ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's foreign minister suggested Monday that the country should reopen its Afghan border to NATO troop supplies, saying the government has made its point by closing the route for nearly six months in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Reopening the border risks a domestic backlash in Pakistan given Washington's refusal to apologize for last year's attack, which it says was an accident. But it could help ensure Pakistan has a role in the future of Afghanistan as NATO prepares to retool its strategy there during a major conference that starts Sunday in Chicago.
Pakistan's presence would benefit the U.S.-led coalition as well, since the country is seen as key to striking a peace deal with the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan that would allow foreign troops to withdraw without the nation descending into further chaos.
The supply line running through Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan will be key to that withdrawal as NATO pulls out more than a decade's worth of equipment. It has been critical for shipping in supplies as well, although the U.S. has reduced its reliance on Pakistan in recent years by using a more costly route through Central Asia.
Shams Shahwani, a senior official in Pakistan's Petroleum Tanker Owners Association, said he was contacted Monday by Petroleum Ministry officials who told him the NATO supply route will likely be opened by Wednesday evening. They told him to assemble his tankers in Karachi so they are ready to start transporting petroleum.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the government made the right decision to close the border to NATO to send a message to Washington that the attack on its troops in November was unacceptable.
"It was important to make a point. Pakistan has made a point and now we can move on," Khar said at a news conference in Islamabad when asked whether she believed Pakistan should reopen the supply route.
The U.S. welcomed Khar's comments, but said the two countries have yet to reach a final deal.
"Our team is still in Islamabad working on the land-route issue," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. "My understanding this morning is that they have made considerable progress but they are still working."
Pakistan's defense committee of the Cabinet, which is responsible for deciding the fate of the supply route, was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue and could authorize its reopening.
The U.S. and Pakistan still disagree on the circumstances that led U.S. helicopters to strike two Pakistani army posts on the Afghan border, with the Pakistani military claiming the attack was deliberate.
The incident fueled already rampant anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and plunged the troubled relations between the two countries to an all-time low, threatening the vital, if spotty, anti-terrorism cooperation Washington has received since 2001 in exchange for billions of dollars in American aid.
Pakistan not only retaliated by blocking NATO supplies, but it also kicked the U.S. out of a base used by American drones targeting Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the country's tribal region along the Afghan border.
The U.S. expressed its regret for the soldiers' deaths but stopped short of an outright apology, a decision analysts said was driven by concerns the Obama administration could face criticism from Republicans. Anger toward Pakistan in Washington is extremely high because of the country's alleged support for militants using its territory to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's weak, U.S.-allied government sought political cover in dealing with the aftermath of the attack by tossing the issue to parliament, which used the opportunity to try to renegotiate the country's relationship with the U.S.
After months of deliberation, Pakistani lawmakers unanimously approved new guidelines for bilateral ties in mid-April that demanded the U.S. provide an "unconditional apology" for the November attack and stop drone strikes. Although parliament did not explicitly link these issues to reopening the supply line, they have complicated matters because the U.S. has refused both demands.
The State Department, unlike the Pentagon or White House, had wanted to get an apology out of the way early, one U.S. official said, but the span of time has made that a moot point.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistan's foreign minister discussed a possible apology in London in February, but Khar wanted the apology to wait until after the parliamentary debate. The reason was to make it look like the Pakistani parliament had forced Washington's hand, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic maneuvers. Clinton listened to Khar, but never supported the idea.
Khar played down the U.S. refusal to accede to parliament's demands on the apology and drone strikes Monday, saying the important thing was that the government had pressed Washington on the issues.
"You cannot expect to reach conclusions overnight," Khar said.
She sought to focus on Pakistan's demand that it receive higher fees for NATO supplies that are shipped through the country, likely because this is an issue where the U.S. has indicated greater flexibility.
"We want to continue to be a facilitator and an enabler, and not a blocker," said Khar.
A team of U.S. negotiators has been in the country for several weeks working out the details of a potential agreement to reopen the supply line.
"They are looking at the issues of how you move things from here to there and what the terms for moving them are," said Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
Pakistan could also receive more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid that has been frozen for the past year and could be released if the country reopens the supply line. Pakistan's invitation to the NATO summit in Chicago is also likely contingent on allowing the supplies to resume.
Before the November attack, about 30 percent of the nonlethal supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan were unloaded at the port of Karachi and then trucked across Pakistan to the border.
Khar and other officials have pointed out that a continuation of the blockade would punish other NATO countries for U.S. actions, possibly an attempt to limit the domestic fallout from any decision to reopen the route.
But the response could be fierce. One group in particular, the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan Council, has been especially vocal in opposing the resumption of NATO supplies and U.S. drone strikes. The group is composed of prominent hard-line Islamist religious leaders and politicians.
Some in the media have claimed the movement has the tacit support of the Pakistani military, possibly to pressure Washington.
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.
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 Washington and Islamabad has deteriorated.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira seemed to offer a somewhat softer stance on the issue of drone strikes at Monday's news conference. He pointed out that protests of the attacks were more prominent in Pakistani cities like Islamabad and Lahore than in the tribal region where the strikes take place.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.