Pakistan boycotts Bonn conference over NATO strike
Pakistan on Tuesday decided to boycott a key international conference on Afghanistan next month, widening its protest over lethal cross-border NATO strikes and exacerbating a deep crisis in US ties.
The Pakistani cabinet took the decision a week before the talks in the December 5 talks in the German city of Bonn, leaving open the possibility it could yet reverse the decision should Islamabad win concessions in the interim.
"The cabinet has decided not to attend the Bonn meeting," a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity. Tuesday's talks also decided to call a joint session of parliament to discuss the fallout, he said.
The cabinet branded "unilateral action" such as Saturday's NATO strike and the May 2 US killing of Osama bin Laden, which brought the US relationship to its lowest level in years, "unacceptable", the prime minister's office said.
Pakistan has already closed the Afghan border to NATO convoys, a lifeline for 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, ordered American personnel to vacate an air base reportedly used by CIA drones and ordered a review of the alliance.
The Afghan and German governments reacted with disappointment to any boycott, but both indicated it hoped that Islamabad could yet be persuaded.
Although international conferences on Afghanistan are criticised for lacking substance, Pakistan's snub of the donors' meeting would be symbolic given how closely Islamabad is linked to the conflict and any eventual resolution.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would try to convince Pakistan to attend the talks, bringing together foreign ministers from around 100 countries to discuss commitments to Afghanistan after NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
"There is now a very, very good chance for a possible political process. On the one hand I can understand (the boycott) but on the other, we will see what still can be done," she told reporters in Berlin.
Afghanistan, which often has troubled relations with Pakistan, said Islamabad had an "important" role to play at the conference.
"We hope our Pakistani brothers will be there," foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai told AFP, saying his ministry had received no official confirmation from Pakistan that it would not attend.
Pakistani analysts interpreted the planned boycott as brinkmanship.
"It is a way to build pressure to make the United States understand that Pakistan takes this very seriously," political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
US-Pakistani ties have been in free fall since a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January. Saturday's attack raises disturbing questions about the extent to which the two terror allies can cooperate with each other.
US General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, told Britain's ITV News that Pakistani-US relations were "on about as rocky a road" as ever.
"It's had its rocky moments in the past. This one certainly is more serious than any I've been involved with and I've been working issues with Pakistan for the last 10 years," he told the network late Monday.
The US military has given investigators until December 23 to probe the attack, threatening to prolong significantly Pakistan's blockade, putting Brigadier General Stephen Clark, a one-star air force general, in charge.
The team, to include a NATO representative, is yet to arrive in Afghanistan but an initial military assessment team has already been to the border.
Islamabad insists that the air strike was unprovoked, but Afghan and Western officials have reportedly accused Pakistani forces of firing first.
Angry protests over the NATO attack pushed into a fourth day, with 150-200 people demonstrating in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, setting fire to an American flag and an effigy of NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
In the central city of Multan, 250-300 students, including supporters of main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, chanted slogans against NATO raids and expressed assured support to Pakistan armed forces, police said.
Yet behind the rhetoric, Islamabad has little wriggle room, being dependent on US aid dollars and fearful of the repercussions for regional security as American troops wind down their presence in Afghanistan in the coming years.
Last time Pakistan closed the border, in September 2010 after up to three soldiers were killed in a similar cross-border raid, it only reopened the route after the United States issued a full apology.
Nearly half of all cargo bound for NATO-led troops runs through Pakistan. The roughly 140,000 foreign troops, including about 97,000 American forces, rely on supplies from the outside to fight the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
© 2011 AFP