NATO supply routes through Pakistan still closed to US
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US negotiators will leave Pakistan without securing a long-sought agreement to reopen supply routes for NATO forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Monday. A Pentagon spokesman said the United States still hopes to broker a deal.
REUTERS - The United States is withdrawing its team of negotiators from Pakistan without securing a long-sought agreement to allow trucks to supply NATO forces in neighbouring Afghanistan again, the Pentagon said on Monday.
The decision is the latest sign of deeply troubled ties and was announced just days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was reaching the limits of its patience because of the safe havens Pakistan offered to Islamist insurgents.
Pakistan's envoy to the United States had warned that Panetta's comments last Thursday in Kabul were unhelpful to efforts to narrow the differences between the two countries and came at a critical moment in negotiations.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the United States still hoped to broker a deal with Pakistan. But he said the team of negotiators had been there for about six weeks and, given the lack an agreement, deserved a rest.
They could return at any time, if warranted, he added.
"I believe that some of the team left over the weekend and the remainder of the team will leave shortly," Little told reporters. "This was a U.S. decision."
Pakistan closed ground supply routes through its territory last year to protest a cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. That strike fanned national anger over everything from covert CIA drone strikes to the U.S. incursion into Pakistani territory last year to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The White House, gearing up for November elections, has rebuffed Pakistan's demands for an apology over the NATO air strike and both sides failed to agree on tariffs for supplies passing through Pakistan.
Negotiations stalled and the Pentagon acknowledged that Pakistan's powerful army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, declined a meeting last week with a top Pentagon official, Peter Lavoy.
"He (Lavoy) was hoping to be able to meet with General Kayani to work through this issue," Little said.
More expensive route
As talks with Pakistan over routes stalled, NATO turned to countries to the north of Afghanistan for more expensive, longer land routes. Resupplying troops in Afghanistan through the northern route is about 2-1/2 times more expensive than shipping items through Pakistan, a U.S. defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But more than the cost, the split with Pakistan is a worrying sign that even seemingly straight-forward commercial agreements between the two countries are elusive. That bodes ill for agreement on other efforts, like tackling militant safe havens, that U.S. officials feel are fundamental for Afghanistan's long-term stability.
Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, predicted the United States could carry out its planned withdrawal of most of its troops by the end of 2014, even without a deal with Pakistan on ground supply routes.
"It's not really affected us, and I don't expect it to be a problem here in the future," Scaparrotti, in Afghanistan, told Pentagon reporters in a video-briefing.
Panetta last week urged Pakistan to go after the Haqqani militant network, one of the United States' most feared enemies in Afghanistan, and said Washington would exert diplomatic pressure and take any other steps needed to protect its forces.
The United States blames the group for a June attack on a U.S. base in the east in which several insurgents, including some wearing suicide vests, used rocket-propelled grenades.
The attack was foiled, but it underlined the challenge facing Western and Afghan forces in the east where insurgents take advantage of the steep, forested terrain and the Pakistani border to launch attacks and then slip back, commanders say.
Scaparrotti said he believed that the United States could still obtain its objective of handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces, even if Pakistan failed to go after the Haqqani safe havens.
"I think we can still attain our withdrawal goals. And I also believe, while very difficult, we can attain our objectives of (an Afghanistan) secured by Afghans in 2014," he said.