WASHINGTON/ISLAMABAD — President Obama phoned the president of Pakistan on Sunday to offer “condolences” for the deaths of two dozen soldiers killed in NATO airstrikes along the Afghan border, the White House said.
The conversation, eight days after the attack, overcame the reservations of some Defense Department officials and favored an approach suggested by diplomats who had urged a conciliatory gesture to try to repair the strained alliance between the two countries.
But Mr. Obama’s comments to President Asif Ali Zardari stopped short of a formal apology or a videotaped statement to ease the public anger in Pakistan.
“The president made clear that this regrettable incident was not a deliberate attack on Pakistan and reiterated the United States’ strong commitment to a full investigation,” the White House said in a statement. “The two presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship, which is critical to the security of both nations, and they agreed to stay in close touch.”
Senior officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, had already issued expressions of remorse, and the United States, conceding that its forces had been involved, had promised a full investigation. Pakistani and American accounts do not agree on what happened, and there has been no full explanation from either side.
The strikes on the two Pakistani outposts occurred during an operation by Afghan and American Special Forces against a Taliban training camp in a remote and mountainous border area.
American officials have said that both sides thought they had come under attack by the Taliban. But Pakistan has refused to cooperate with the American investigation, impeding efforts to determine what happened.
The Americans said that they were fired on first and that Pakistani officials approved the airstrikes. The Pakistanis said that NATO gave them the wrong coordinates for the strikes and that their forces fired only after the attacks began.
Pakistan has responded to the attack by blocking NATO logistical supplies from crossing into Afghanistan, ordering the C.I.A. to vacate an air base where drone strikes are launched and boycotting an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany.
South Asia specialists said that Mr. Obama’s telephone conversation, along with a call that Mrs. Clinton made to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Saturday, could help patch up the relationship, which had been strained this year by the killing of two Pakistanis in Lahore by an American contractor and by the Navy Seals raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“Zardari feels like he doesn’t get enough from Obama, so this will help,” said a former senior United States official who had been briefed on the discussions with Pakistan.
Some administration aides had worried that a formal apology from Mr. Obama could become fodder for his Republican opponent in the presidential campaign.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., during a trip to Europe, left open the possibility of an apology once the facts are determined.
The military’s Central Command and coalition forces in Afghanistan were conducting a “full-blown mock-up of what the hell happened” in the NATO strike, he said in an interview on Sunday.
“We can’t tell you exactly what happened, what mistakes were made,” he said, adding, “The best thing to do is get the actual facts and not hide them, and just straight up, so we know exactly what we’re apologizing for and exactly what happened.”