The U.S. is trying to break deadlocked talks with Pakistan over reopening a route for NATO troop supplies into Afghanistan _ a deal that has proven elusive due to Islamabad's demands for more money and Washington's refusal to apologize for accidentally killing Pakistani forces.
Now the U.S. may have a little more leverage on its side, thanks to an agreement struck with some Central Asian countries to carry NATO equipment out through their territory. Before this week's agreement, Pakistan provided the only available land route to pull out gear.
Peter Lavoy, a senior Defense Department official, is expected in Islamabad at the end of the week to try to resolve the current dispute.
Pakistan first closed the supply line in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. Prior to the attack, the U.S. and other NATO countries shipped about 30 percent of their nonlethal supplies through Pakistan into southern Afghanistan.
Since then, the coalition compensated by using a longer, more costly route that runs through northern Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. This alternative route was only available to ship supplies into Afghanistan until Monday, when Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan agreed to allow the coalition to withdraw equipment as well. NATO already has an agreement with Russia for the withdrawal of material.
Monday's deal means that the coalition will be able to ship back to Europe tens of thousands of vehicles, containers and other items as it seeks to withdraw most combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
"I think this will be an advantage for the U.S. and leverage over Pakistan, especially against those who said the U.S. was dependent and had no other choice," said Pakistani defense analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi. "I think greater realism will dawn on Pakistani policymakers that the U.S. has shown it can use the northern channel, although it will be expensive and take more time."
It's not exactly clear how much more expensive the northern route is compared to the one that was previously used via the Pakistani port of Karachi.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, said recently that the northern supply line through Central Asia was twice as expensive as the one through Pakistan. But Pentagon figures obtained by The Associated Press in mid-January indicated the U.S. was paying six times as much to use the northern route.
Before Pakistan closed the southern route because of the November attack, it was charging $250 per truck. Now it is demanding $5,000 per truck, while the U.S. has countered with an offer of $500.
"If most of the weapons systems and equipment ends up being transported out through the northern route, it means Pakistan would be losing out on a great opportunity," said Talat Masood, a Pakistani defense analyst and retired army general. "It would be losing out both in terms of its economy and its relations with NATO."
President Barack Obama made clear U.S. anger at Islamabad's refusal to reopen the supply line at a NATO summit at the end of May in Chicago, where he refused to have a one-on-one meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The U.S. is also deeply frustrated with Pakistan's lack of commitment to going after the Haqqani network, a terrorist group that has used Pakistani territory to launch attacks against Americans in Afghanistan, including an attack last year against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
During a news conference in Kabul Thursday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the U.S. was losing patience with Pakistan for failing to go after areas in their territory that are being used as safe havens by groups like the Haqqanis. His comments were a reflection of the hostility that has spiked between Washington and Pakistan over a range of issues in recent months. Pakistan rejects the accusation that they're giving the groups safe haven and maintains they're fighting against them.
Pakistan's reluctance to reopen the route is linked to concerns about political backlash at home, where anti-American sentiment is rampant despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid in the past decade.
"Money is an issue, but public backlash is a greater concern because the government is unpopular and they don't know what to do about the response," Rizvi said.
The U.S. airstrikes that killed the 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts in November brought outrage in Pakistan. The U.S. military has said the attack was an accident, but the Pakistani army has claimed it was deliberate.
Pakistan's parliament demanded the U.S. apologize for the attack and also used the opportunity to press Washington to stop drone strikes in the country.
The Obama administration has expressed regret over the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers but has refused to apologize out of concern that it could open the White House to criticism at home, where anger at Pakistan is high because of its alleged support for militants fighting U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has refused to stop drone strikes in Pakistan's northwest tribal region because they are seen as a key tool in fighting al-Qaida and Taliban militants. The latest success came Monday when a drone killed al-Qaida's second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi, in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Panetta made it clear during a trip to India on Wednesday that the strikes will continue as long as the U.S. needs to defend itself against terrorists who threaten America.
The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan because they are seen as a violation of the country's sovereignty and many people believe they mostly kill innocent civilians, an allegation disputed by Washington. The complaints about sovereignty are also deemed suspect because elements of the Pakistani government and military are widely believed to support the strikes.
Panetta said the U.S. goal was not only seeking to get the supply route reopened, but also to try to improve relations with Pakistan.
"That is not easy, but it is necessary that we continue that effort," he said.
The Pakistani army, which is the most powerful institution in the country, is believed to want the supply route reopened to free up more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid that has been frozen. But it has tossed the issue to the civilian government out of concern about the domestic backlash, Rizvi said.
"Pakistan should realize they are going to be pushed out of the game if they continue with these kinds of policies," he said.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Lolita Baldor in New Delhi contributed to this report.