ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The U.S. and Pakistan resolved a bitter seven-month standoff when Washington apologized for killing two dozen Pakistani soldiers in errant airstrikes and, in return, Islamabad agreed to reopen crucial supply routes for American and coalition military forces in Afghanistan.
The deal Tuesday ends a diplomatic deadlock that brought U.S. relations with the nuclear-armed South Asian nation to a near standstill, cost the U.S. and its allies $100 million a month in extra transport fees, hindered counter-terrorism operations against Pakistan-based militants and added hurdles to the planned withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton phoned Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, and said she was sorry for the deaths caused when U.S. combat helicopters and fighter jets mistakenly attacked two Pakistani border posts Nov. 26.
“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton said, according to a State Department release that recounted her conversation with Khar. “We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Minutes later, Pakistan announced that it would reopen routes for truck convoys hauling fuel, food and other nonlethal supplies from the port of Karachi to U.S. and NATO military forces in neighboring Afghanistan, a delicately orchestrated resolution that officials had discussed for months.
Closure of the Pakistani roads cost an extra $100 million monthly because it forced the Pentagon to instead move supplies by air, rail or truck through Russia and other countries north of Afghanistan, much longer and more expensive routes, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Congress last month.
The road closures also held up delivery of thousands of armored vehicles and other equipment meant for the fledgling Afghan army and police, slowing U.S. efforts to build Afghan forces that can stand up to the Taliban insurgency as foreign troops withdraw.
At least as important from the U.S. perspective, the deal removes a major uncertainty, and enormous extra costs, as American and allied forces make plans to haul armored vehicles and other equipment, as well as their combat forces, out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In the end, negotiators worked out a compromise in which both governments backed down to defuse a crisis.
Until now, the Obama administration had refused Pakistan’s demands for an explicit apology for the killings, expressing regrets and condolences instead. Pakistani officials had insisted that the attack along the Afghan border in which 24 soldiers died was unprovoked and deliberate. U.S. officials contend that both sides were at fault because Pakistani soldiers, stationed on a ridge overlooking the border, fired first on U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the divide.
Although Clinton did not use the word “apology,” her statement clearly was meant as one, a symbolic retreat that acknowledged that no other solution would persuade Pakistan’s politically weak government to reopen routes that previously carried as much as 40 % of nonlethal supplies into Afghanistan.
Clinton’s statement was carefully worded, and the “we” in her apology referenced mutual regret, from her and Pakistan’s foreign minister, about the killings. But Clinton’s statement could leave President Obama open to attacks by Republicans in an election year that she implicitly criticized the actions of U.S. soldiers who were acting to defend themselves.
At the same time, Pakistan pulled back from its demands during the negotiations that the U.S. pay about $5,000 per truck.
U.S. officials balked at the demand and in the end agreed to pay $250 per truck, the same rate as before. It was unclear whether Pakistan would seek to impose other financial charges or tolls. In recent weeks, Pakistan had sought compensation for damage done to roads and highways by North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply convoys.
As part of the deal, the U.S. also will resume paying “coalition support funds,” which reimburse Pakistan for logistical, military and other support provided to American military operations against militants.
Pakistan has about $1 billion in outstanding claims, said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, but the payments have been suspended since Pakistan shut off the routes.
“We will look to pay past coalition support fund claims” once the roads have reopened, Kirby said.
As the standoff deepened in recent months, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s embattled government grew concerned about becoming estranged from the West and potentially losing billions of dollars in future U.S. aid. But he faced immense political pressure.
The U.S. attacks last fall infuriated a country already deeply at odds with Washington over CIA drone missile strikes, the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year, and the release of a CIA contractor accused of killing two Pakistanis.
Zardari’s main political opponents, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and onetime cricket star Imran Khan, have criticized the government’s willingness to reopen the routes as an example of Zardari’s subservience to Washington.
His ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party, is approaching an election season, and analysts have said the government probably delayed lifting the blockade to appear as if it were taking a hard-line stance toward Washington.
In Washington, where U.S. officials suspected Pakistani officials of harboring Bin Laden and essentially protecting Pakistan-based insurgents who attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the demand for a formal apology struck a raw nerve, given U.S. sacrifices in the region.
Officials in Washington sought to downplay Clinton’s apology Tuesday, insisting that the administration was not backing away from a Pentagon investigation that found errors on both sides during the border attacks.
“We were very clear after the incident about what happened,” Kirby said. “None of this today changes the statement we made.”
Asked why Clinton had decided to say she was sorry and why it took so long to do so, Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said that Clinton’s “statement speaks for itself, and I’m not going to parse the words that were used.”
Despite the rapprochement, the alliance between Washington and Islamabad remains mired in deep mutual animosity and mistrust.
Washington needs Pakistan’s help to facilitate talks between Afghan officials and Afghan Taliban leaders, and sees Islamabad as an important, though difficult, counter-terrorism ally. Pakistan, in turn, remains heavily dependent on billions of dollars in economic and military aid from the U.S.
Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and Cloud from Washington.