Despite U.S. Apologies, Pakistan Blocks Supply Route

NATO trucks at Afghan border

Trucks carrying NATO supplies are backed up at Torkham, the main border crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Supply convoys have been blocked since Sept. 30, when NATO helicopters killed Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border attack. A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

At least five top U.S. and NATO officials have now apologized for a deadly NATO helicopter attack along the Afghan-Pakistani border, but a key border crossing remains closed to the truck convoys that carry supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The supply trucks, which carry food, fuel and water to the U.S.-coalition, are backed up at various points along the road from Pakistan's main port at Karachi to the Afghan border crossing at Torkham, along the western end of the mountainous Khyber Pass.

That leaves the trucks vulnerable to attack by militants inside Pakistan, who have taken full advantage of the opportunity. Over the past week, gunmen have torched dozens of fuel tanker trucks and killed several drivers.

Trucking officials in Pakistan say more than 500 supply trucks normally pass through the checkpoint each day and, as of Thursday, at least 2,500 trucks were backed up.

Friendly Fire?

The incident that triggered the blockade took place on Sept. 30, when U.S. helicopters crossed into Pakistan, apparently chasing Taliban fighters. A NATO statement said the helicopters fired on a building "later identified as a Pakistan border post."

The statement said the soldiers apparently fired into the air in an effort to warn the helicopters that they were on the wrong side of the border. The pilots interpreted the shooting as hostile and fired back, killing two soldiers from Pakistan's Frontier Scouts and wounding four others.

The first apology came from NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels. Gen. David Petraeus, the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, pledged to work with Pakistan so that it wouldn't happen again.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Brussels, called Pakistan's army commander, Gen. Ashrfaq Parvez Kayani, on Wednesday and also sent an official letter saying: "We take this incident very seriously, and our most senior commanders in theater will review the investigation thoroughly with an eye toward avoiding recurrence of a tragedy like this."

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, also weighed in with condolences and an apology.

Despite the contrition, Pakistani officials were moving with deliberation rather than speed to reopen the crossing. A spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told reporters that authorities were still evaluating the situation and would decide "in due course."

Sending A Message

Analysts say there are several reasons why Pakistani officials are prolonging a situation that has costs and dangers for them as well as the U.S. and NATO.

"They're going to play this for as much as it's worth," says Marvin Weinbaum, a Pakistan expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "This puts us on notice that they can set limits on what we do."

Insurgents inside Pakistan often denounce the government of President Ali Asif Zardari as a U.S.-manipulated puppet, and the closure can be seen as proof that the government can show some backbone when its soldiers are harmed. But the Pakistani government can't afford to allow the punishment to go on too long, says Weinbaum. "This will have its costs. It's made the relationship [with the U.S.] more brittle than ever," he says.

Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says he expects a resolution fairly soon. "If Pakistan carries on too long and forces NATO to consider alternative routes," the closure could potentially backfire, he says.

Yusuf says one reason that it's taking some time to reopen the crossing may be that the Pakistani army will have to resecure the route after the latest spate of militant attacks. "Now they have to make sure the trucks can start flowing again without any backlash. It's going to take them a little time to do that," he says.

NATO officials maintain that the closure of the route hasn't affected military operations in Afghanistan. They say supplies are still entering Afghanistan through another crossing in southwestern Pakistan and that NATO has plenty of food and fuel in its stockpiles.

While U.S. and NATO forces have established supply routes through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the lines are longer and far more costly.

"There is no other realistic route available," Yusuf says.

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