Apology Issue Stalls U.S.-Pakistan Talks on Afghan Routes
Talks to reopen supply lines through Pakistan to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan remain deadlocked over Pakistan’s demands that the U.S. apologize for a fatal air strike last November, U.S. and Pakistani officials said in interviews.
A Pentagon team that left Pakistan earlier this week after almost two months finished compiling the costs of various cargo services, and wasn’t pulled out because negotiations collapsed, the officials said. Rather, the U.S. and Pakistan have reached an impasse over political issues that are difficult to resolve in an election year, according to more than half a dozen U.S. and Pakistani officials. Most spoke after requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Even if negotiators for the two countries agree on higher charges for cargo and an American expression of regret for accidentally killing 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, broader disagreements could forestall any deal. Those include Pakistan’s demand that the U.S. halt drone strikes in its territory and congressional moves to curtail U.S. aid to Pakistan.
In addition, the 33-year jail sentence for Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was recruited by the CIA to help locate Osama bin Laden, is an issue for U.S. officials and lawmakers. Following initial reports that the doctor was jailed for treason because of his CIA role, the tribal court released its five-page ruling which said the conviction was for ties to a now defunct militant group, which Afridi has denied in his legal appeal.
U.S. and Pakistani diplomats insist they want an agreement to reopen the supply lines as a first step toward rebuilding a relationship that’s been in a downward spiral for 18 months.
“This is an important bilateral relationship for both countries, so we shouldn’t lose sight of that. We have a lot at stake here; they have a lot at stake,” Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides said in an interview.
“There was no message being sent to the Pakistanis” by the departure of the Pentagon team, Nides said. Other U.S. officials disputed reports that Pakistan’s military snubbed the team because of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s remarks last week in Kabul that the U.S. was “reaching the limits of our patience” with Pakistan.
The closing of the transit routes has forced the NATO-led international force in Afghanistan to move its supplies through a northern route in Central Asia instead, costing the Pentagon about $100 million extra per month, Panetta told Congress on June 13. Panetta’s figure is a “rough estimate” of the additional costs of using the northern route and a detailed breakdown is not available, Commander William Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail today. The northern route is much longer and involves more transit by land than access through Pakistan, Speaks said.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, said in an interview that the supply lines “were only closed when 24 of our soldiers were killed at a border post and there was no rush to express remorse.” The bulk of the technical work to allow for reopening supply routes is done, and what remains outstanding is a political agreement, she said.
“It is certainly not our intent to stand in the way of a responsible security transition for NATO forces” as they withdraw forces fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, she said. “But like all other democracies, we, too, are accountable to our parliament and people.”
Rehman also said that Pakistan isn’t holding up negotiations over the cost of cargo. “There is no price bargaining going on from Pakistan,” she said.
At least one U.S. lawmaker involved in Afghan policy said he thinks price may still be an issue.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said in an interview yesterday that although the additional $100 million a month for using the northern route through Central Asia is significant, it should not be a deciding factor in forcing the U.S. to conclude a deal. Pakistan, Levin said, is demanding the U.S. pay as much as $5,000 per container shipped over its routes, up from about $250 each.
“We should not give in to Pakistani extortion on this,” he said. “It’s totally out of keeping with any kind of a relationship, which I think is in the interest of both parties to maintain to the extent we can.”
Two Obama administration officials, though, said price may no longer be as important an issue for the Pakistanis as an apology is.
Pakistan’s parliament spent months assessing the deteriorating state of U.S.-Pakistani ties, and issued parameters for resetting the relationship in April, including an apology for the killing of the Pakistani soldiers and an end to unilateral U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani territory.
Cooperation between the two sides has been at a virtual standstill since U.S. helicopters killed Pakistani troops who had fired on U.S. forces near the border last November. Both sides acknowledge that when U.S. officials privately agreed in February to make a formal apology, Pakistan asked them to wait until Pakistan’s parliament issued its report on resetting the relationship.
By the time the review was completed two months later, a series of attacks in Afghanistan by Pakistan-based militants left U.S. officials furious and no longer willing to apologize, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
A Pentagon investigation last December found that U.S. forces raiding an Afghan village near the border took heavy machine-gun fire from inside Pakistan and thought it came from insurgents, because the U.S. ground commander had been told there were no Pakistani troops in the area.
A Defense Department statement on Dec. 22 expressed “our deepest regret” for “the loss of life -- and for the lack of proper coordination between U.S. and Pakistani forces that contributed to those losses.”
U.S. officials say they repeatedly have expressed regret for the deaths of the Pakistanis, though they think Pakistan shares responsibility for failing to communicate the location of all its border posts and troops near the Afghan border.
Levin said the bigger issue souring U.S.-Pakistani relations is Pakistan’s “continuing unwillingness” to press harder against the Haqqani militant network that’s attacking Afghan and coalition forces from bases in Pakistan.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com
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