ISLAMABAD – U.S. and Pakistani officials expressed optimism Monday that Islamabad was close to reopening its Afghan border to NATO troop supplies after a 7-month blockade, a move that could significantly reduce tension between the two countries.
The tussle over the supply line, which Pakistan closed in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 of its troops, has driven the bilateral relationship to new lows, threatening U.S. prospects in Afghanistan.
The two sides have been deadlocked for months because of disagreements over transit payments and Washington's refusal to apologize for the deadly attack, which it insists was an accident.
The Pakistani government has also been worried about the inevitable political backlash from reopening the route, given the high level of anti-American sentiment in the country.
While the exact details of a deal remain unclear, there are growing signs that a breakthrough could be imminent.
Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf called a meeting of the defense committee of the Cabinet on Tuesday to decide whether to reopen the supply line, according to a senior Pakistani official.
"The environment seems to be optimistic," the official said.
The Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Sherry Rehman, left for Pakistan on Sunday night to be present for the meeting, according to two other Pakistani officials who said it appeared a resolution on the supply line was near.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the matter.
The decision to call the Cabinet meeting followed a visit Monday by a high-level American delegation to Islamabad that included the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen; Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller; and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides, said a senior U.S. official. It was Allen's second visit in less than a week.
The latest trip was a prime example of how "quiet diplomacy can play a significant role to get things done," the official said.
The U.S. addressed Pakistan's demands for higher transit fees by sweetening the deal with extensive road construction projects, the American official said, without providing specific figures.
Before the November attack, Pakistan was charging the U.S. $250 per truck. Afterward, Pakistan demanded $5,000 and the U.S. countered with $500. It's unclear where the deal stands now.
The U.S. has compensated for the closed route by using a much longer, more expensive supply line that runs into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the route is costing an extra $100 million a month now and could grow as the U.S. starts to withdraw equipment in advance of the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan.
The issue that has bogged down negotiations the most is the U.S. refusal to apologize for the November attack, which Washington has said was conducted in self-defense after Pakistani troops fired on American forces.
The Obama administration is apparently worried that apologizing could expose it to criticism from Republicans, given anger over Pakistan's alleged support for militants battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has sought to finesse the issue by providing a list of senior officials who have expressed regret over the incident, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said the senior American official on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the discussions.
While a deal seems more likely, it is by no means guaranteed.
Pakistan appeared close to reopening the supply line in May, prompting NATO to invite Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to a summit in Chicago largely focused on the Afghan war. When Pakistan failed to follow through, Obama made his anger clear by refusing to have a one-on-one meeting with Zardari.
The U.S. is eager to resolve the conflict because Pakistan's cooperation is seen as key to success in Afghanistan, especially in negotiating a peace deal with Taliban militants with whom Islamabad has strong historical ties.
Pakistan is motivated by a desire to keep billions of dollars in American aid flowing to the country. More than $1 billion in military aid has been frozen over the last year and would likely be released only if Pakistan reopened the supply route. Some members of Congress have called for cutting off all U.S. aid unless Pakistan cooperates.
Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.