WASHINGTON – A senior U.S. military commander will visit Pakistan this month in what could be an important step in healing the rift between the two nations, officials said Tuesday.
Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, will meet with Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to talk about the U.S. investigation into airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a Nov. 26 exchange of fire at the border with Afghanistan.
Mattis would be the first high-ranking official to visit since the strikes that sent relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low and prompted Pakistan to close its border to NATO war supplies headed for Afghanistan, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive matter publicly. News of the planned visit came as Pakistan's defense minister said Tuesday the country should reopen its Afghan border crossings to NATO troop supplies after negotiating a better deal with the coalition.
Without providing details, Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar told the private Geo TV that the government should negotiate new "terms and conditions" with NATO, then reopen the border.
Mattis will be presenting the Central Command investigation that found a combination of mistrust and bad maps led to the airstrikes on two Pakistani outposts in the November incident. The Defense Department said the investigation found U.S. forces — given what information they had available to them at the time — reacted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon from the direction of the Pakistani border.
Pakistan refused to participate in the investigation and has rejected its conclusions. The U.S. expressed regret, but did not apologize, despite the embarrassing series of communications and coordination errors. The State Department is supporting a proposal circulating in the administration to issue a formal apology for the Pakistan soldiers' deaths, according to the New York Times, which first reported the planned Mattis visit in Tuesday editions.
Often difficult U.S.-Pakistani relations have taken a number of especially hard hits in the past year, including fallout from the U.S. military assault in Pakistan last May that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistani leaders have also complained about repeated U.S. drone strikes in their country, largely by the CIA, that have targeted militants who launch attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan. But the final straw was the Nov. 26 cross-border attack.
Islamabad has said it is re-evaluating its relationship with Washington and the Pakistani parliament is working out new guidelines to define the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. The parliament is expected to vote on a revised framework for relations in mid-February. That could pave the way for the government to reopen the supply line.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said last week that she didn't think it would be much of a problem to reopen the route after the parliament vote. And the defense minister Tuesday echoed this view, saying "I think the people who are deciding, who are giving recommendations, will make the right decision."
For most of the 10-year war in Afghanistan, 90 percent of supplies shipped to coalition forces came through Pakistan, via the port of Karachi. But over the past three years, NATO has increased its road and rail shipments through an alternate route that runs through Russia and Central Asia. The northern route is longer and more expensive, but provided a hedge against the riskier Pakistan route.
Before the Nov. 26 airstrikes, about 30 percent of non-lethal supplies for U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan traveled through Pakistan. The U.S. has since increased the amount of supplies running through the north, but the cost is much greater. Pentagon figures provided to the AP show it is now costing about $104 million per month to send supplies. That is $87 million more per month than when the cargo moved through Pakistan.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.