US and Pakistan make up. Will supply route to Afghanistan reopen?

Pakistan signaled Monday it is ready to pull relations with the US out of the deep freeze – though the US has not yielded to key Pakistani demands. The result may be a reopening of a supply route through Pakistan for the Afghanistan war.

Athar Hussain/Reuters/File
A man cleans a fuel tanker, which is used to carry fuel for NATO forces in Afghanistan, at a compound in Karachi, Pakistan, April 13.
Anjum Naveed/AP
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, talks to a reporter after her press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday, May 14. Khar indicated Monday the time has come to reopen the country's Afghan border to NATO troop supplies.

US drone strikes against high-value terrorist targets in Pakistan will continue, and it appears the US will not formally apologize for a November attack on a Pakistani border outpost by helicopter gunships that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as Pakistan had demanded.

Though Pakistan did not attain its two key objectives in months of crisis negotiations with the US, it signaled Monday that it is ready to pull its relations with the United States out of the deep freeze. The move is expected to result, among other things, in a reopening of NATO supply routes through Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan.

“It was important to make a point, Pakistan has made a point, and we now need to move on and go into a positive zone and try to conduct our relations,” Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said at a press conference in Islamabad on Monday. The remarks came a day before the Pakistani government is expected to meet to discuss a decision to reopen the border to NATO supply convoys.

A decision this week to reopen the border to NATO supply trucks would likely pave the way for Pakistan to take part in a meeting of the international security assistance forces in Afghanistan that is to be part of NATO’s summit Sunday and Monday in Chicago. Holding an international meeting on Afghanistan’s security issues without Pakistan’s participation would have deflated the gathering, several regional experts say, because Pakistan (and the Taliban militants and leaders who find refuge in cross-border havens) is such a critical factor in the Afghan conflict.   

The Pakistani foreign minister’s statement Monday was the clearest indication – after days of opaque comments by US, Pakistani, and NATO officials – that the border transport dispute might be resolved in time for Pakistan to attend the meeting on Afghanistan.

At a presummit press conference in Brussels Friday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen did not state categorically that Pakistan would not be invited to the Chicago meeting if the border dispute was not resolved in time. But he suggested that only countries acting “to the benefit of our operation” had received invitations.

The NATO chief noted that Russia and several Central Asian countries have been invited “because they provide important transit arrangements.” And he added, “As you also know, our transit routes through Pakistan are currently blocked, so we have to continue our dialogue with Pakistan with a view to finding a solution … because that’s really a matter of concern.”

Trucking tons of supplies for the NATO mission in Afghanistan (with more than 120,000 soldiers, 90,000 of whom are American) is much cheaper through Pakistan than through Europe and Central Asia.

Pakistan is also losing out financially from the closed border, and it is expected to levy new fees to enhance its revenues once the borders are reopened to the NATO convoys. But its primary interest in settling the border dispute is putting relations with the US back on track and reopening the valves of US aid.

"We are trying to put this relationship, you know, in a positive zone,” Foreign Minister Khar added at her Islamabad briefing, “and I am quite sure that we will be successful in doing so.”

US officials arrived in Pakistan in April to try to resolve the deep differences between the two countries, and a technical interagency team headed by State Department officials is still negotiating with Pakistani officials, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

A US-Pakistan agreement that reopens the border to NATO is likely to include new customs revenues for Pakistan, officials have said, but Pakistan struck out in its bid to halt all US drone strikes (though it did close a base from which the drones had unofficially operated from within Pakistan). Nor is it likely to get a formal apology for the November border incident that the US has only gone so far as to “regret.”

Ms. Nuland suggested that pronouncement will go unchanged when she responded to a journalist’s question Monday by saying, “I think we’ve said that we very much regret this incident and we want to move forward and we want to reengage.”

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