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In our opinion: U.S. apology to Pakistan appropriate, necessary to resolve diplomatic impasse

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A driver stands on top of a truck carrying NATO Humvees at a terminal in the Pakistani-Afghan border, in Chaman, Pakistan, Wednesday, July 4, 2012. Trucks carrying NATO troop supplies are set to resume shipments to Afghanistan on Wednesday following a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan that ended Islamabad's seven-month blockade.

Matiullah Achakzai, Associated Press

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The art of diplomacy can be as multi-faceted as it is delicate. The diplomat must consider public opinion and national prestige as well as international relationships and the actual facts at hand. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "apology" to Pakistan for a NATO-led cross-border attack in November that ended up killing 24 Pakistani soldiers is a case in point.

Right-wing critics in this country have castigated her for what they say is a loss of national prestige, something they claim countries in the Middle East will immediately recognize and interpret as a weakness in the Obama administration to be exploited. But if that were truly the case, the extreme factions in Pakistan didn't seem to get the memo.

Right-wing Islamist parties have called for an anti-NATO protest on Sunday. The leader of one such group said the Pakistani government's decision to accept the apology, which really was little more than a statement of regret, is a "document of slavery," according to the Christian Science Monitor. Some Pakistani newspapers see a deeper conspiracy and accuse the government of striking some sort of secret deal with the United States to allow lethal supplies to flow into Afghanistan. The Taliban has vowed to attack and kill the drivers of NATO supply trucks, although it's difficult to believe it wouldn't do such things even without Pakistan having accepted an apology.

History provides plenty of precedent for Clinton's actions. In 1988, for instance, the Reagan administration finally expressed "regrets" over the accidental downing of an Iranian commercial jet, despite claiming Iran was responsible for allowing the jet to leave a military facility and to fly into a hostile area. The administration even agreed to make a payment to the victims' families.

Unlike then, this case involved some delicate and complicating factors. After the attacks, Pakistan closed supply routes NATO was using to bring materials to Afghanistan. That forced the United States and coalition forces to use more expensive and circuitous routes. Meanwhile, the United States continues to struggle with a geographically important Pakistani ally whose government and culture often seem more foe than friend. The way U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden without the knowledge of Pakistan's leaders was evidence of the level of mistrust between the nations, as was the subsequent way Pakistan punished an informant who led U.S. intelligence to bin Laden's compound.

The Obama administration spent seven months refusing to give in to Pakistan's demands, which were for an unconditional apology, an end to U.S. drone attacks and higher transit fees for the trucks NATO drives into Afghanistan. In the end, the secretary of state expressed deep regrets and condolences and said she was sorry for the loss of life (not for the attacks, an important nuance), which she maintained were still partly the responsibility of Pakistan. The other demands seem to have been quietly laid aside.

Both sides took risks in resolving this impasse, but it appears the Pakistanis lost the most. The incident, however, is just one more example of how complicated and dangerous American relations with Pakistan have become.

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