ISLAMABAD – The United States has been holding intense negotiations with Pakistan to get the country to reopen its border to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Monday, a day before senior Pakistani decision makers are set to discuss the issue.
The clock is ticking ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21 that is largely focused on the Afghan war. Pakistan will likely only receive an invitation if it ends its nearly six-month blockade of NATO supplies.
A team of U.S. negotiators has been in the country for several weeks working out the nuts and bolts of a potential agreement to reopen the supply line, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The Americans met with their Pakistani counterparts all day Sunday and were scheduled to resume discussions Monday, the official said.
Pakistan closed its Afghan border crossings to the U.S.-led coalition at the end of November, in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two small outposts in the northwest. The U.S. expressed its condolences, but that wasn't enough for Pakistan.
Pakistan's government then threw the issue to parliament, which used the opportunity to try to renegotiate the country's relationship with the U.S., a popular move in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant despite billions of dollars in annual U.S. aid.
Passing the gauntlet to parliament was likely meant to provide the government political cover, but the lawmakers' stark demands have made it more difficult for Pakistani officials to maneuver.
Parliament demanded an "unconditional apology" for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers and an end to U.S. drone strikes in the country. Although it did not explicitly link these issues to reopening the supply line, they have complicated matters since the U.S. has refused both demands.
Analysts have speculated that the Obama administration is reluctant to apologize for the errant airstrikes because of potential criticism from Congress and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. Anger at Pakistan is high in the U.S. because of the country's alleged support for Islamist militants killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said in private that they have no intention of stopping covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, which they see as key to targeting militants in the country who pose a threat to the West. The strikes are immensely unpopular in Pakistan because many people believe they mostly kill civilians, allegations disputed by the U.S. and independent research.
The issue is complicated by the fact that Pakistan is widely believed to have supported some of the strikes in the past, although that cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the Washington and Islamabad has deteriorated.
Pakistan has its own reasons for wanting to patch up the relationship with the U.S. In addition to an invitation to the upcoming NATO summit, Pakistan would like to free up over a billion dollars in U.S. military aid that has been frozen for the past year.
Also, other members of NATO, such as Britain, are unhappy with Pakistan's decision to block supplies for so long.
Pakistani Cabinet members and senior military officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss whether to reopen the NATO supply line. That session is to be followed by a full meeting of the Cabinet on Wednesday.
Unless the U.S. softens its position on Pakistan's demands, the government will have to balance the benefit of reopening the supply line with the potential backlash at home from anti-U.S. politicians and activists who will inevitably accuse the government of selling out to Washington's interests.