BY SHARON BEHN – ISLAMABAD – Pakistan is downplaying a breakdown in U.S.-Pakistan negotiations on the re-opening of supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said Tuesday that the two countries had concluded intensive work on technical issues regarding the supply routes before the U.S. team left Islamabad. And she emphasized that the two sides were still working on resolving their differences.
“We are moving, we are interacting, we are consulting, we are engaged in dialogue with them,” Khar said. “We would hope that we can see, we can reach a solution that is acceptable to both the people and both the countries.”
Khar also repeated her country’s calls for the United States to apologize for a November U.S. missile strike that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and an end to U.S. drone strikes on Pakistan territory.
The United States has ignored Islamabad’s protests over the drone strikes and continued to hit militant hideouts in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week harshly criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to eradicate militants. Pakistan’s military leaders then declined to meet with a senior U.S. defense official. On Monday, the Pentagon recalled several of its negotiators from Islamabad “for a short period of time,” but said the dialogue will continue.
Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, said she did not see a new setback with the U.S. team’s departure. Instead she said, it is just a continuation of the deadlock that has persisted for the past six months.
“The offer from the U.S. side is on the table, and from the Pakistan side, of course, its demand is also on the table, which is the United States must apologize,” Lodhi said. “That is the key to unlocking the whole issue of the NATO supply routes.”
NATO supplies can either enter and exit Afghanistan through Pakistan, or through Central Asia. But the northern Central Asian route is more expensive.
Security analyst Rustam Shah Mohmand said there could be two explanations for the latest walkout. It could be a tactical withdrawal intended to pressure Pakistan. Or it could be the U.S. team just got frustrated. Either way, the two sides are likely to maintain their ties, said Mohmand.
“For the time being it serves the interest of both governments, so I don’t think the relationship is going to be paralyzed, the relationship is not going to collapse,” he said.
Many believe Pakistan has a vital role to play in ensuring a peaceful transition in Afghanistan as international troops begin to leave that country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in Pakistan Tuesday, said he was concerned over a possible rift between the United States and Pakistan. He said he looked to both nations to work together successfully.