Deadly Pakistan Friendly Fire Attack: U.S. Apologizes, But That Will Not Fix the Relationship

There’s that great quote by President Kennedy along the lines of “forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” The same reasoning I think can be applied to apologies.

I certainly winced a little after reading Secretary Clinton’s statement following her call with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, during which she formally apologized for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a “friendly fire” incident back in November. The clash prompted Pakistan to close U.S. military supply routes to Afghanistan, barring an apology, which neither the Pentagon nor the Obama administration was prepared to issue until now.

America does a lot of things exceptionally well, but saying “we’re sorry” is traditionally not one of them, especially when it’s to as recalcitrant and infuriating an “ally” as Pakistan. But this was a smart move on the part of the administration and yet another diplomatic feat for Clinton, who has displayed again how capable she is in her role and just how irreplaceable she will be.

One “sorry” has re-opened the ground supply lines into Afghanistan, which are crucial to equipping U.S. and NATO troops and will prove even more vital as the coalition there begins to disengage from the region. Since Pakistan closed the borders eight months ago, it has cost the U.S. nearly $100 million more a month to rely on longer supply routes through Central Asia and Russia. Pakistan has also agreed to waive a proposed transit tax of $5,000 per container. In fact, it would appear that Pakistan got little more out of this deal than Clinton’s apology; there was no compromise for instance on the use of U.S. drone strikes within Pakistani territory.

But before the American exceptionalist crowd starts whining about yet another perceived Obama concession, there are two points worth discussing. First, America ought to grow more comfortable with apologies, especially when it comes to “greater good” arguments like ground supply lines into Afghanistan. We are doing our best to tidy up what has become an unruly war and if an apology makes it that much easier to withdraw U.S. troops, then I’d be happy to sweeten the deal (maybe that is the estimated $1.1 billion in reimbursements the U.S. is releasing to Pakistan for the cost of counter-insurgency operations along the Afghan border).

And second, I return to President Kennedy’s advice. Apologizing for an incident that was a “miscommunication on both sides, but fatalities on only one,” in the words of the estimable Vali Nasr, is by no means wiping the slate clean with Pakistan. For all the wrongs we have done that country, there is no question we are owed more than a few explanations, and definitely a few apologies, ourselves. Thoughtful pundits like Nasr, or Ahmed Rashid, or Bruce Reidel say U.S. security is inherently linked with Pakistan’s own development needs, and thus the imperative to improve this battered relationship as soon as possible.

Perhaps that’s true. But whoever the president is by the time this war is hopefully over in 2014 ought always to remember, in evaluating bi-lateral relations going forward, what a prickly, unhelpful, and even subversive partner Pakistan has been. An apology is one thing, reconciliation is quite another.