Islamabad: Trucks carrying NATO troop supplies are set to resume shipments to Afghanistan on Wednesday following a deal between the US and Pakistan that ended Islamabad’s seven-month blockade.
A customs official at one of Pakistan’s two main border crossings — Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province — said he received orders from the government to begin allowing trucks to cross into Afghanistan at 2 pm local time. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Officials at the Torkham crossing in the Khyber tribal area were still waiting to receive word from the government, said customs officer Asfandyar Khan.
Pakistan agreed to reopen the supply line Tuesday after the US said it was sorry for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. The attack prompted Pakistan to close the route and severely damaged already strained relations between the two countries.
Pakistan’s Cabinet on Wednesday endorsed the decision to reopen the route, which was made by senior civilian and military officials.
The accord will help patch up the US-Pakistan relationship, which is crucial for American efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, but the two continue to have serious differences that threaten prospects in the war-torn country.
The US could save hundreds of millions of dollars since Pakistan’s blockade had forced Washington to rely more heavily on a longer, costlier route that runs into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Pakistan is also expected to gain financially since the US intends to free up $1.1 billion in military aid that had been frozen for the past year.
But the deal carries risks for both governments.
Pakistan is likely to face a domestic backlash given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and the government’s failure to force the US to stop drone attacks and accede to other demands made by parliament.
The Pakistani Taliban vowed to attack trucks carrying NATO supplies once they started moving, calling the government a slave to the US.
President Barack Obama risks exposing himself to criticism from Republicans, including presidential challenger Mitt Romney, who contends the administration is too quick to apologize in foreign policy matters. Anger at Pakistan is high in Washington because of the country’s alleged support for militants fighting US troops in Afghanistan.
This risk led the US to hold off apologising to Pakistan for months, despite repeated demands from Islamabad. In the end, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US was “sorry” for the deaths of the Pakistani troops, but didn’t offer the “unconditional apology” demanded by the country’s parliament.
Clinton reiterated that mistakes on both sides led to the airstrikes on two army posts on the Afghan border, disputing Pakistan’s claim that the US was wholly at fault and carried out the attack deliberately.
Pakistan also demanded much higher transit fees during the months of negotiations — up to $5,000 per truck — but agreed in the end to maintain the $250 price levied before the attack. The US offered extensive road construction projects to sweeten the deal, although officials have not provided specific figures.
Critics of the US in Pakistan will likely seize on the lukewarm apology, static fees and continued American drone strikes to accuse Islamabad of selling out to Washington.
The most vocal opposition to reopening the NATO supply line has come from a collection of hardline Islamist religious leaders and politicians known as the Difah-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan Council.
The group, which many suspect was supported by the Pakistani army to pressure the US, plans to launch a protest campaign against the supply route decision, said chairman Maulana Samiul Haq.
“It is an insult to our nation,” he said. “The rulers have put national interest at stake just to please America.”