Pakistan Signals Afghan Supply Route Will Reopen

With Pakistani President Zardari given a last-minute invitation to the NATO summit, U.S. and Pakistani officials were scrambling to finish a deal that would allow NATO supply convoys to pass through Pakistani territory on their way to Afghanistan. The convoys have been halted since last November's errant cross-border U.S. airstrikes that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

With world leaders gathered for a NATO summit in Chicago, high on their agenda is the future of Afghanistan once Western troops withdraw. Among the leaders there is the president of Pakistan. Pakistan has been keeping NATO from using critical military supply routes running through that country to Afghanistan, something that's irritated NATO countries, whose troops are fighting in Afghanistan.

Leading up to this summit, President Asif Ali Zardari signaled he was preparing to reopen those supply lines, but the NATO traffic has not resumed yet in Pakistan. For more, we're joined by NPR's Julie McCarthy, who is in Islamabad. Good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So Pakistani president Zardari has - was invited to Chicago because NATO hoped it would encourage him and his country to reopen those supply lines. And instead they remained closed, as they have been, Julie, for the last six months, since a U.S. airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. What is the problem? What's the impasse?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's - the impasse is that it's very difficult for Pakistan to do this. I mean, this whole question of restoring routes through its territory to service NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan is freighted with domestic politics.

Look at the backdrop. The public is furious about the drone strikes and wants them to stop. They're furious about the U.S. not apologizing for the NATO raid that killed so many of its soldiers last fall. The U.S. expressed regret, and quite often, but no apology. And the public is also unhappy about the fact that NATO convoys rip up their roads, attract militant attacks, and they make the regions they pass through generally unsafe.

But this past week, Pakistan did say, as you point out, it's time to move on. The emotional satisfaction of having slapped down the Americans had run its course, and the U.S. should now apologize.

MONTAGNE: Well, that is not terribly likely, is it, that the U.S. will apologize. Where do they go from there?

MCCARTHY: No, it's not. And these talks are really hinged on something very technical - not an apology, not stopping of drones. In fact, the big log jam appears to be price. What is the U.S. willing to pay Pakistan? Pakistan looks and sees that NATO's paying a very high price to move supplies through Russia and central Asia as alternatives, much higher costs than they were moving through Pakistan, and it's factored that into its calculation.

Now from the U.S. point of view, the price on the table is many times what the Americans are willing to pay. So you have a stalemate. Pakistan's leverage is that the U.S. needs to get out of Afghanistan, and Pakistan's the fastest way out. The U.S. leverage is that it will hold up some billion dollars in badly needed aid unless the routes are reopened.

MONTAGNE: And has this problem really damaged relations between Pakistan, and not just the United States, but also NATO?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it's hugely damaging. Pakistan raised the expectations of 40-plus countries fighting in Afghanistan by saying last week, it's time to move on. And by holding a prospect then reeling it back, it only hardens attitudes against Pakistan, who, you know, Renee, is already seen as double dealing.

You've got intelligence officers assessing which side of the Afghan war Pakistan is really fighting. They've got safe havens for militants attacking NATO troops, which is an enormous bone of contention between Pakistan and NATO. And referring to those havens, NATO's secretary general said: We can't solve the problems in Afghanistan without the positive engagement of Pakistan.

So you have these conflicting feelings, conflicting statements, and it doesn't help that Pakistan's decision making can be opaque and often look like Kabuki theater.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy, speaking to us from Islamabad, Pakistan. Thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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