American negotiators working with Pakistan to reopen critical supply routes into Afghanistan have been called back to the United States, casting further doubt on whether the lines will ever be reopened to U.S. and coalition forces.
Defense Department spokesman George Little told reporters on Monday that several members of the U.S. negotiation team had already left Islamabad, with the remaining members scheduled to depart the country within days.
The team had been in Pakistan for the past six weeks, attempting to hammer out a deal to open the supply lines that had been closed to American and NATO forces since last November, according to recent news reports.
The team's withdrawal was a "U.S. decision," according to Little, who added that getting the supply lines reopened remained a top priority for the Pentagon and the White House. Military officials at the American embassy in Pakistan will continue informal talks on the issue with their counterparts in Islamabad, Little said.
The Pentagon spokesman also did not rule out the chance that negotiators could return to Pakistan at a later date.
The negotiators' departure comes less than a week after NATO announced plans to begin using alternate supply routes in Central Asia to support its forces in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced last Tuesday the alliance had secured agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to begin moving weapons and troops out of Afghanistan through those Central Asian nations.
The deals were part of NATO's overall strategy "to actively engage with Afghanistan's neighbors" as American and NATO forces prepare to completely withdraw from the country by 2014, according to Rasmussen.
At the time, the Pentagon said the alliance's decision to pursue other supply routes into and out of Afghanistan was not a sign that NATO or American commanders were abandoning the Pakistani routes.
Islamabad shut down the supply routes to U.S. and coalition forces last November after a number of Pakistani soldiers were killed in an errant airstrike by American forces.
American and Pakistani negotiators were reportedly close to a deal weeks before NATO's annual summit in Chicago in May; all indications coming out of Pakistan prior to the summit was that the deal was all but complete.
But an eleventh-hour demand by Pakistan to increase the price-per-truck cost to the United States and its allies to move supplies through the country, as well as other issues, brought negotiations to a grinding halt.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta further inflamed tensions between Washington and Islamabad last Thursday, when he chastised Pakistan for providing terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network safe haven inside the country.
“It is an increasing concern that the safe haven exists and that there are those — likely Haqqanis — who are making use of that to attack our forces," Panetta said during a joint press conference with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
"We are reaching the limits of our patience here," he said at the time.