By Mubasher Bukhari and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan has pulled out of an international conference on the future of Afghanistan next week to protest against a NATO cross-border attack that killed 24 of its soldiers and plunged the region deeper into crisis, officials said Tuesday.
The decision not to attend the conference in the German city of Bonn, aimed at bringing together major stakeholders in securing an Afghan peace after NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014, could mean Pakistan won't use its influence with Taliban militants to bring them to the peace table.
"Pakistan has decided not to attend the Bonn conference as a protest," a government official told Reuters after a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Lahore.
A second government official, who also asked not to be identified, confirmed the decision.
Pakistan's decision is more a diplomatic blow to Afghanistan and the nations fighting there than an actual set-back to efforts to plan for the country's future, as few tangible results were expected.
Bonn was never intended to produce firm financial commitments but it was organized with the expectation that the United States and Afghanistan would have pinned down a strategic partnership deal defining their relationship after the departure of foreign combat troops, due to be complete by the end of 2014.
Those negotiations, however, have dragged on and, without a firm commitment from the biggest foreign player, there was little expectation that others would make long-term plans.
However, Pakistan's decision to boycott over a NATO attack has been seen by some diplomats as an over-reaction because the Bonn conference involves the wider international community, including China, Japan, Iran and the European Union.
"That would be a pretty huge miscalculation -- it would be entirely inappropriate, because Bonn is not just the U.S. or NATO, it is the international community and first and foremost it is about Afghanistan," a senior diplomat in Kabul said.
Afghans also say they are concerned the decision signals a reduced commitment to seeking peace in their battered nation after Pakistani help had been sought in leading the Taliban and the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network to the negotiating table.
"Pakistan has an important leverage of facilitating, cooperating, trying to put pressure on the Taliban, trying to put pressure on the Haqqani group," said retired general and defense analyst Talat Masood. "And if Pakistan is absent, there is a possibility that all these levers that Pakistan can exercise to facilitate the withdrawal will not be available."
Pakistan has a long history of ties to militant groups in Afghanistan so it is uniquely positioned to help bring about a peace settlement, a top foreign policy and security goal for the Obama administration.
"We expect the government of Pakistan as a friend and neighbor of Afghanistan to participate," said a senior Afghan government official. "We understand the issue that has arisen between Pakistan and the U.S. ... Pakistan's absence will have a negative impact on our hope for peace in Afghanistan."
The decision appears to be the latest attempt by Pakistan to put pressure on the United States, Afghanistan and NATO.
Pakistan says NATO staged an unprovoked attack on two combat outposts early Saturday that killed 24 Pakistani troops and wounded 13.
NATO described the killings as a "tragic, unintended incident." Separate NATO and U.S. investigations are underway. The U.S. investigation will provide initial findings by December 23, military officials said.
Tuesday's decision seemed to bear out the implicit threat made by Pakistan's army spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, Monday that Pakistan would scale back its help in Afghanistan.
A Western official and an Afghan security official who requested anonymity said NATO troops were responding to fire from across the border at the time of the incident.
Pakistan disagrees and has reserved the right to retaliate.
Abbas said the attack lasted two hours despite warnings from Pakistani border posts.
Both the Western and Pakistani explanations are possibly correct: that a retaliatory attack by NATO troops took a tragic, mistaken turn in harsh terrain where differentiating friend from foe can be difficult.
An Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Samiullah Rahmani, said the group had not been engaged in fighting NATO or Afghan forces in the area at the time, although Taliban fighters control several Afghan villages near the border with Pakistan.
A similar cross-border incident on September 30, 2010, which killed two Pakistani service personnel, led to the closure of one of NATO's supply routes through Pakistan for 10 days.
The supply lines have again been shut down, leaving hundreds of supply trucks stranded in a security challenge for Pakistan.
"We are at full strength and on high alert on the highways because of the stranded trucks," said a police official in Muzaffargarh who asked not to be identified. "We are very worried about the situation. We cannot guarantee security. We are even worried about our own people watching the highways."
NATO supply trucks are often attacked by bandits and militants.
In Karachi, hundreds of trucks were parked at two main staging areas. Many more could be seen alongside the roads.
Earlier in the day, protests against NATO spread across Pakistan. Between 300 and 400 members of the student wing of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, the political party of former cricketer Imran Khan, blocked a road in Lahore and chanted slogans for about 90 minutes.
In Multan in southern Punjab, about 300 demonstrators chanted "Death to America" and burned U.S. and NATO flags.
"This attack is an attack on all of Pakistan," said Tariq Naimullah, one of the protesters. "Pakistan will become a graveyard for NATO."
(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton, Augustine Anthony, Zeeshan Haider and Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD, Asim Tanveer in MULTAN and Emma Graham-Harrison in KABUL; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Paul Tait)