. Now,
they lack inadequate gas to cook or heat their homes. Public
transportation has been strangled by shortages in compressed natural
gas. Water is in acute scarcity. Pakistan’s manufacturing sector is
struggling to remain competitive under these adverse conditions.
Although Pakistan has told the IMF to take a hike, most informed
Pakistanis concede that it will again have to approach the IMF sooner
rather than later. As Pakistan knows well, the United States is a key
actor in that institution. In short, Pakistan and the United States must
forge a sustainable way of working together because the strategic and
regional interests of both depend on it.

The United States must
swiftly act to rectify this mess first by apologising. Second, the US
military must hold to account those officers who are responsible for
this tragedy. Not only should the appropriate personnel be demoted or
ousted per the severity of their negligence, but prosecution may also be
Americans will howl in protest. They may rightly counter
that no senior Pakistani military or intelligence officials lost their
jobs when Osama bin Laden was found hanging out in Abbottabad, a
military garrison town not far from Islamabad. But the United States
claims to promote democracy, accountability, justice, law and order, and
human rights. Now is the time to prove it. Pakistanis need to know that
their lives matter as much as those of others.

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