Supply Route Deal Won't Thaw Icy U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

Supply route is a 'real step forward,' but deep U.S.-Pakistani differences over Haqqani network remain.

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The State Department's announcement Tuesday that Pakistan will reopen ground routes long used by U.S. and NATO forces to supply troops in Afghanistan signals a thaw in a relationship that entered a deep freeze over a year ago. But the deal won't resolve the remaining thorny issues between Washington and Islamabad, say a key lawmaker and a Pentagon adviser.

Pakistani officials shuttered the supply lines last November, in the wake of a U.S. air strike at a Pakistani border checkpoint that left nearly 30 Pakistani troops dead.

Islamabad for months has hinted Washington would have to formally apologize for the incident, which U.S. officials say occurred because American troops were unaware the facility was manned with Pakistani forces. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued such an apology on Thursday, saying in a statement she had passed to her Pakistani counterparts "our deepest regrets for the tragic incident." She then issued a rare U.S. public apology: "We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military."

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The apology likely will quickly become political fodder for Mitt Romney, President Obama's presumptive GOP opponent in the fall. Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls have slammed Obama since he was a presidential candidate for even suggesting the world's sole superpower should apologize for any actions it takes on the global stage.

"This is a real step forward," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who also advises the Pentagon. "This is a very empirical compromise."

"This may also ease what has been a steady rise in anti-Americanism in Pakistan," Cordesman adds.

U.S. officials for months have urged Pakistani leaders to re-open the supply lines, saying use of more rugged ground transportation routes through Russia and Afghanistan's other northern neighbors, as well as increased use of cargo aircraft, cost two-and-a-half times as much as moving supplies and equipment through Pakistan.

With more U.S. troops set to leave Afghanistan by the end of September, followed by tens of thousands more by Dec. 31, 2014, the Obama administration has been sounding alarms that the cost of the phased U.S. and NATO withdrawal would be much costlier than initially planned.

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"This greatly eases major problems U.S., France, and others would have had in leaving Afghanistan from now until the end of 2014," Cordesman says. "There really are no easy alternative routes. The northern route has been a useful substitute," he says, but using those lines takes longer and is much more expensive.

Clinton said in a lengthy statement that she and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar discussed "the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States."

To that end, senior U.S. officials for years have wanted Pakistan's intelligence service and military to clamp down on the Haqqani network, a Talbian-allied extremist group that launches attacks inside Afghanistan from their hideouts on Pakistani soil.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolina Republican, has been one of the most outspoken American officials calling for Pakistan to do more against the Haqqanis.

In a statement released after Clinton's announcement, Graham applauded the supply-route pact. But he also highlighted the Haqqani issue.

"If the Pakistani military intelligence services would engage in aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in coordination with coalition forces," Graham says, "it would tremendously enhance our successes in Afghanistan, provide stability to the Pakistani government, and eventually a better life for people on both sides of the border."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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