Suck It Up, America: Why We Have to Apologize to Pakistan

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A internal investigation found that the U.S. shares blame for an errant NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistanis, so why won't Obama say we're sorry?

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Protesters in Peshawar burn images of Obama and the American flag in a demonstration against U.S. strikes in Pakistan / Reuters

The Obama administration is actively considering issuing an apology or at least an expression of contrition to Pakistan over the errant NATO strikes that killed at least 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall, even though nearly two months have passed since the completion of an official Pentagon investigation that partially blamed mistakes made by U.S. forces for the incident, U.S. officials said.

The State Department has resurrected the idea after repudiating the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, early on when he pressed for an immediate apology following the incident last November. A Pentagon official, asked about the possibility of a statement of apology or contrition last month, at first said he was unaware there was any discussion going on, then a few days later acknowledged that it was. Now the White House is mulling the language and timing of such a statement, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials are waiting, in part, on a Pakistani parliamentary committee report on the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. And they are hoping for some conciliatory language from Islamabad because, as one U.S. official said, it would make issuing a U.S. statement easier "if the Pakistanis accepted some responsibility" for the NATO incident, which involved miscommunications and poor coordination on both sides, according to the U.S. military inquiry report.

The internal disagreement over whether to assuage the Pakistanis with a face-saving expression of apology or contrition is part of a larger debate within the administration as it puzzles its way through the Afghan endgame. With the United States pushing for talks with the Taliban ahead of a planned withdrawal that is to be phased in starting in 2013, Washington knows that without some help from Islamabad, America could end up bequeathing  a huge safe haven to the Taliban in Pakistan, which has sought to support the Islamist group as a strategic asset. 

Making matters even stickier, the debate comes in an election season when President Obama is being regularly accused of appeasement and, as Mitt Romney regularly puts it, "apologizing for America." Until now the farthest the U.S. government has gone is to "express our deepest regret" for "the loss of life, and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses," according to a Defense Department statement issued after the report.

New rifts have also emerged in the administration over the details of the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some White House officials working on the Afghanistan problem were taken aback when, on Feb. 1, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters about U.S. plans for a partial withdrawal from lead combat roles by mid-2013, before even consulting with other NATO officials. While the plan was generally agreed upon within the administration, the details had still not been clarified.

On Wednesday State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, responding to harsh comments about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship from Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman earlier in the day, said that "divorce is not an option with Pakistan.  We have strategic interests in common, we have a lot of work to do together." Nuland added:  "We're looking forward to the completion of Pakistan's internal review of our military-to-military relationship so we can get back to all the important work we have together."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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