Magic Words Re-Open Pakistan Supply Routes: “We’re Sorry”

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ASIF HASSAN / AFP / Getty Images

Tanker trucks sit alongside a road in Karachi, Pakistan, getting ready to move out to fuel U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan before the Pakistan government shut the route down last fall.

The good news is Pakistan has finally re-opened its overland supply routes to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The bad news is that it took eight months – and $2.1 billion – to get Islamabad to agree. Plus, a U.S. apology. The two supply routes, which allow the U.S. to send food and fuel to troops in Afghanistan from the Pakistan port of Karachi, were shut down by Pakistan following an errant air strike last November 26 by U.S. forces that killed 24 Pakistani troops along their border with Afghanistan.

The U.S. had refused to apologize for the mistaken attack – contending there were errors on both sides – but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke that impasse in a Tuesday phone call with  Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton told Khar, a statement issued by the State Department said. “We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.”

The deal re-opening the so-called ground lines of communication – GLOCs – also had face-saving gestures by both sides: Pakistan agreed not to increase its tolls for such shipments, and the U.S. agreed it would not ship lethal aid via the routes unless it is intended for Afghan security forces.

“As I have made clear,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “we remain committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region.”

Since the Pakistanis shuttered the routes last fall, U.S. supplies have had to either be flown in, or shipped overland from the north. “On the ground, it is almost three times more expensive to come from the north as it does from Pakistan,” Vice Admiral Mark Harnitchek, director of the Defense Logistics Agency, said last week. “More expensive and slower.” It costs, he said, about $20,000 per container shipped through Russia and Central Asia, compared to about $7,000 when shipped through Pakistan. The U.S. had been paying about $250 in tolls to Pakistan before November’s attack. Following it, Islamabad was seeking as much as $5,000 per truck.

“There is a delta between the two sides on the charges that may be assigned to the reopening of the supply routes, and that’s something we have to work through,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told Battleland in May. “We are in a phase now where we’re trying to reset the relationship with Pakistan.”