Ex-Cannon commander leading investigation into Pakistani deaths

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan has withdrawn from an international conference on stabilizing Afghanistan to protest the deadly attack by American forces on its troops, widening a fresh rupture in ties with a nominal ally that is endangering the U.S. plan for gradually ending the war.

In an unusually hostile comment, a top Pakistani army general said Tuesday that the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers were the result of a “deliberate act of aggression.” He said the military has not decided whether to take part in an American investigation into the weekend encounter along the mountainous Afghan border.

Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, announced Monday he has appointed Brig. Gen. Stephen Clark, a former Cannon Air Force Base commander, to lead an investigation and include input from the NATO-led forces as well as the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

Pakistan’s hard line was aimed partly at pacifying the country’s anti-American public, most of whom detest their leaders’ close association with Washington. The uncompromising stance of the army was also likely designed to press for more concessions from Washington.

Regardless of motive, Pakistan’s retaliatory moves and tough rhetoric lower the chances of greater cooperation in the Afghan war and will make it harder to repair ties with the U.S. once emotions cool.

Those ties have been beset by crises for the most of the year, most notably after the U.S. raid on May 2 that killed Osama bin Laden and wounded Pakistani pride. Each time, U.S. officials have worked to get the relationship back on track, knowing that Pakistan’s influence over Afghan Taliban leaders could be key to achieving a negotiated settlement that would allow American combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Pakistan needs American aid and diplomatic support but has shown no willingness to listen to American requests to fight insurgents who use the border as a staging area to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan. Indeed, the army is widely believed to support those militants, hoping they can help ensure that any future regime in Kabul shares Pakistan’s hostility to India.

Differing versions of Saturday’s incident have emerged, but all agree that 24 Pakistan soldiers were killed in attacks on two bases by NATO aircraft. NATO has described the incident as “tragic and unintended,” and U.S. officials have expressed their sympathies with the families of the dead.

Hours after the attack, Pakistan closed its two crossings on the western border to trucks delivering fuel, vehicles and food to NATO troops in Afghanistan. A NATO official said military operations could run at the current pace for “several months” because the alliance has stockpiles of supplies and alternative routes into the country.

Islamabad also ordered the U.S. to vacate within 15 days an air base in southwest Pakistan that housed CIA drones which attack militants along the Afghan border. U.S. officials have said this will not greatly impact the drone program because most of the aircraft are flown from bases in Afghanistan.