- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan‘s army chief will hold his first meeting with senior U.S. commanders Wednesday to discuss American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts last year.

The attack, which the U.S. has said was an accident and Pakistan claimed was deliberate, severely strained the already troubled relations between the two allies. Both sides have said they want to repair ties and move forward, but they have made little progress.

Pakistan retaliated for the November airstrikes by kicking the U.S. out of a base used by American drones and closing its border to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The U.S. is eager to get the supplies moving again because it has had to spend much more money shipping goods by an alternative route that runs through Central Asia. The supply line through Pakistan also will be key to trucking out equipment as the U.S. seeks to withdraw most of its combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

A workable relationship is also important because Pakistan is seen as key to striking a peace agreement with the Taliban that would allow U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan without the country descending into further chaos.

Pakistanalso would benefit from patching up relations because U.S. assistance has helped keep its struggling economy afloat. The U.S. has given Pakistan billions of dollars in aid since 2001 to enlist its support in fighting Islamist militants, but the relationship has been plagued by mistrust.

The Pakistani army said Gen. Asfhaq Pervez Kayani and the top U.S. commander in the region, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, and the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, will discuss the investigation of the American airstrikes and ways to improve border coordination. The meeting will be held at army headquarters in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital, Islamabad, the army statement said.

Pakistan has demanded a direct apology for the deaths of its soldiers, but this has been complicated by domestic political considerations in the U.S. and conflicting accounts of who is to blame for the incident.

A U.S. investigation found that mistakes were made on both sides but that the airstrikes came after Pakistani troops fired at U.S. and Afghan special forces who were conducting an operation on the Afghan side of the border.

Pakistan refused to participate in the investigation, claiming past probes of border incidents were biased. It conducted its own inquiry, which rejected the U.S. allegation that its troops fired first and claimed the American attack was deliberate.

The attack followed a string of other incidents that had damaged the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, including the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town last May and the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis at the hands of a CIA contractor last January.

Pakistan‘s Parliament currently is debating a revised framework for its relationship with the U.S.

Washington hopes the process will result in the border being reopened to NATO supplies, but it’s unclear whether the U.S. would be willing to meet Parliament’s demands and whether the parliamentarians themselves can come to a consensus.

The proposed demands being debated include an apology for the deadly airstrikes, an end to American drone attacks in the country and more money for NATO supplies that are shipped through Pakistan.

Washington has expressed regret for the border incident but has avoided a formal apology. U.S. officials reportedly were preparing to apologize last month but had to postpone the plan after U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Koran in Afghanistan. President Obama apologized for that incident, bring criticism from political opponents.

U.S. officials have offered key concessions to Pakistan in a bid to save the CIA’s drone campaign in the country, including giving the Pakistanis advance notice of a strike and limiting the types of targets. But the offers were flatly rejected, said U.S. and Pakistani officials.

The drone attacks are very unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation denied by the U.S.

Pakistani officials repeatedly have criticized the attacks as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, but the government has helped with some of the strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under serious strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.

Mr. Obama met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Seoul on Tuesday. He said the U.S. and Pakistan are seeking a balanced partnership that respects Pakistan‘s sovereignty “but also respects our concerns with respect to our national security and our needs to battle terrorists who have targeted us in the past.”



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