CHICAGO — NATO leaders on May 21 called on Pakistan to reopen a key supply route into Afghanistan “as soon as possible” after talks with Islamabad on the border crossing faltered.
In a declaration at a summit in Chicago, the alliance expressed gratitude to Russia and Central Asian governments for allowing supply convoys through their territory and said “NATO continues to work with Pakistan to reopen the ground lines of communication as soon as possible.”
“The countries in the region, particularly Pakistan, have important roles in ensuring enduring peace, stability and security in Afghanistan and in facilitating the completion of the transition process,” the declaration said.
“We stand ready to continue dialogue and practical cooperation with relevant regional actors in this regard,” it added.
Islamabad shut its border to NATO supplies in November after a botched U.S. air raid that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.
U.S. and Pakistani officials had predicted an agreement would be reached by the time NATO gathered in Chicago, but the negotiations became deadlocked over Islamabad’s demand to charge steep fees for NATO trucks heading to Afghanistan.
U.S. officials rejected Pakistan’s proposal to charge thousands of dollars per truck and have also refused so far to issue an apology for the death of the Pakistani soldiers in the November air strikes.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s attendance at the Chicago summit had raised expectations the route would be reopened, but he did not meet President Barack Obama and a scheduled session with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was called off.
U.S. officials could not predict when the impasse would be resolved and complained privately that Pakistan had failed to present a coherent negotiating position.
“The Pakistanis want to get to yes, but they need to define yes for themselves,” said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They’ve thrown some numbers out there that are way too high. And they need to be a little bit more realistic,” the official told AFP.
Having charged roughly $250 per truck, the Pakistanis have proposed steep fees of several thousand dollars for each vehicle.
“The U.S. is willing to go higher than what we paid previously but we’re not going to scale up by multiples,” he said.
With Pakistan so far unwilling to lift the blockade on NATO convoys, a northern network for supply routes negotiated with Russian and Central Asian states has taken on growing importance.
To ferry troops, food and equipment into Afghanistan, the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan relies on cargo flights and the more costly northern route network that passes through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was due to meet defense ministers from five Central Asian countries May 21 — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — that form the backbone of the northern route, his spokesman said.
“He plans to thank them for their contributions to the northern distribution network and to assure them that the United States has a long-term commitment to security in the region,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said.
The northern network includes one route starting from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti and extending through Central Asia as well as a second route stretching from the Baltic port of Riga through Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan.
U.S. officials acknowledge that for the planned withdrawal of the NATO-led forces and equipment, the Pakistan route is much shorter and cheaper.
But analysts say Washington may try to negotiate arrangements with Russia and other states to allow weapons to be transported on the northern road and rail routes, in case the deadlock with Pakistan remains unresolved.
But the senior U.S. official said there were “no new plans” to try to expand or alter the terms of the northern routes.
“The removal of equipment from Afghanistan would obviously be easier with the ground supply routes (in Pakistan) but it (the withdrawal) could in theory be done through the northern distribution network and through the air,” the official said.