By Alex Rodriguez and David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times –
ISLAMABAD — The U.S. and Pakistan resolved a bitter seven-month stalemate when Washington apologized for killing two dozen Pakistani soldiers in errant airstrikes and, in return, Islamabad agreed to reopen crucial supply routes for American and coalition military forces in Afghanistan.
The deal Tuesday ends a diplomatic deadlock that brought U.S. relations with the nuclear-armed South Asian nation to a near standstill, cost the U.S. and its allies $100 million a month in extra transport fees, hindered counterterrorism operations against Pakistan-based militants, and added hurdles to the planned withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and said she was sorry for the deaths caused when U.S. combat helicopters and fighter jets mistakenly attacked two Pakistani border posts last Nov. 26.
“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton said, according to a State Department release that recounted her conversation with Khar. “We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Minutes later, Pakistan announced it would reopen routes for truck convoys hauling fuel, food and other non-lethal supplies from the port of Karachi to U.S. and NATO military forces in neighboring Afghanistan, a delicately orchestrated resolution that officials had discussed for months but only finalized in the last day.
Closure of the Pakistan roads cost an extra $100 million monthly because it forced the Pentagon to instead move supplies by air, rail or truck through Russia and other countries north of Afghanistan, much longer and more expensive routes, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress last month.
The road closures also held up delivery of thousands of armored vehicles and other equipment meant for the fledgling Afghan army and police, slowing U.S. efforts to build Afghan forces that can stand up to the Taliban insurgency as foreign troops withdraw.
At least as important from the U.S. perspective, the deal removes a major uncertainty — and enormous extra costs — as U.S. and allied forces make plans to haul armored vehicles and other equipment, as well as their combat forces, out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In the end, negotiators hammered out a compromise in which both governments backed down to defuse a crisis.
Until now, the Obama administration had refused Pakistan’s demands for an explicit apology for the killings, expressing regrets and condolences instead. Pakistani officials had insisted the attack along the Afghan border in which 24 soldiers died was unprovoked and deliberate. U.S. officials argue that both sides were at fault because Pakistani soldiers, stationed on a ridge overlooking the border, fired first on U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the border.
Although Clinton did not use the word apology, her statement clearly was meant as one, a symbolic retreat that acknowledged that no other solution would persuade Pakistan’s politically weak government to reopen supply routes that previously carried as much as 40 percent of non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan.
Clinton’s statement was carefully worded, and the “we” in her apology referenced mutual regret, from both her and Pakistan’s foreign minister, about the killings. But Clinton’s statement could leave President Barack Obama open to attacks by Republicans in an election year that she implicitly criticized the actions of U.S. soldiers who were acting to defend themselves.
At the same time, Pakistan pulled back from its demands during the negotiations that it would not reopen the roads unless the U.S. agreed to pay about $5,000 per truck.
U.S. officials balked at the demand and in the end, agreed to pay $250 per truck, the same rate as before. It wasn’t clear if Pakistan would seek to impose other financial charges or tolls. In weeks past, Pakistan had demanded compensation for damage done to roads and highways by NATO supply convoys.
As part of the deal, the U.S. also will resume paying “coalition support funds,” which reimburse Pakistan for logistical, military and other support provided to U.S. military operations against militants.
Pakistan has about $1 billion in outstanding claims, according to Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, but the payments have been suspended since Pakistan shut off the ground supply routes.
“We will look to pay past coalition support fund claims” once the roads have reopened, Kirby said.
As the stalemate deepened in recent months, President Asif Ali Zardari’s embattled government grew concerned about becoming estranged from the West and potentially losing billions of dollars in future U.S. aid. But he faced immense political pressures.
The U.S. attacks last fall infuriated a country already deeply at odds with Washington over CIA drone missile strikes, the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year, and the release of a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis.
Zardari’s main political opponents, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and one-time cricket star Imran Khan, have criticized the government’s willingness to reopen the routes as an example of Zardari’s subservience to Washington.
His ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party, is approaching an election season, and analysts have said the government probably delayed lifting the blockade to appear as if it were taking a hard-line stance toward Washington.
In Washington, where U.S. officials suspected Pakistani officials of harboring bin Laden and essentially protecting Pakistan-based insurgents who attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the demand for a formal apology struck a raw nerve given U.S. sacrifices in the region.
Officials in Washington sought to downplay Clinton’s apology Tuesday, insisting that the administration was not backing away from a Pentagon investigation that found errors on both sides during the border attack last fall.
“We were very clear after the incident about what happened,” Kirby said. “None of this today changes the statement we made.”