Pakistan agreed to reopen key supply routes into Afghanistan on Tuesday, ending a bitter stand-off after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was sorry for the loss of life in a botched air raid.
A US official said that as part of the deal, Washington will release about US$1.1 billion to the Pakistani military from a US “coalition support fund” designed to reimburse Pakistan for the cost of counter-insurgency operations.
The money had been frozen because of the tensions between the two countries.
The agreement ends a seven-month diplomatic row that had seen US-Pakistan ties, already soured by the US killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, plunge to a new low and gravely impede US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan.
The breakthrough, announced by Clinton after she spoke by telephone with Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, follows months of negotiations.
Islamabad, a key but wary ally in the fight against Taliban militants, had steadfastly insisted Washington should apologize for the November attack when a US aircraft mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
“Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives,” Clinton said in a statement. “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Pakistan confirmed it had decided to reopen the routes into Afghanistan, which are vital as the US and its NATO allies withdraw troops and equipment from Afghanistan ahead of a 2014 deadline.
“The meeting of Pakistan’s defense committee [DCC] of the Cabinet has decided to reopen the NATO supplies,” the minister of information, Qamar Zaman Kaira, told reporters in Islamabad.
New Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who chaired the meeting, also acknowledged it was time to end the blockade.
“The continued closure of supply lines not only impinge our relationship with the US, but also on our relations with the 49 other member states of NATO,” he told top civilian and military leaders.
However, underlining ever-present security fears, the deal drew a swift warning from the Pakistani Taliban that they would attack NATO supply trucks and kill the drivers if they tried to resume ferrying in supplies to Afghanistan.
Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said the Taliban “will not allow any truck to pass and will attack it.”
The blockade had forced the US and its allies to rely on longer, more expensive northern routes through Central Asia, Russia and the Caucasus, costing the US military about US$100 million a month, the Pentagon has said.
Initial hopes of a deal on reopening the routes had fallen apart at a NATO summit in Chicago last month, amid reports that Pakistan was demanding huge fees for the thousands of trucks that rumble across the border every year.
Clinton stressed that “Pakistan will continue not to charge any transit fee,” adding that it was “a tangible demonstration of Pakistan’s support for a secure, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.”
The deal was announced just days before Tokyo hosts a donor’s meeting on Afghanistan, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai will reportedly seek US$3.9 billion in annual international aid to rebuild the economy.
The deal sends “a strong signal going into ... the Afghan conference in Tokyo that we are back on track in terms of being able to support the NATO mission,” US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.