CHAMAN, Pakistan – Trucks carrying NATO supplies rolled into Afghanistan for the first time in more than seven months Thursday, ending a painful chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations that saw the border closed until Washington apologized for an airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Thousands of trucks have been waiting at ports in Karachi for the transit ban to be lifted as the diplomatic wrangling dragged on. Drivers are eager to get behind the wheel and start earning a lucrative salary again in what can be a deadly journey because of attacks from the Taliban.
"I risk my life for my family, and I risk my life because I get better pay for taking NATO supplies," said Tajawal Khan, who has been driving the dangerous route for the past few years.
"I know the Taliban may attack our trucks. But I tell the Taliban that we are doing this job for our family," he said by telephone from the cab of his tanker in Karachi, waiting to be loaded with oil before driving north toward Afghanistan.
Pakistan closed the routes in retaliation for the U.S. airstrikes in November that killed the two dozen border troops. The decision to reopen them, after the U.S. apology, marked an easing of strains in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad in recent months. The Americans have said they did not intentionally target Pakistani forces, but Pakistan disputed that.
Pakistan and the U.S. also differed over how much Islamabad should be paid for trucks to move through its territory. In the end, they appeared to compromise with the U.S. issuing an apology but paying no extra fees from the $250 per truck that it was previously paying.
Pakistan faces a 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 meet other demands made by parliament.
President Barack Obama, in a re-election battle, faces criticism from Republicans who are angry that his administration apologized to a country allegedly giving safe haven to militants attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
During the closure, the U.S. was forced to use more costly and lengthy routes 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.
When the routes were closed, trucking companies pulled almost all of their vehicles back to Karachi to better protect them. Getting from the southern port city to the border at Chaman can take days, and they must also be loaded with supplies and cleared through customs, which can take time.
Only two trucks crossed the border Thursday, both at the Chaman frontier in the province of Baluchistan. The other, known as the Torkham crossing, is farther north in the Khyber Pass, a high mountainous area far from waiting shipments.
Before the closure, an estimated 150-200 trucks crossed the border daily, said U.S. spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, speaking from Kabul.
Few trucks had been expected to cross in the first days following the reopening.
The decision to reopen the routes sparked protest with many conservative Pakistani religious parties, but there was dancing and celebrating in Karachi on Tuesday night when the decision was announced. The reason is fairly straightforward: Driving a truck, even one that gets shot at or blown up, pays a decent wage in Pakistan.
Zahid Khan bought a truck two years ago so that he could ferry NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
"I got a loan from someone to buy this truck. I had hoped that I would pay back the loan in two to three years, and everything was going well until the government blocked the supply routes," he said, adding that he makes about 20,000 rupees — a little over $200 — a month when driving.
Gunmen last year opened fire on a convoy of trucks in which he was driving but he and the others managed to escape unharmed.
Suspected militants have destroyed hundreds of trucks carrying NATO supplies in the past few years, and often the drivers are killed or wounded. In one particularly deadly attack in June 2010, militants destroyed dozens of trucks near Islamabad and killed seven people.
Attacks spiked when Pakistan closed one of its border crossings in fall 2010 for about 10 days in response to a U.S. helicopter strike that killed two Pakistani soldiers. The trucks were sitting targets because many of them were lined up along the road as they waited for the crossing to reopen.
There were relatively few attacks after Pakistan closed both crossings in November because the trucks were ordered to terminals away from the border where they would be less vulnerable.
Companies shipping NATO supplies met with police in Karachi to discuss security arrangements for convoys headed to Afghanistan, said Israr Khan Shinwari, spokesman for the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Owners Association.
Police vans will accompany the convoys north from Karachi toward the border through Sindh province, he said. Companies have urged the government to provide security in the other provinces that will be crossed on the way, Shinwari said.
The most dangerous part of the drive comes when the trucks get close to the Chaman crossing in Baluchistan or near the Torkham crossing in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
It could take several days for oil tankers to begin leaving Karachi in large numbers because companies are still waiting for NATO to pay for the fuel that is to be shipped, Shinwari said.
Many drivers say they have had a hard time providing for their families during the closure and are eager to start earning money again. While the closure dragged on, most lived in their trucks as they stood idle in Karachi.
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Patrick Quinn in Kabul contributed to this report.