ISLAMABAD - Pakistan said Tuesday it will boycott an upcoming meeting in Germany on the future of Afghanistan to protest the deadly weekend attack by U.S.-led forces on its troops, widening the fallout from an incident that has sent ties between Washington and Islamabad into a tailspin.
The decision to skip the major international conference, which has been a year in the planning, will trigger concerns in Washington and Kabul that Pakistan is withdrawing from international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before and after the withdrawal of foreign combat forces in 2014.
The strike Saturday along the Afghan-Pakistani border killed 24 Pakistani troops and triggered fury in Islamabad.
Hours after the incident, Islamabad closed its western border to trucks delivering supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan and said it will review all cooperation with NATO and the United States.
The decision to boycott the Bonn conference was taken during a Pakistani Cabinet meeting in the city of Lahore, said three officials who attended the meeting. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media ahead of an official announcement.
The Dec. 5 meeting was to bring together Western and regional leaders to forge a strategy to stabilize Afghanistan and smooth the planned American withdrawal from the country in 2014. Pakistan is perhaps the most important regional country because of it influence on Afghan Taliban factions on its soil, and U.S. and Pakistani officials had been urging Islamabad to attend.
Given the general pessimism about the future of Afghanistan, few had high expectations the conference would result in significant progress. But the absence of Pakistan will make even minor achievements much more difficult.
"We expect the government of Pakistan as our long-term neighbor and friend to attend," said Ashraf Ghani, who is leading efforts for Afghan security forces to take over from foreign troops, on Monday. "There are 100 countries and international organizations that are attending this conference.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin what while she has "understanding for their decisions," she is hoping that Germany can persuade Pakistan to change its mind.
She says "they should still understand that the Afghanistan conference is a very important one" and adds that "it's a very good opportunity to bring forward the political process."
She says "we hope that they will review their decision."
There have been conflicting versions of what led to the attack by NATO aircraft on Saturday, though most accounts say it was likely a case of friendly fire, launched after a joint Afghan and U.S. special forces team received fire from the Pakistan side of the border.
NATO and the U.S. are investigating the incident, and have expressed regret at the loss of Pakistani lives.
At a press briefing, Maj-Gen Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, the director general of military operations, said that NATO/U.S. forces "knew it was a Pakistani post. The posts were engaged without seeking clearance."
This, reports CBS News Farhan Bokhari, contradicts a claim by NATO that it was a case of having mistakenly identified the Pakistani military base as an insurgent outpost.
"It was an unprovoked act of blatant aggression," Ahmed said. "In spite of Pakistan's requests, the attacks did not cease immediately."
The incident pushed already deeply troubled ties between Pakistan and the United States closer to breakdown after a year that has seen a succession of crises. At the heart of tensions are allegations that Pakistan is supporting militants in Afghanistan in the hope of ensuring a regime that is friendly to Islamabad and hostile to its enemy, India, when America withdraws.
Pakistan is understandably angry over the death of its soldiers, but its leaders appear to be playing up their outrage to satisfy the demands of the already intensely anti-American public. It also seeks fresh leverage in the relationship with Washington, which despite the mistrust, neither side wants to break entirely.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it's likely that this crisis "will get papered over" with some sort of U.S. or NATO apology and a "bribe in the form of better aid flows."
"In the process, however, the U.S. will face even less prospect that Pakistan will really crack down on insurgent groups in the border area, or stop seeing Afghanistan as an area where it competes with India and which is useful for strategic depth in some future war with India," said Cordesman.