Pakistan will re-open US-NATO supply route to Afghanistan

Pakistan has agreed to re-open the NATO supply route to Afghanistan after the U.S. formally apologized for a border skirmish that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.

Ending the seven-month impasse, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed “deepest regrets” for the NATO air strikes near Salala along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again,” Clinton told Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on Tuesday. “America respects Pakistan’s sovereignty and is committed to working together in pursuit of shared objectives on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.”

The Nov. 26 strike took place after NATO ground troops came under fire “from positions on a ridge near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border”, where it was common for Taliban forces to retreat and launch cross-border attacks. But, instead, the NATO strike mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and wounded 13.

An investigation by the U.S. Central Command concluded that the incident was provoked by “the opening of fire by PAKMIL [Pakistan Military] forces” and that “continued fire from Pakistani forces exacerbated the situation.” The report noted that “border area cooperation and coordination was hampered by a climate of mutual distrust” between U.S. and Pakistani forces.

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For Pakistan, the Salala strike was the final straw following months of growing tensions over U.S. drone attacks and the covert operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Pakistan retaliated by shutting down all ground routes – known as Ground Lines of Communications (GLOC) – used by U.S. and NATO troops to transport supplies and equipments to Afghanistan.

“The decision to block NATO supplies was made to ensure that our sovereignty is not violated again and our red lines are respected, and of course, we would not take the losses of our forces lightly,” said Bismillah -e- Rehman Rahim, spokesperson for the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Pakistan’s closure left the U.S. scrambling to arrange alternative routes to avoid supply disruptions to U.S. and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan. In March, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Kyrgyzstan to negotiate a long-term deal to use the transit center in Manas to move troops, supplies, and equipments in and out of Afghanistan.

“We’re dependent on this northern distribution network, which goes right through Kyrgyzstan. And frankly, it’s been extremely important. We haven’t missed a beat because of that. We’ve been getting our stuff in here. We’ve been getting our troops in here. And that base in Manas is extremely important to that effort,” Panetta told U.S. troops during a visit to Camp Leatherneck in March.

But the reliance on the Northern Distribution Network – which runs through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – has been costly, adding another $490 million to $700 million to the Pentagon’s expense in just seven months. Resuming transport through Pakistan would help save hundreds of millions of dollars, especially when U.S. and NATO troops conduct their planned drawdown through 2014.

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“This is a tangible demonstration of Pakistan’s support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region. This will also help the United States and ISAF conduct the planned drawdown at a much lower cost. This is critically important to the men and women who are fighting terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan,” said Clinton.

Though it is unclear whether Pakistan will keep the supply routes open beyond 2014, Pakistan will not charge transit fees given that the U.S. has agreed to release a “substantial amount” of the previously-blocked foreign aid to Pakistan.

“The decision has been made in the larger national interest [of Pakistan]”, said Rahim. “We should try to see this development in the context of larger objective of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region and the cooperative relationship that we have with the 50 member states of NATO and ISAF.”


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