Pakistan yesterday looked poised to end a nearly six-month blockade of NATO ground supply routes into Afghanistan, succumbing to a key demand of the West ahead of a summit in Chicago next week.
Islamabad shut its Afghan border crossings to NATO supplies after US air strikes killed 24 soldiers in November last year, provoking a new crisis in ties on top of the outcry from the US raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May last year.
Yesterday, civilian and military leaders were to discuss reopening the supply route at a Cabinet defense committee meeting, which will be followed by a meeting of army chiefs and the regular Cabinet today.
Sources familiar with the discussions said the government had already effectively taken the decision to reopen the lines, probably by the beginning of next week, and hoped to be invited to the NATO summit in Chicago on Sunday and Monday.
Pakistani and US officials had reached a “broad agreement” on fees and logistics for the fuel and other non-military supplies that would go overland through Pakistan to Afghanistan, one source said.
“The meetings will indicate that the decision has the backing of all the stakeholders,” the source said. “This should minimize the prospect for Islamist groups to exploit the situation in the hope that they’ll get the backing of the military establishment.”
Pakistan has called in vain for an end to US drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda militants on its soil, and a formal apology for the November air strikes.
Analysts say Pakistan has no choice but to reopen the border.
Its relationship with the US is key to maintaining ties with multilateral lending agencies needed to help boost its state coffers, at a time when major NATO discussions are under way affecting its own strategic future.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Monday that it was time to “move on,” in the strongest public sign yet that Pakistan will end the blockade.
“It was important to make a point, Pakistan has made a point and we now need to move on and go into a positive zone and try to conduct our relations,” Khar told a news conference. “We are trying to put this relationship, you know, in a positive zone and I am quite sure that we will be successful in doing so.”
Pakistan’s involvement in the Chicago summit could minimize its international isolation and boost the country’s leverage over the future of Afghanistan, as NATO countries pull out their combat forces by 2014.
The US Department of State said both countries had made “considerable progress” on ending the blockade, which has held up lengthy convoys of fuel and supply trucks all the way to the port city of Karachi in the south.
The Pakistan supply routes constitute as little as 25 percent of what NATO needs to sustain itself in Afghanistan as the US has made increasing use of more expensive routes into northern Afghanistan.