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Pakistan may restore Nato supplies on new terms

There are signs to suggest that the Pak-US ties, which touched the lowest ebb in the wake of the November 26 killing of 24 Pakistan soldiers in a Nato air attack, may return to normalcy as the ruling military and political elite contemplates to reopen the Nato supplies to Afghanistan after negotiating new terms and conditions with the US to get some major concessions, including an apology.

The cross border deadly Nato attack targeting two check posts of the Pakistan army on the border with Afghanistan, plunged relations between Washington and Islamabad to their chilliest levels since the 9/11 attacks and a subsequent decision by the Musharraf regime to become an American ally in the US-led war against terror.

But it now seems that the Pak-US impasse may be over within next few weeks, keeping in view Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar’s February 7 statement that Islamabad should reopen its Afghan border crossings to Nato troop supplies after negotiating a better deal with the US-led coalition forces stationed in Afghanistan. Although the Defence Minister did not provide any details, it has been learnt that Islamabad wants to levy additional fees on the Nato supplies for using the route besides making Washington to drop its opposition to the purchase of natural gas from Iran through a pipeline project. Earlier, Foreign Minister Hina Khar had hinted at the possibility of restoring the Nato supplies, stating that both the countries need each other’s cooperation in the prevailing geo-political scenario.

In a related development, a senior American general is travelling to Pakistan next week in what Obama administration officials say is the first step toward thawing a strategic relationship which is frozen since November 2011. General James Mattis, the head of the American military’s Central Command is travelling to Pakistan to meet Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani to discuss the investigations of the November 26 Nato air attack as well as new border coordination procedures to prevent a recurrence of the episode. Informed sources in the security establishment said that General Ashfaq Kayani also expects assurances from the US general that there won’t be a repeat of the 26/11 attacks on Pakistani border posts by coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Kayani-Mattis meeting is crucial given the American media reports that the Obama administration is considering to tender an official apology on the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Nato attack. The New York Times reported on February 6 that the US State Department is supporting a proposal circulating in the administration for the US to issue a formal apology for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in the November 26 air strike by American gun ships. “We’ve felt an apology would be helpful in creating some space”, the NYT quoted a senior US official who spoke on behalf of the US State Department. General Mattis’s visit, the first by a high-ranking US general since the November 26 episode, was scheduled for November 9, but has been postponed for the time being pending a parliamentary debate over Pakistan’s new policy toward the United States during a joint session of the Parliament.

Well-placed diplomats in Islamabad believe that following the Parliamentary debate on the future Pak-US ties, the Pakistani authorities may reopen Nato supply lines running. Such a debate has become an obligation for the Pakistani authorities should they decide to take the unpopular decision of restoring the suspended Nato supplies, given the fact that the country’s ruling military and political elite has already taken a rigid public stance on the sensitive issue. On the other hand, the eagerly awaited recommendations by a parliamentary panel, which are expected to form the base of the upcoming debate, seem to be mostly open-ended. Tasked to review Pakistan’s ties with the United States in the wake of the November 26 Nato air attack, the Parliamentary Committee on the National Security led by Senator Raza Rabbani has proposed placing effective monitoring systems for Nato supplies at the [Pakistani] entry and exit points.

Yet another clear indication of Pakistani intentions to resume the Nato supplies in near future is the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendation to the government to revise the current charges for the Nato supplies “(if and when to resume the supply routes)”. The Pakistani authorities intend to levy a fee of $1000 per container, which is to be collected by the National Logistics Cell (NLC) rather than the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). The authorities believe that the ensuing revenue flow will allow maintaining the roads and bridges being used by the Nato vehicles to transport containers carrying food and military supplies for the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

But there are those in the government circles who believe that it would be hard to get a unanimous parliamentary nod for restoring the suspended Nato supplies. Pakistan’s key religio-political parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami as well as some militant groups, especially the Jamaatul Daawa, have already announced to hold a sit-in in front of the Parliament House if the government takes any such step. The government, on the other hand, has maintained that it had put on hold relations with the US till the finalisation of a fresh policy in line with the recommendations of the Parliament.

However, the government is yet to finalise the date for a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate to discuss the nature of the future ties with the United States. The recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on the National Security will be at the heart of this debate during the joint session of the Parliament, which is expected to take place within a fortnight. 

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