- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will attend the NATO summit, which begins Sunday in Chicago, his office said Wednesday, signaling that a deal is close on reopening alliance supply routes into landlocked Afghanistan from Pakistani ports.

Pakistan closed the routes in November to protest a NATO helicopter attack on an outpost along the Afghan border that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistan recognizes that the future of Afghanistan is being discussed [in Chicago]. They want to be at the table, and the price of being at the table is to find some resolution to this [supply-route] issue,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst at the State Department and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“The negotiations are still ongoing,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Wednesday about efforts to reopen the supply routes. “So we’re not done yet.”

Officials said the unusual, last-minute invitation to a non-member nation also underlines Pakistan’s vital role in the allied exit strategy for Afghanistan, and the alliance’s determination to expand its partnerships with non-member states. NATO invited Mr. Zardari on Tuesday.

“This meeting will underline the strong commitment of the international community to the people of Afghanistan and to its future. Pakistan has an important role to play in that future,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.

NATO leaders hope to get Pakistan’s support for their transition plan for pulling U.S.-led coalition forces out of Afghanistan starting this year and finishing in 2014.

Islamabad is seen as a key player, in part because the insurgents fighting the Afghan government and coalition forces enjoy safe haven in Pakistan’s lightly governed tribal areas.

NATO leaders “want to signal [to Pakistan] that they understand very well that any realistic transition plan depends on Pakistan,” said James Goldgeier, a national security official under former President Bill Clinton and now a scholar at American University.

Several NATO members are expected to announce financial commitments for aid to Afghanistan, Mr. Goldgeier added. He cautioned, however, that “no country is really in a position to make firm budgetary commitments” beyond 2014, given the deteriorating fiscal state of governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

“There’s going to be tremendous [budgetary] pressure to do less, spend less in Afghanistan, whatever commitments are made [in Chicago],” he said.

Pakistani officials previously had indicated that, in return for reopening the supply routes, they wanted an apology for the November helicopter attack and an overhaul of or an end to deadly CIA drone strikes against al Qaeda leaders in their tribal sanctuary.

Fees, not concessions

Now they appear to realize they will get no U.S. concessions and are instead negotiating with NATO over a fee the alliance will pay for using the supply routes.

U.S. and Pakistani officials “may find some way to finesse this issue, but [the U.S. is] not going to stop the drone strikes, and there won’t be an apology [for the border attack] as such,” said Mr. Weinbaum.

Mr. Zardari’s presence in Chicago for the summit on Sunday and Monday also will be significant because Pakistan boycotted the most recent international aid conference on Afghanistan in Germany in December.

Pakistan has realized it “cannot live in isolation from the rest of the world,” Kamran Shafi, a columnist with Pakistan’s Express Tribune, said in a phone interview from Islamabad.

“Everyone is trying to blame the government for buckling to international pressure, but it’s the army and security apparatus that calls the shots when it comes to Pakistan’s foreign policy,” he added.

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, met over the weekend with Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

After that meeting, Pakistani officials this week indicated an about-face in their position on the six-month-old closure of the supply routes. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said on Monday the routes should be reopened.

A Pakistani parliamentary committee recommended in March that NATO be charged a fee for using the supply routes. A team of officials from the State Department has been in Pakistan since late last month for talks on finalizing a payment plan.

The committee prohibited the transportation of lethal supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan, but officials say it does not prevent such supplies being brought out of Afghanistan.

“The parliamentary committee said no weapons can be transported from Karachi to Kabul, but nothing has been said about bringing weapons from Kabul to Karachi,” said a Pakistani official.

“The Americans will need to bring their toys out of Afghanistan once the troops start leaving,” he added.

The Pakistani routes are the most convenient and cost-effective way to supply coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As the U.S.-Pakistan relationship frayed, NATO has tried to reduce its dependence on the Pakistani routes.

Last year, about 40 percent of coalition supplies — including food, fuel and non-lethal equipment — was transported through Russia and Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, Uzbekistan. An additional 30 percent was sent by air, and the rest through Pakistan.

“Any logistician wants to ensure a variety of options,” a U.S. official said, explaining the decision to seek alternate routes.

Using the Uzbeki route is costing the U.S. government $38 million per month, about three times the cost of using the Pakistani routes, according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The closure of the supply routes has also hit Pakistan’s economy, as the trucks carrying NATO supplies provide employment and income to Pakistani workers.

Access to the supply routes will be key as the United States begins to draw down its troops from Afghanistan. Most U.S. troops will leave next year and in 2014, leaving a small counterterrorism force, which will stay in the country until 2024 at least.

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