Thursday, May 24, 2018

First NATO supply trucks cross Pakistan border

CHAMAN, Pakistan — Trucks carrying NATO supplies rolled into Afghanistan for the first time in more than seven months Thursday, ending a painful chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations that saw the border closed until Washington apologized for an airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Thousands of trucks have been waiting at ports in Karachi for the transit ban to be lifted as the diplomatic wrangling dragged on. Drivers are eager to get behind the wheel and start earning a lucrative salary again in what can be a deadly journey because of attacks from the Taliban.

"I risk my life for my family, and I risk my life because I get better pay for taking NATO supplies," said Tajawal Khan, who has been driving the dangerous route for the past few years.

"I know the Taliban may attack our trucks. But I tell the Taliban that we are doing this job for our family," he said by telephone from the cab of his tanker in Karachi, waiting to be loaded with oil before driving north toward Afghanistan.

Pakistan closed the routes in retaliation for the U.S. airstrikes in November that killed the two dozen border troops. The decision to reopen them, after the U.S. apology, marked an easing of strains in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad in recent months. The Americans have said they did not intentionally target Pakistani forces, but Pakistan disputed that.

Pakistan and the United States also differed over how much Islamabad should be paid for trucks to move through its territory. In the end, they appeared to compromise with the United States issuing an apology but paying no extra fees from the $250 per truck that it was previously paying.

Pakistan faces a domestic backlash, given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and the government's failure to force the United States to stop drone strikes targeting militants and meet other demands made by parliament.

President Barack Obama, in a re-election battle, faces criticism from Republicans who are angry that his administration apologized to a country allegedly giving safe haven to militants attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

During the closure, the United States was forced to use more costly and lengthy routes into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Pakistan is also expected to gain financially, since the United States intends to free up $1.1 billion in military aid that has been frozen for the past year.

When the routes were closed, trucking companies pulled almost all of their vehicles back to Karachi to better protect them. Getting from the southern port city to the border at Chaman can take days, and they must also be loaded with supplies and cleared through customs, which can take time.

Only two trucks crossed the border Thursday, both at the Chaman frontier in the province of Baluchistan. The other, known as the Torkham crossing, is farther north in the Khyber Pass, a high mountainous area far from waiting shipments.

Before the closure, an estimated 150 to 200 trucks crossed the border daily, said U.S. spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura, speaking from Kabul. Few trucks had been expected to cross in the first days following the reopening.

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