WASHINGTON: Amidst seemingly deadlocked negotiations between the US and Pakistan over Nato supply routes, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta vowed on Sunday not to let Washington be ‘gouged’ by Islamabad on the price it charges for overland deliveries of American military supplies to Afghanistan.
The statement which is likely to further incense Pakistani officials follows months of gingerly steps by the US to make up with Islamabad. Pakistan had closed the land route to Nato supplies in November as punishment for the Nato air strike in Mohmand Agency that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
US defence officials have said the Pakistanis are demanding several thousand dollars for every truck crossing its border with the supplies, up from $250 per truck before the closure.
Pakistani officials have justified the demand of $5,000 per container, saying it is “neither irrational nor out of the blue”. They added that nearly a decade of cooperation without any infrastructure-related charges had ruined Pakistan’s roads.
The infrastructure was used for eight years without paying any charges. In the ninth year, the US started paying a nominal handling fee of $250 per container to the National Logistic Cell – Pakistan Army’s logistics arm, officials said.
But Defence Secretary Panetta refused to agree to an ‘unreasonable’ price. “We’re not about to get gouged in the price. We want a fair price,” Panetta said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The supply lines impasse is just one of a host of issues that have opened deep schisms in relations between the two allies in the war against militancy.
Panetta admitted that relations with Pakistan were ‘complicated’.
“This has been one of the most complicated relationships that we’ve had, working with Pakistan. You know, we have to continue to work at it. It is important. This is a country that has – that has nuclear weapons,” Panetta said.
“So our responsibility here is to keep pushing them to understand how important it is for them to work with us to try to deal with the common threats we both face,” he added.
The issues between Pakistan and the US flared anew last week when an assistant political agent sentenced Dr Shakil Afridi, who had helped the CIA track down al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, to 33 years in prison.
Panetta said it was ‘so disturbing’ that the Pakistani government sentenced a doctor to 33 years in prison on treason charges.
Dr Afridi “was not working against Pakistan. He was working against al Qaeda. And I hope that ultimately Pakistan understands that”, he said. “What they have done here,” he added, “does not help in the effort to try to reestablish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee has already voted to cut US aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million – $1 million for each year of jail time given to Shakil Afridi, the doctor.
Panetta said plans for foreign troops to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces starting in mid-2013 were on track and necessary to ensure that the Taliban are kept at bay.
“The world needs to know that we still have a fight on our hands,” Panetta said. “We’re still dealing with the Taliban. Although they’ve been weakened, they are resilient.”
The defense secretary said the Taliban have been unable to conduct any kind of organised attack to reclaim territory lost to Nato and Afghan forces.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2012.