ISLAMABAD – The first trucks carrying supplies to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan crossed the Pakistani border Thursday after a seven-month closure of the supply routes ended earlier this week.
Pakistan closed the routes in retaliation for American airstrikes in November that killed 24 border troops. The decision Tuesday to reopen them, after the U.S. apologized for the killings, marked an easing of strains in the relationship in recent months. The Americans have said they did not intentionally target Pakistani forces, but Pakistan disputed that.
In the port city of Karachi, truckers were preparing for the trip. Thousands of trucks and tankers have been stuck at ports in Karachi waiting for the transit ban to be lifted as diplomatic wrangling dragged on.
"Today, almost after eight months, NATO supply has been started. I am taking NATO cargo to Peshawar where this cargo will be shifted to trailers taking the same to Kabul," said driver Javed Iqbal.
The journey is a perilous one, as the Taliban and other militant groups have threatened to attack supply vehicles in Pakistani territory. Before the closure, hundreds of supply trucks, which travel in convoys, were targeted in different areas of the country.
Huge challenges still divide the U.S. and Pakistan — a country considered crucial to American plans to wind down the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. accuses Pakistan of supporting Taliban militants who attack American troops in Afghanistan and demands an end to such support. U.S. drone strikes in the border regions have infuriated Pakistanis.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said the deadlock over the supply line closure had threatened to hurt Pakistan's relations with NATO member countries. He said Pakistan wants to facilitate the drawdown of NATO forces in Afghanistan in order to promote peace and stability there.
Pakistan made it clear that its red lines should be respected, he said, a reference to the demand for the U.S. to respect Pakistani sovereignty.
Pakistan and the U.S. also differed over how much the U.S. should pay Pakistan to transit trucks through its territory. In the end they appeared to compromise with the U.S. issuing an apology but paying no extra transit fees than the $250 per truck that it was previously paying.
Pakistan is already facing domestic backlash, given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and the government's failure to force the U.S. to stop drone strikes targeting militants and accede to other demands made by parliament.
President Barack Obama, in the midst of a re-election battle, faces criticism from Republicans who are angry his administration apologized to a country allegedly giving safe haven to militants attacking American troops in Afghanistan.
During the closure, the U.S. was forced to use more costly and lengthy routes through the former Soviet Union.
The reopening could save the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars because Pakistan's blockade forced Washington to rely more heavily on longer, costlier routes that lead into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Pakistan is also expected to gain financially, since the U.S. intends to free up $1.1 billion in military aid that has been frozen for the past year
A paramilitary official at the Chaman border crossing, Fazal Bari, said the first truck moved across the border around noon local time and a second truck crossed a few hours later. Two other trucks were waiting on the Pakistani side of the border because of questions about their paperwork, he said.
Few trucks had been expected to cross in the first days following the reopening.
After the routes were closed, trucking companies pulled almost all of their vehicles back to ports in Karachi to better protect them and getting from the port city to the Chaman crossing in Baluchistan province can take days. They must also be loaded with supplies and cleared through customs in Karachi, which can take time.
U.S. officials had expected the first trucks carrying NATO supplies to begin crossing into Afghanistan on Wednesday, but bureaucratic delays held that up.
Chaman is one of two crossings used by trucks carrying supplies to Afghanistan. The other, known as the Torkham crossing, is further north in the Khyber Pass, a high mountainous area far from waiting shipments. No crossing was expected there on Thursday.
The chairman of Port Qasim, Mohammad Shafi, said Thursday that more than 2,500 NATO containers and vehicles have been held at the facility since the blockade began.
Getting them back on the road will take time, he said, due to paperwork and customs clearance procedures.
"Once we do that, we will be able to let the supplies leave for Afghanistan," he said. By late Thursday, only a handful of trucks had actually left Port Qasim, said Shafi, citing paperwork and customs clearances.