Pakistan reopens supply routes after rare apology from Clinton for NATO airstrike

Pakistan has agreed to reopen important supply routes to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan following a rare public apology from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In a phone conversation on Tuesday, Clinton apologized to Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar for an errant U.S. airstrike last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

"We are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists," Clinton said in a statement.

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The incident occurred when American and NATO forces mistook Pakistani forces for insurgent fighters and opened fire. In retaliation, Islamabad closed off supply routes in Pakistan that have been used by coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

While the White House and the Pentagon have repeatedly expressed their regret for the air raid, no one from the Obama administration had formally or informally apologized for the attack until Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta welcomed Pakistan's decision, indicating it was a sign of an improving partnership between Islamabad and Washington, but he did not issue an apology of his own.

“I welcome Pakistan’s decision to open the ground lines of communication. As I have made clear, we remain committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region,” Panetta said in a statement.

Pakistan’s decision reopens a critical waypoint for U.S. and coalition forces, which have been moving weapons, equipment and personnel through Pakistan since the Afghanistan war began in 2001. Panetta said the loss of the direct supply routes was costing the United States roughly $100 million per month.

The decision to welcome back American forces was announced during a special meeting of Pakistan's ministerial chiefs.

The reaction from Capitol Hill was generally positive, echoing previous DOD and State Department statements that the deal will be key to normalizing U.S.-Pakistani relations. 

"I hope this is a first step, and one on which we are able to build upon, in working with Pakistan to help establish a more stable, peaceful and prosperous South Asia," according to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said the agreement “will hopefully allow our two nations to put this issue behind us.”

“Our relationship is constantly being tested,” Kerry said in a statement. “We have much to work on together, from fighting terrorism to helping to facilitate a stable Afghanistan. These and other mutual issues of interest and concern should be our focus going forward, despite our differences.”

One Senate Republican argued Islamabad needed to do more than the supply-line deal, especially in the areas of counterterrorism and border security. 

“This agreement is a good step in the right direction, but more has to be done," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a statement released Tuesday. 

Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pakistani military and intelligence directorate must be more aggressive in hunting down terror groups that are seeking safe haven inside the country's restive border region near Afghanistan. 

That type of cooperation from Islamabad "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,” Graham said.

The agreement comes just a few days after Gen. John Allen, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, held one-on-one talks with Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Reopening the supply lines and bolstering security along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border were at the top of the agenda. 

As part of the deal, Pakistan agreed not to increase the per-truck fee charged to the United States for using the supply lines “in the larger interest of peace and security in Afghanistan and the region,” Clinton said in the statement. 

For their part, U.S. officials agreed to maintain their promise not to transport “lethal equipment” into Afghanistan via the Pakistani supply lines, unless that equipment is destined for units of the Afghan National Security Forces, according to the State Department.  

The chances for a deal on the supply routes had seemed slim after Obama administration officials withdrew a team of American negotiators from the country in June. The negotiating team had tried for two months to hammer out a deal on the supply lines. 

Signs of progress began to emerge later that month when Senate Armed Services Committee chief Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters that Pakistan had backed off its demands to increase the per-truck cost to the United States.  

American and Pakistani negotiators were reportedly close to a deal weeks before NATO's annual summit in Chicago in May. 

But progress in the talks ground to a halt after Pakistan made a number of eleventh-hour demands, including an increase to the price-per-truck cost.

— This story was first posted at 1:14 p.m. and has been updated.