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In a phone call on Thursday to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized for the accidental deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers who were killed in a border incident 7 months ago. The apology cleared the way for the supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan to re-open, which was closed by Pakistan following the border clash.
While some details of the incident at the border may never be known, what was clear from the military’s investigation into the incident was that Pakistan failed to inform the US of the position of the Pakistani soldiers, and that the border guards fired on US and Afghan soldiers. In essence, Secretary Clinton has apologized to the Pakistani government for our soldiers defending themselves from attack.
The decision to re-open the supply lines will free up $1.2 billion in US funds to help pay Pakistan for their assistance in US counterterrorism operations. That money was cut off even before the border incident as relations between the two countries deteriorated drastically following the May 2011 operation in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Other issues of contention that stand in the way of better relations with Islamabad include Pakistan’s support of terrorists, such as the Haqqani Network, and US drone strikes in Pakistan.
But the agreement to re-open the GLOC (Ground Lines of Communication) is opposed by most of the Pakistani people who wanted the US to “ask for forgiveness” from the Pakistani government and pay reparations. Opposition parties are calling for a nationwide demonstration against NATO and the supply line on Sunday.
Why it took seven months to resolve the dispute and why the US buckled to Pakistani pressure and apologized for an incident in which it didn’t think it was at fault was a matter of internal pressures in both countries. For Pakistan, billions in aid was frozen while the military fretted that the dispute was isolating the country, making it a “pariah state” with NATO countries. While it was the Pakistani army and intelligence service, the ISI, who appeared to be the driving force behind the initial closing of the supply line — the result of American insistence that the civilian government be supreme over the army before military aid could be delivered — the soldiers eventually realized that the closure of GLOC was isolating them in the world community. That, and the fact that NATO replaced the route through Pakistan with a longer and more expensive trip through Russia, Central Asian states, and the Caucuses (the Northern Distribution Network, or NDN), proving the alliance could resupply without Islamabad’s help. Finally, Pakistan wants to be part of the endgame in Afghanistan and needed to improve relations with Washington to have a seat at the table.
For America’s part, it was costing us $100 million more a month to move supplies through the NDN. Also, the overland route through Pakistan is going to be vital when the massive amount of equipment that a decade’s worth of war has left in Afghanistan has to be moved by the time America withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014. The US also believed it vital to improve relations with Islamabad in order to increase cooperation in fighting terrorists hostile to both Pakistan and America, and who would threaten Afghanistan when the US military departs.
The US resisted calls by Pakistan to apologize for the border incident for many months, but several times, considered using the word in order to get the relationship back on track. The Obama administration had expressed its “regret” at the loss of life several times but the Pakistani government considered an apology the least they could accept given the extreme sensitivity of the Pakistani people, who viewed the incident as a deliberate attack by the US on Pakistani sovereignty. Negotiations to re-open the supply line were nearing fruition when the last stumbling block appeared to be the apology. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta opposed the apology as did many in the Pentagon. But in the end, it was determined that it was in the national interest to make the gesture.
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