Trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan are parked at Pakistan's Torkham border crossing in November 2011, after Pakistani authorities shut NATO's supply route in retaliation for a fatal airstrike that killed more than 20 Pakistani troops. The supply route is reopening more than seven months later, U.S. officials said July 3. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
WASHINGTON — Pakistan has agreed to reopen its border to NATO supply convoys into Afghanistan after a seven-month blockade, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said July 3, adding Washington was sorry for the loss of life in a botched U.S. air raid last year.
The supply routes have been shut since November, when an American aircraft mistakenly killed 24 Pakistan soldiers, aggravating already difficult relations between Washington and Islamabad.
The announcement, following months of negotiations, will come as a relief to the United States and its NATO allies, who need the routes for a planned withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan through 2014.
During a July 3 telephone conversation, Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar “informed me that the ground supply lines into Afghanistan are opening,” Clinton said.
Islamabad has long demanded that Washington apologize for the deadly air raid before it would reopen the NATO routes, closed in anger after the U.S. attack.
“Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives,” Clinton said in a statement. “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.”
Earlier, Pakistan’s new prime minister acknowledged that keeping up the seven-month blockade would damage relations with the United States and other NATO member states.
“The continued closure of supply lines not only impinge our relationship with the U.S., but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO,” Raja Pervez Ashraf told a meeting of top civilian and military leaders.
A senior Pakistani official said the defense committee of the cabinet had met to discuss whether to end the blockade, but his office stopped short of announcing any decision after the talks ended.
The defense committee groups together the most senior cabinet ministers and military commanders. Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the ISI intelligence agency, Zaheer ul Islam, were among those present.
The border blockade has forced the United States and its allies to rely on much longer, more expensive northern routes through Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus. The cost of ferrying supplies by air and over northern railways and roads has cost the U.S. military about $100 million a month, according to the Pentagon.
Initial hopes of a deal on reopening the routes had fallen apart at a NATO summit in Chicago in May, amid reports that Pakistan was demanding huge fees for each of the thousands of trucks that rumble across the border every year.
But on July 3 Clinton said: “Pakistan will continue not to charge any transit fee in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region. This is a tangible demonstration of Pakistan’s support for a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan and our shared objectives in the region.”
Reopening the routes will help the United States and NATO to complete its planned withdrawal of troops and equipment from Afghanistan “at a much lower cost,” Clinton said. “This is critically important to the men and women who are fighting terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan.”
Almost all foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, some 13 years after the U.S. invasion of 2001 toppled the Islamic hardline Taliban regime.
The deal on the supply routes will help ease tensions for troubled Pakistani-U.S. relations, which are at their worst since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and still reeling from the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.
Pentagon chief Leon Panetta welcomed the move, saying the United States remained “committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region.”
The commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, who held talks in Islamabad twice in the last six days, praised the decision as “a demonstration of Pakistan’s desire to help secure a brighter future for both Afghanistan and the region at large.”
While Islamabad has demanded a formal apology for the deaths of its border troops, a U.S. and NATO investigation said the killings were the result of mistakes made on both sides.
The United States also has indicated it will free up funds for Pakistan that are supposed to reimburse Islamabad for counter-insurgency operations, officials said.