(Updates with analyst comments in fifth paragraph.)
Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Pakistan says it will boycott an international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Germany next week, as it steps up protests following the killing of 24 of its border troops in a NATO air strike.
The decision to pull out from the Dec. 4-5 summit in Bonn was agreed at a meeting of the federal Cabinet today, according to a government statement. The nuclear-armed nation had already closed border crossings to trucks carrying supplies for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and ordered American personnel to vacate the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwest that has served as a launching point for Predator unmanned aircraft.
Pakistan still supports “stability and peace in Afghanistan and the importance of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of reconciliation,” the government said in the statement. “In view of the developments and prevailing circumstances, the country has decided not to participate in the conference.”
The U.S. wants the Bonn meeting to cement a sustained international commitment to stabilize Afghanistan, and prevent any Taliban takeover, following the planned U.S. pullout of its main combat forces by 2014. The U.S. and Afghan governments have said Pakistan’s role is critical as it wields influence with the Taliban and could press the guerrillas for concessions in a peace process.
Following the Nov. 25 airstrike, “there’s a lot of domestic pressure in Pakistan that’s forcing the government to move beyond rhetoric,” said Shaheen Akhter, an analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad. Still, Pakistan can’t afford “to remain on the sidelines as the international community decides on the future of Afghanistan. They will be back at the table soon.”
A similar gathering almost 10 years ago helped form an Afghan government after the U.S. ousting of the Taliban in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Even before Pakistan’s announcement that it will boycott the meeting, the new crisis with the U.S. triggered by the soldiers’ killing had “cast a pall over the Bonn process,” according to South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
“Most doubted that the Bonn conference itself would result in any serious breakthroughs with regard to Afghan reconciliation, and this week’s events seem to make those prospects even dimmer,” Curtis wrote in an analysis published by the foundation yesterday.
Year of Crises
The U.S. and Pakistani governments have been trying to stabilize their relationship after a year that included the detention of a CIA contract employee for killing two Pakistanis, the raid that that killed Osama bin Laden in May, and public accusations by top American officials that Pakistan’s army is actively aiding militant groups that the U.S. defines as terrorist.
The U.S. military says it has begun a high-level investigation into the border killings.
President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the U.S. takes the latest border incident “very seriously,” and will work to maintain cooperation with Pakistan. The two countries have “shared goals” when it comes to combating terrorism, he said.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a weekend phone call that the attack by helicopter gunships triggered a “deep sense of rage” in the country, according to a foreign ministry statement.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan border passes through rugged mountains and desert terrain and is unmarked over most of its more than 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) length. The two countries dispute the border’s location in many areas.
The Pakistani military’s ties to some Afghan militant groups date back to their fight, alongside the U.S., against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“It’s very much in Pakistan’s interest to attend the Bonn conference because the focus of that is all about trying to build a more stable, peaceful Afghanistan,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington yesterday.
The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is “critical to the region’s stability,” Toner said. U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, met with President Asif Ali Zardari today to discuss bilateral ties, according to a statement from Zardari’s office.
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, predicted “this crisis will get papered over” and “the U.S. will face even less prospect that Pakistan will really crackdown on insurgent groups in the border area.”
The U.S. and Pakistan conducted a joint investigation last year after a similar border incident involving several Pakistani deaths. In that case, the resolution prompted a NATO apology and opened border crossings that had been shut in the aftermath of the incident.
--With assistance from James Rupert in New Delhi. Editors: Mark Williams, John Chacko
To contact the reporter on this story: Haris Anwar in Islamabad at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com