LONDON U.S.-Pakistani relations are at one of their worst points in memory after the NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani troops, but can recover, Washington's top military officer said on Monday.
General Martin Dempsey said Pakistani anger was justified given the loss of life. But he declined to offer an apology, saying during a trip to London that he did not know enough yet about the weekend incident and that there was a U.S. military investigation.
"They have reason to be furious that they have 24 soldiers that are dead, and that the ordinance that killed them was the ordinance of a partner," Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Britain's ITV News.
"I would certainly like to enlist their patience in helping us figure out what happened."
Pakistan's military said the strike was unprovoked but a Western official and an Afghan security official who both requested anonymity have said NATO troops were responding to fire from the Pakistani side of the Afghan border.
The killings have upended U.S. attempts to ease a crisis in relations with Islamabad, which worsened after the secret U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May. The incident also threatened to undermine U.S. efforts to stabilise the region as Washington tries to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
Asked about U.S.-Pakistani relations, Dempsey said: "It certainly does look like it's on about as rocky a road as it has been in my memory. And my memory with Pakistan goes back some 20 years or so."
Questioned whether the situation was irretrievable, he said: "No. I don't think so."
Dempsey branded the relationship with Pakistan "troubled" when he addressed a forum in London.
Pakistan shut NATO supply routes into Afghanistan in retaliation for the killings.
Dempsey said the United States could cope with the cut-off by channelling supplies through alternative routes.
"But I'd like to believe that we could, over time, with Pakistan's approval, restore those lines of communication," he said.
Pakistan has also said it had ordered the United States to vacate a drone base in the country.
Dempsey, who declined to acknowledge the use of drones at the base, said the move would be a "serious act in terms of our relationship".
"They want us to close the base in Shamsi, the purpose of which I leave to your imagination. There are other options for stationing aircraft and other resources around the region," Dempsey said.
Asked whether it was a serious blow, he said: "It's a serious blow in the sense that the Pakistani government felt that they needed to deny us the use of a base that we've been using for many years.
"And so it's serious in that regard. It's not debilitating militarily."
Dempsey said ties at senior levels between the two nations' militaries were still strong at the "person-to-person" level.
He said he had known Pakistan's army chief General Ashfaq Kayani since the two studied together at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in the late 1980s.
Dempsey refrained from repeating some of the accusations about Pakistani intelligence ties to anti-U.S. militants that were cited by his predecessor, Admiral Mike Mullen. Mullen, before stepping down in September, called the Haqqani network a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service.
"Whether they are acting at the behest or at the direction of the ISI -- I'm not prepared to say that," he said.
(Editing by Ralph Gowling)