U.S. Agonizes Over Apology to Pakistan For nearly six months after U.S.-led forces accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani troops at the Afghanistan border, officials at the highest reaches of the Obama administration have been locked in a heated debate over what might appear to be a small stepâ€”apologizing for the loss. The U.S. had expressed "regret" for the Nov. 26 deaths. But whether to publicly apologize, at the risk of appearing weak to Pakistan or American voters, was argued in dozens of video conference calls, nearly 20 high-level White House meetings and hundreds of confidential emails. The administration came to the brink of saying sorry several times. One mission to deliver an apology by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was aborted midflight. Pakistan kept closed an important supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan while waiting, with the delay extracting a steep price that U.S. officials say will only go up. Islamabad this week indicated that it would reopen the supply route in return for up to a 30-fold increase in the passage fees, officials said. The U.S. last year moved 35,000 shipping containers through Pakistan, paying the country nearly $200 in fees for each, congressional officials said. The decision to reopen the supply route came as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari announced he would attend a two-day summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that begins Sunday in Chicago. U.S. officials said privately that Pakistan's proposed fee increase was unreasonable. A Pentagon spokesman said negotiations were continuing. Officials expect a compromise as early as the NATO meeting. The drawn-out debate shows how the U.S. remains confounded by efforts to repair relations with Pakistan. It was complicated by election year politics. And it revealed tensions within the Obama administration's national-security team, which on issues involving Afghanistan and Pakistan has struggled to reach consensus and deliver a coordinated message. Advocates of apology, in particular among U.S. diplomats, said it was the best way to mend relations. Opponents said it would be interpreted as U.S. weakness just as Washington wanted to pressure Pakistan to root out militant havens along its border, including those launching attacks on U.S. troops. This account of the diplomatic tug of war is based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former officials of the Obama administration, as well as Pakistani officials. The debate began almost immediately after Nov. 26 last year. On that day, a 150-man U.S.-Afghan commando team near the Pakistan border came under attack and called in air support, according to U.S. officials. U.S. helicopters fired on two Pakistani border posts. The Pentagon said Pakistani troops at the posts opened fire first, which Pakistan has denied. Pakistan has accused the U.S. of deliberately firing at its troops. For Pakistanis, the killings were another U.S. affront to national pride. Only seven months earlier, the U.S. sneaked elite special forces into the country to kill Osama bin Laden. An immediate apology, Pakistani officials argued in November, would ease tensions and ward off protests. The U.S. military believed an immediate apology amounted to an admission of fault. Even so, the Pentagon privately told Pakistan it was prepared to pay restitution to the families of those killed. Pakistan rejected the cash without an apology. Vali Nasr, a former top adviser on Pakistan in the Obama administration, said people in Pakistan interpreted the U.S. refusal to apologize to mean "it intended to kill the 24 people." At the White House, officials rejected the first of several apology proposals, including one that called for President Barack Obama to personally deliver a condolence message to the Pakistani people. In late December, the Pentagon released its investigation. The U.S. concluded both American and Pakistan troops erred. Islamabad rejected the finding. On Dec. 21, the night before the Pentagon's investigation was released, top U.S. policy makers convened for a 5 p.m. secure video teleconference and agreed to apologize. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wasn't enthusiastic but didn't object, Jeremy Bash, Mr. Panetta's chief of staff, told the group, according to officials. Though divided about apologizing, defense officials wanted border supply crossings to reopen as soon as possible. The U.S. and NATO allies had to route shipments through a northern route through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus, which cost 2Â½ times more per container than going through Pakistan, according to Pentagon estimates. Under the Dec. 21 plan, Pentagon press secretary George Little would issue an apology the next morning. "We mourn the loss of life and apologize for the weaknesses in our border coordination processes which contributed to this tragic accident," one early draft read. At 10 p.m., Mr. Bash reported that top policy makers at the White House and the Pentagon had reversed course. White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was among the officials who asked that the word "apologize" be replaced by "deepest regret" and "sincere condolences." Mr. Panetta helped draft the changes, officials said. In the hours that followed, State Department and some Pentagon officials urged the White House to reconsider the decision, arguing that "apology" would make a critical difference with Pakistan and wasn't much different from "regret." U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told the group an apology would increase the chances of persuading Pakistan to reopen the border crossings. Mrs. Clinton's chief policy aide, Jake Sullivan, told colleagues the U.S. should acknowledge its mistakes. He argued that an apology would strengthen Washington's hand in pressing Pakistan to step up its fight against militants, according to officials in the debate. Michele Flournoy, then the undersecretary of defense for policy, suggested language that apologized for the "unintentional and tragic" deaths but didn't accept full responsibility, officials said. Ms. Flournoy, who has since left the administration, told the group the U.S. risked the issue festering. On Dec. 22, Mr. Little, the Pentagon spokesman, read the revised expression of "regret" but without an apology. Pakistan wouldn't reopen the supply routes, prompting administration officials to rehash the debate in high-level meetings at the White House chaired by Mr. Donilon and his deputy, Denis McDonough, officials said. One senior administration official said the potential for presumed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to use an apology as a political attack didn't come up in these meetings. Other officials said concerns about giving the Romney campaign ammunition weighed on the minds of Mr. Obama's political advisers. After first pressing for an immediate apology, some Pakistani officials in January and February said they wanted the U.S. to wait until Pakistan's parliament completed a review, according to U.S. officials. These Pakistani officials preferred any U.S. apology to come in response to recommendations from parliament. The mixed messages added to the confusion. Some U.S. officials argued for an immediate apology to show Pakistan it couldn't dictate the timetable, according to U.S. officials. It "muddied the whole process," a U.S. official said. The Pentagon had prepared for a lengthy border closure by building stocks of fuel and ammunition in Afghanistan. The winter fighting lull eased demand for supplies, blunting the supply route closure. But as spring approached, war planners wanted assurances the crossings would reopen ahead of the thaw, when the fighting would increase. Officials debated having Central Command chief, Gen. James Mattis, deliver an apology to Pakistan's Army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, during a proposed trip to Islamabad in February. White House officials told reporters the trip would be the first step toward thawing relations. It never materialized. On Feb. 21, the White House approved a new plan. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would apologize by phone to Gen. Kayani the next day. Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to meet with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in London. As Mrs. Clinton prepared to leave Washington on Feb. 22, a draft statement was prepared for her, officials said: "As Chairman Dempsey conveyed to Gen. Kayani, we apologize for our part in the accidental tragedy." Mrs. Clinton took off from Andrews Air Force Base and while over the Atlantic, she received word: the apologies were off. Violent protests had broken out in Afghanistan after U.S. military personnel burned Islamic books, including Qurans, drawing an apology from Mr. Obama to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a personal letter. Apologizing to Afghanistan and Pakistan on the same day was too much for the Obama administration, officials said. "Two apologies at once would make it look like everything's unraveling," said a senior U.S. official. The White House worried it would "look weak," another official said. During their meeting in London, Ms. Khar told Mrs. Clinton it was up to the U.S. to determine the nature and the timing of the apology, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. In March and early April, the White House discussed having the U.S. special envoy to the region, Marc Grossman, or Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides deliver the message. Those plans went nowhere. Officials then agreed to wait for Pakistan's parliamentary review. Released on April 12, the parliamentary report called for Islamabad to seek an "unconditional apology," among other demands, for the 24 deaths. Ms. Khar argued an apology would smooth the path to resolve other contentious issues, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. The countries, for example, are at odds over the U.S. use of drones to attack militants in Pakistan. Her message to U.S. officials during recent meetings was that the Pakistani public "noticed that you apologized for the Quran burning within 24 hours and here we are with 24 people killed and there's been no apology for five months," U.S. officials recalled. On April 15, militants launched coordinated attacks in Kabul. U.S. and Afghan intelligence agencies blamed the Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan and has ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "How can you apologize to a country that is providing through some parts of its government tacit support to the Haqqani network, which is actively attacking our guys," the senior administration official said. "This isn't about politics. This is about the message that would send to our troops and that's what no one in the military or the White House could countenance." U.S. officials told the Pakistanis the April 15 attack effectively "killed" any chances of an apology for now, said officials on both sides. "This goes to the fact that we don't know how to deal with the Pakistanis," one senior U.S. official said. An official close to the Pakistan government likewise lamented: "If the apology would have occurred in the first or the second day, as it should have, we could have moved on." Write to Adam Entous at [email protected], Siobhan Gorman at [email protected] and Julian E. Barnes at [email protected] A version of this article appeared May 18, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: U.S. Agonizes Over Apology to Pakistan.