The US said on Monday it was withdrawing its team of negotiators from Pakistan without securing a long-sought deal on supply routes for its war in Afghanistan, publicly exposing a diplomatic stalemate and deeply strained relations that appear at risk of deteriorating further.
Pakistan banned trucks from carrying supplies to the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan last year to protest a cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, a measure US officials initially hoped would be short term.
That strike fanned national anger over everything from covert CIA drone strikes to the US incursion into Pakistan last year to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the supply routes evolved into a lightning-rod issue between the two countries.
After six weeks of negotiations that at least once appeared close to a deal, the Pentagon acknowledged that the team had failed to clinch an accord and was coming home.
“I believe that some of the team left over the weekend and the remainder of the team will leave shortly,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters.
They could return to Pakistan at any time, if warranted, he added.
With the Pakistan routes unavailable, NATO has turned to countries to the north of Afghanistan for more expensive, longer land routes. Resupplying troops in Afghanistan through the northern route is about two-and-a-half times more expensive than shipping items through Pakistan, a US defense official said on condition of anonymity.
The announcement about the negotiators came just days after US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the US was reaching the limits of its patience because of safe havens Pakistan offered to Islamist insurgents, who are attacking US forces across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s envoy to the US had warned that Panetta’s comments on Thursday last week in Kabul were unhelpful to efforts to narrow the differences between the two countries and came at a critical moment in negotiations.
With US negotiators returning home, White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested it was now up to Pakistan to break the deadlock.
“We are ready to send officials back to Islamabad when the Pakistani government is ready to conclude the agreement,” Carney told reporters. “And it certainly remains our goal to complete an agreement as soon as possible.”
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed those remarks, saying: “We’ve had some agreement in some areas.”
“I think both sides are going to take some counsel and then we’ll see when we can get back to it,” she said.
Pakistani Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman said she did not view the decision to withdraw the negotiators as an “institutional pullout” by the US.
The US has rebuffed Pakistan’s demands for an apology over the NATO airstrike and both sides failed to agree on tariffs for supplies passing through Pakistan.