ISLAMABAD — In a May 16 meeting, Pakistan’s Cabinet was expected to endorse the country’s attendance at key talks on Afghanistan in Chicago and edge toward lifting a blockade on overland NATO supplies to its war-torn neighbor.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told ministers that Pakistan, which shut the transit lines in November after U.S. air strikes killed 24 of its soldiers, should not take “emotional decisions, which do not augur well for us in the long run.”
He said relations with NATO and the U.S. were at “a delicate phase where we need to take critical decisions” for Pakistan’s “strategic importance” in the region and in its national interest.
Army commanders also met on May 16 to discuss the matter.
The U.S. air strikes plunged Pakistan’s relations with the U.S., already frayed by the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, into their worst crisis since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war effort in 2001.
By going to Chicago, Pakistan hopes to ease its international isolation and boost its leverage over the future of Afghanistan, as Western countries pull out their combat forces by 2014.
But Islamabad has been essentially forced to climb down on demands for an American apology for the air strikes and an end to drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaida on its soil.
Analysts say Pakistan had no choice but capitulate to international pressure to reopen the border, with U.S. cash needed to help boost its meager state coffers as the government prepares to seek re-election.
On May 15, the Cabinet’s defense committee, which includes security chiefs and top ministers, welcomed a NATO invitation for President Asif Ali Zardarito attend the summit and cleared the way for him to attend.
It also authorized negotiations to conclude on new terms and conditions for resuming the transit of fuel and other non-lethal items needed by NATO troops in their decade-long fight against the Taliban.
No time frame has been announced for reopening the borders. “We want solutions for the problems, and it is in line with this policy that we are trying to sort out the issue,” Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told AFP.
The State Department said “considerable progress” had been made on ending the blockade, which halted thousands of fuel and supply trucks from the port city of Karachi to two Afghan border crossings.
“We will continue to work on this throughout the week. Obviously, it’ll be a wonderful signal if we can get it done by the time of the summit,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
But the Pakistani government is likely to face an angry backlash over the U-turn from opposition, right-wing and religious parties keen to exploit rampant anti-Americanism in an election year.
Nor is lifting the blockade likely to solve other problems in the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. American officials remain deeply distrustful of Pakistan, which provides sanctuary to Taliban and other Afghan insurgents fighting U.S. troops.
Pakistan is still smarting from the American raid that killed bin Laden last year and deeply resents American calls to do more to clamp down on militant safe havens.
The U.S. has made increasing use of other routes into Afghanistan, and the Pakistan supply routes now constitute as little as 25 percent of what NATO needs to sustain itself.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Pakistan had an important role to play in the future of Afghanistan and that the alliance was working very closely with Pakistan on reopening the lines.
Sources familiar with the discussions say that the fees are the main sticking point and that the border will probably reopen by early next week.
Pakistan previously negotiated a fee of $160 per 40-foot container and is now looking to secure $320 to $500, although the figure has yet to be agreed, one source said.
The United States has also guaranteed payment of at least $1.1 billion should the borders reopen as compensation for fighting militants, although Pakistan believes it is owed far more, one source added.