Monday, May 21, 2012

Pakistan supply routes row hits Nato summit

Pakistan supply routes row hits Nato summit

How will Nato exit from Afghanistan?

A row between the US and Pakistan over supply routes to Afghanistan is threatening to overshadow the summit of Nato leaders in Chicago.

The two sides have been unable to reach agreement on Pakistan's conditions for reopening the routes, closed after a US air strike killed several troops.

The summit goes into a second day with troop withdrawals from Afghanistan dominating the agenda.

France insists that its troops will return by the end of 2012.

AFP news agency quoted new President Francois Hollande as saying the issue was "non-negotiable because it was a question of French sovereignty".

The handover is expected to be completed by 2014, but several other Nato leaders are under domestic political pressure to bring troops home earlier.

More than 50 leaders are attending the summit, including heads of state and government from the 28 Nato countries, along with President Karzai and and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Transit dispute

The summit is expected to endorse plans to hand over combat command to Afghan forces by mid-2013 and seek progress in opening routes for troop withdrawals.

They also hope to reach a commitment on who pays how much towards funding Afghan forces after 2014.

Analysis

Pakistan's ruling PPP party appears to be in a difficult spot over the issue of the reopening of the overland Nato supply routes into Afghanistan. There are many internal pressures.

It desperately needs to unblock American assistance to draw up a "feelgood" budget for the next financial year, beginning 1 July, which is also election year in Pakistan.

But party leaders are afraid that a decision to reopen the Nato supply routes would be detrimental to its election prospects unless other power groups support that decision.

The Pakistani military, which is still seen by many as a political force, itself needs US assistance and military hardware to re-supply its ranks. But it is also accused of propping up "surrogate" Islamist groups to campaign against the lifting of the Nato blockade.

These groups have now threatened a protest march if the supply routes are reopened. The PPP will be reluctant to order the lifting of the blockade unless the military sides openly with it and gives assurances that it will rein in the Islamists.

Some nations - including the US, Australia, Britain, and Germany - have pledged to contribute to an international fund to help Afghan forces after the Nato pullout.

Washington is expected to pay half of an estimated $4bn (£2.5bn) needed every year.

The US invited Mr Zardari to the summit, in the hope of signing a deal to reopen the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to US transport.

The route was closed in November after a US drone attack killed several Pakistani troops.

But in return for reopening the routes, Pakistan has called for:

  • A public apology for the killings
  • A review of US policy on drone attacks inside Pakistan
  • An increase of the transit charge from $250 (£158) to $5,000 per vehicle.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said before the summit that it was "not likely" that the US would be prepared to pay the higher amount demanded by Pakistan.

Correspondents say US President Barack Obama is unhappy about the fee, given that US is already giving Pakistan large amounts of aid.

US officials say no bilateral meeting is being planned between Mr Zardari and Mr Obama, although the Pakistani leader met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday evening.

Different messages

As talks began on Sunday, President Obama spoke of a "transformational decade" in Afghanistan and the enormous sacrifices of the American people on the road to peace, stability and development.

He warned there were still "great challenges ahead", urging leaders to "pool resources".

The US and Afghan leaders vowed to work together as talks began

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there would be "no rush for the exits" and the mission would shift from combat to support.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt says the summit is seeking to reconcile two different messages.

It is telling the public in Nato countries that the fighting in Afghanistan is coming to an end for their troops, while reassuring the Afghans that the alliance will not abandon them after 2014, our correspondent says.

More than 10 years after the US toppled the Taliban regime, violence is continuing unabated in Afghanistan. According to UN figures, the number of deaths reached a record 3,031 in 2011 - the great majority caused by militants.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people, a number of them children, at a checkpoint in the eastern province of Khost.

The summit is taking place amid heavy security.

Outside the conference on Sunday, riot police clashed with demonstrators protesting about war, climate change and a wide range of other issues.

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