U.S. talks with Pakistan to reopen crucial NATO supply routes into Afghanistan… (Asif Hassan / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — The United States and Pakistan had nearly completed a deal to reopen crucial NATO supply routes into Afghanistan, officials from both countries said, when Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta harshly criticized Islamabad last week for allowing militants to mount cross-border attacks from its territory.
And with that, new problems erupted.
U.S. and Pakistani negotiators had been putting the final touches on the agreement when Panetta, speaking in Kabul on Thursday, said the U.S. was "reaching the limits of our patience" over Islamabad's failure to root out Afghan insurgents in its tribal areas, the officials said.
In the wake of his comments, Pakistani officials refused to meet with a senior Defense Department official over the weekend in Islamabad, and the Pentagon announced Monday that it was bringing home a negotiating team that had worked in the Pakistani capital for nearly two months to end the bitter impasse over the supply routes.
The U.S. official, Peter Lavoy, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, was not allowed to meet with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief. Kayani is widely viewed as Pakistan's most powerful figure, and Pakistani media portrayed the snub as a clear signal of Islamabad's displeasure with Panetta's remarks.
U.S. officials appeared to blame the Pakistanis for the latest irritant in a strained relationship that has spiraled from bad to dismal over the last year.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. negotiators would return to Islamabad "when the Pakistani government is ready to conclude the agreement."
Islamabad has barred Afghan-bound supply convoys since airstrikes by U.S. military helicopters mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November. A key sticking point remains a Pakistani demand that the U.S. apologize in public for the attack.
U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed regret and condolences over the deaths but have balked at issuing a formal apology for an incident that, in their view, involved mistakes by both sides.
The U.S. and its allies have adjusted to the closing of the ground routes in Pakistan by moving more military supplies by air and railroad through Russia and other countries north of Afghanistan.
But those routes are longer and more expensive, and the Pentagon badly wants the Pakistani routes reopened for its convoys, which will be particularly critical as the U.S. and other countries remove heavy equipment during troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in coming years.
In recent weeks, Pakistani authorities had backed away in private from their public demands for a sharp increase in transit fees as a condition for reopening the routes, and there were also signs that Pakistan was open to something short of a high-level public apology, U.S. officials said.
But Panetta's comments in Kabul, the Afghan capital, which came only hours after he made a two-day stop for talks on defense cooperation in India, Pakistan's biggest regional rival and traditional foe, have thrown that progress into doubt.
At a news conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesmen Capt. John Kirby and George Little acknowledged that the negotiators had almost wrapped up the deal to reopen the supply routes, but they declined to go into detail about why the talks had stalled.
"The teams themselves have taken it as far as they can right now," Kirby said. "And now it's really in the hands of the political leadership of Pakistan to make some decisions about where they want to go strategically on this."
Pakistani officials, for their part, said negotiations have not broken down. They insisted that the U.S. could resolve the dispute with an apology.
"We have not been given the courtesy of an apology," said Syed Naveed Safdar Bokhari, first secretary at Pakistan's Embassy in Washington.
Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were incensed by a recent insurgent attack on a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan. An explosives-packed vehicle breached the outer wall and suicide bombers, some wearing U.S. and Afghan uniforms, fought their way into the compound, U.S. officials said. At least one American died of injuries after the battle.
U.S. officials quickly blamed the attack on the Haqqani network, an Afghan militant group that operates from the tribal belt in Pakistan.
One senior U.S. official disputed the notion that Panetta's criticism of Pakistan had set back the talks.
"The sticking point for a long time has been the apology issue," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive negotiations. "If Panetta had talked about growing roses instead of Pakistan, it's doubtful the supply routes would have been opened by now."
Pakistan's civilian government, led by beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari, is heading into an election season, and experts say he is eager to be seen taking a tough line with Washington in a country where anti-American sentiment runs deep. Washington has not helped his position by increasing CIA drone missile strikes against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas, attacks that are deeply unpopular in Pakistan.
"As the humiliation mounts, the reaction from Pakistan mounts," said Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. "This government has less and less room to maneuver."
Cloud reported from Washington and Rodriguez from Islamabad, Pakistan.
Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.