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U.S.-Pakistan Talks on NATO Supply Lines Stopped

WASHINGTON, Jun 12 2012 (IPS) - Six weeks of talks between Pakistan and the United States have been halted, a Defence Department official stated here on Monday.

“A decision was reached that it was time to bring the (negotiations) team home,” Pentagon spokesperson George Little said, noting that the move was based on a U.S. decision.

Little suggested that the negotiators were simply in need of a rest, and added that they “are prepared to return to Islamabad at any moment to continue discussions in person”.

The news comes just days after the U.S. assistant secretary of defence, Peter Lavoy, arrived in Islamabad in an attempt to shore up the flagging talks process, aimed at re-opening critical supply routes for international military forces in Afghanistan. According to reports, the head of the Pakistan Army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, refused to meet Lavoy.

The supply routes have been closed since November, when a U.S. missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Since that time, the Islamabad government, backed by a unanimous Parliament resolution, has called for an unconditional apology for the attack as well as a cessation of U.S.-controlled drone strikes within Pakistani territory. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed regret for the soldiers’ deaths, the United States has refused apologise.

Prior to November, some 5,000 NATO trucks used the Pakistan route every month. The closure is said to cost the United States an extra billion dollars per month, as its military is forced to rely on trucking in supplies through a more circuitous route via Central Asia, known as the Northern Distribution Network.

The White House has made re-opening the supply routes a top military priority, and forward movement seemed to be taking place prior to the NATO summit in Chicago in mid-May.

At that time, President Barack Obama extended a last-minute summit invitation to Islamabad, evidently in the hopes of using the high-profile event to force President Asif Ali Zardari’s hand.

Both Zardari and Obama will be fighting elections in the next several months, and the opposition in Pakistan has made the supply routes – and, by extension, the apology – into a central political plank.

In the event, Obama’s summit gambit failed, with the Pakistanis reiterating their previous position and suddenly demanding a massive increase in transit fees.

Honour or Tactic?

Since November, the centrality of the apology issue has been confusing for many observers. After all, Washington has expressed official apology for several other such incidents.

“There are differing accounts of what actually happened in November at Salala, basic questions of who fired first,” Colin Cookman, with the Center for American Progress, a think tank here, told IPS. “This may be part of the U.S. reluctance to apologise, though coupled with a long history of mistrust.”

Cookman cautions against reading too much into the current halt in negotiations, though he warns that the longer this phase goes on, the harder any resolution will become.

“Both sides have been hedging for quite some time now, but there’s still recognition that working around or more directly confronting Pakistan would be very costly courses of action,” he says. “To the extent that both sides can see the costs of a breakup, it’s still possible to rein back.”

In Pakistan, the apology has come to strike a deeper chord – speaking to an issue that, some say, the U.S. has never quite understood.

“It’s not about money; it’s about ‘honour’,” an editorial consultant based in Karachi told IPS, on condition of anonymity.

“At a cultural level, the U.S. has just failed to understand this all along – the inner concept of honour and its place in the national psyche. If the U.S. had been canny and apologised quickly, we could have moved way past this by now.”

By this analysis, then, the Salala apology may have become a line in the sand indicative of broad frustration over issues of national sovereignty, exacerbated in recent years by U.S. drone strikes within Pakistani territory.

The Other Route

Meanwhile, some say the big story here is the newfound ability of the military effort in Afghanistan to continue to function without the Pakistan supply routes.

“A year or two ago, if you had predicted to strategists that there could be a six-month cut-off in these supply routes and we would be fine, they would have been stunned,” Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert with the Brookings Institution, a think tank here, told IPS. “The development of the Northern Distribution Network has made all this possible – we don’t need any other ways.”

Indeed, the breakdown in talks comes just days after NATO arrived at a new slate of deals with three Central Asian countries to allow for a more streamlined process by which Western countries in Afghanistan can move equipment back out of the country – a major concern as foreign forces prepare to move out of Afghanistan.

On Jun. 4, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced agreements on “reverse transit” from Afghanistan with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. An additional route through Russia is also currently in the offing.

And on Tuesday, a high-level State Department official en route to Afghanistan will be in Uzbekistan for a two-day meeting that observers say will be part of longstanding talks over the Northern Distribution Network.

Where does that leave the U.S.-Pakistan negotiations? During an Asia trip last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that the United States was “reaching the limits of our patience”.

But according to O’Hanlon, Panetta spoke “a little too casually”.

“What do you do next? Let it cool down, avoid trying to force the issue, and remember that diplomacy is the act of making the best of a situation,” O’Hanlon says. “Ultimately, cooler heads must prevail and ultimately we keep trying.”

 
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