US to Pakistan: reopen supply route and we can leave Afghanistan faster

The US and Pakistan have been unsuccessfully negotiating on reopening Pakistan’s border to NATO supply convoys for the Afghanistan campaign. The issue has been contentious at the NATO summit in Chicago.

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    Afghanistan-bound NATO containers are parked at Pakistani border post Torkham in northwest of Pakistan on Oct. 5, 2010.
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NATO’s frustration with Pakistan is couched in diplomatic speak, but the alliance’s declaration at its summit, which concludes here Monday, is clear enough.

In the declaration, Russia and Central Asian countries receive kudos for cooperating on supply routes for NATO’s Afghanistan campaign, while Pakistan gets a terse prod on the same topic.

“We welcome the progress on transit arrangements with our Central Asian partners and Russia,” the declaration says. Then this bare statement: “NATO continues to work with Pakistan to reopen the ground lines of communication as soon as possible.”

Behind that one line is the row, primarily between the United States and Pakistan, over unsuccessful negotiations on reopening Pakistan’s border to NATO supply convoys. The Pakistani government closed the crossings to NATO last November after airstrikes by the alliance killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost.

The US has been in talks with Pakistan since April to resolve the border issue, and by the summit’s eve last week, both sides reported enough progress for NATO to invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the Chicago gathering.

But no agreement was forthcoming, and the border issue has turned into one of the summit’s few contentious notes – casting Pakistan in the familiar role of the problematic presence at the banquet. President Obama refused to meet with Mr. Zardari, and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called off a planned meeting with the Pakistani leader.

At issue is money. Pakistan says it is prepared to reopen the borders, but at a much higher cost to NATO. Pakistan wants to collect $5,000 per truck crossing its border, whereas before the November incident, the per-vehicle fee was $250. Last year, the US sent more than 30,000 truckloads across the border.

Pakistan is also seeking additional funding for road repairs and other costs it says it incurs as a result of the supply convoys.

For NATO and the US, having another, northern route through Central Asia and Russia to fall back on has been helpful. But that route – which originates in Europe – is longer and costlier.

One factor looming on an ever-closer horizon is the planned departure from Afghanistan of all NATO combat troops by December 2014. Even sooner is the drawdown of more than 30,000 US “surge” forces – and their considerable amount of equipment – by the end of the summer.

Pakistani officials say the government is under pressure from domestic political forces opposed to cooperation with the US not to buckle and acquiesce to the US – at least not without extracting a huge price.

But NATO officials and some diplomats say Pakistan should understand that by reopening the border, it will be facilitating the departure of US and other combat forces from Afghanistan – something some of Pakistan’s political forces say they want to see.

NATO makes this point in the summit declaration with another prod aimed at Pakistan. “The countries in the region, particularly Pakistan, have important roles in ensuring enduring peace, stability, and security in Afghanistan,” the document states, “and in facilitating the completion of the transition process.”

Translation: Pakistan, you can help us leave by reopening the border already.

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