It has been seven months since US airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on their own soil, near the Afghan border. US officials have expressed regret for the loss of life and acknowledged that mistakes were made by both countries which led to the disaster, but they never apologized. An apology is long overdue.
The refusal to apologize has led many in Pakistan to conclude that the killings were deliberate. To express its outrage, Pakistan has shut down NATO convoys that deliver essential supplies to US troops in Afghanistan, giving up much-needed income. The closure has taken a financial toll on the United States as well, since it forces the US military to take a far more expensive route. Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave the first public estimate of the closure’s cost: $100 million a month.
Pakistani officials say they would have quickly reopened the routes if they had received a swift apology. But a number of factors, including bad blood between the two countries, got in the way. Some in the Pentagon wanted to wait until after an internal investigation of the incident was completed in December. After that, debates raged over the timing and wording of an apology. To make matters worse, Pakistani diplomats have been informed several times that American officials were on the verge of saying sorry. Pakistani officials say they were told that an apology would be issued after Pakistan’s parliament released a report on the incident on April 12. They traded e-mails with American diplomats, coordinating the timing of the report and the response. But after the report was released, the promised apology never came.
One reason is that some in the US military are convinced that elements in Pakistan’s intelligence service are supporting the Haqqani terrorist network, which is killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. They balk at the idea of apologizing to a country that they believe has had a hand in deadly attacks. Officials who take this view are more interested in finding ways to prosecute the war in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help than repairing the relationship. But this view is short-sighted. As extremist as some elements in Pakistan are, the refusal to apologize for an accident won’t make them any more moderate. The longer the United States waits, the more hardened each side becomes. Recently, Pakistan has allegedly upped the ante by demanding not just an apology, but far larger payments per truck in order to reopen the supply lines.
There is also another powerful motivation at work in the saga of the delayed apology: the presidential election. Mitt Romney’s book, “No Apology,” criticizes Obama for allegedly saying sorry for US mistakes. Some in the White House believe Obama will look weak and play into that narrative if he apologizes to Pakistan now. But the refusal to apologize, even when the United States is in the wrong, doesn’t make this country stronger. It just makes us stubborn. And it makes an expensive war even more costly.