Pakistan reopens Afghan transit after U.S. apology
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WASHINGTON -- Pakistan agreed Tuesday to reopen its border crossings to U.S. and NATO military transit after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologized for a deadly U.S. airstrike last year.
The moves ended a 7-month-long diplomatic standoff and raised hopes within the Obama administration that the Pakistanis are ready to expand counterterrorism cooperation.
The White House had resisted Pakistan's insistence on an explicit apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the November airstrike. But a flurry of meetings in recent days led to Ms. Clinton issuing an artfully worded statement saying she had spoken with her counterpart in Islamabad and agreed that mistakes were made on both sides.
"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," the statement said. "We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
Although the language expressed mutual regret, the statement was quickly billed in Pakistan as a unilateral apology, an interpretation that the Obama administration was content to leave undisputed.
"Everyone hopes this will open the doors to other cooperation with them on counterterrorism and Afghanistan," a senior administration official said. "That's yet to be seen. I think we should take it for what it is and go from there."
Disagreements remain over militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, cross-border attacks by extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani territory and reconciliation with the Taliban.
But for the moment, both sides are clearly relieved that the most visible evidence of the breach in their always-tense relationship -- the miles of stalled U.S. military container trucks awaiting passage to Afghanistan -- would soon disappear. U.S. officials said they expected the first vehicles to cross the newly opened border by early today.
In recent months, the United States has spent at least an additional $100 million a month to use an alternative, northern route across Central Asia. That cost had been expected to increase as the massive withdrawal of U.S. troops end equipment from Afghanistan accelerated.
Both sides yielded ground, but the dispute finally ended because "the two countries agreed we need to move beyond this issue," said a source knowledgeable about the negotiations. "These things need time."
U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity about the negotiations, saying they would not publicly discuss anything beyond Ms. Clinton's statement.
Pakistan's Defense Committee of the Cabinet, which approved the deal, said the agreement was in the country's best interest and a boon to the Afghanistan peace process. Allowing NATO convoys to enter and exit Pakistani territory would speed the withdrawal of Western forces, the Islamabad government said in a statement, and "enable a smooth transition in Afghanistan."
The Cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, included the powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam. Mr. Ashraf opened the meeting by calling Pakistan "a responsible member of the international community," and saying continued closure of NATO supply lines would "impinge" on Pakistan's international relationships.
Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, pressed by reporters on the language in Ms. Clinton's statement, dismissed what he called "this useless issue of which word has been used. The reality is that the nation has been able to bring the world superpower to offer an apology."
First Published July 4, 2012 12:00 am