NATO Supply Route Through Pakistan Remains Closed

Political concerns in both Pakistan and the United States prevent a deal on reopening supply routes to be done.

Despite rumors ahead of last month’s NATO summit in Chicago that an agreement between Pakistan and the United States to reopen the supply route into Afghanistan was imminent, both sides are still very far apart on a deal.

On Monday, the American negotiating team withdrew from Pakistan. Officials insist that the talks have not collapsed but have come to the point where politics takes over. The team, made up of technical specialists, has been in Pakistan for 45 days.

A Pentagon spokesman, Commander William H. Speaks, said that the technical consultations have largely been completed, and the United States remain ready to send officials back to Islamabad when the Pakistanis are ready to conclude an agreement. The State Department’s Victoria Nuland made similar comments, that the United States have decided to “take a break” but are prepared to send the team of negotiators back to Pakistan.

A number of issues have stalled the reopening of NATO supply routes. Technical aspects, such as price, military aid and infrastructure improvements have been sticking points but it is the issue of an apology has stalled final agreement.

In late November 2011, an American strike from Afghanistan into Pakistan resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Referred to as the Salala raid by Pakistani officials, the incident led to the continued, though not surprising, deterioration of relations between the Pakistan and the United States and the closing of NATO’s supply routes into Afghanistan.

Dissatisfied with Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, the United States suspended $800 million in military assistance to Pakistan last year following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It is perhaps because of this that Pakistan began renegotiating the transit fee paid by NATO convoys at $5,000 per truck. Before the Salala raid, NATO paid $250 per truck. Negotiations have brought the two sides closer together — Pakistan asking for $3,000 and the United States offering $1,000.

Besides price, the Pakistanis have also asked for a variety of infrastructural improvements, some to the port of Karachi and road improvements near the border crossing.

These technical details, price and improvements, are likely what the team of technical specialists have achieved in their six weeks in Pakistan. But final agreement depends solely on politics.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, downplayed hype surrounding the withdrawal of team. She also made statements that the routes had not been closed “in a fit of pique or on impulse.” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, was clear about the stall in negotiations in her statement that, “Pakistan still wants an unconditional apology and the reassurance that the Salala type of incident does not happen again.”

Meanwhile, there is little movement in American circles toward making the apology. President Barak Obama, occupied by a coming election, a poor jobs report and domestic challenges, is unlikely to risk creating the image that he has bowed to Pakistani demands by offering an unconditional apology.

While the Pakistani route into Afghanistan is the most financially agreeable — the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia is vastly more expensive and much longer — domestic politics trump common sense on both sides.

Pakistan needs the income NATO convoys provide but the Pakistani government also needs to provide a strong front for its domestic audience which has doubts about the backbone of the civilian leaders.

On the American side, domestic politics reigns supreme as well to even economic sense or logistical simplicity. Offering a demanded apology would be seen as conceding. The last thing President Obama wants is to face an attack ad claiming that he gave into foreign demands.

An unnamed American official said that, “when they have come to the point where a political decision is made, they can come back to tidy up the pieces.” With the American election less than five months away, there is still time for additional developments.

With regard to NATO supply routes through Pakistan, the question remains when the route will reopen, not if.