WASHINGTON — Ending a bitter seven-month standoff, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apologized to Pakistan Tuesday for the killing of 24 Pakistani troops last fall, and won in return the reopening of critical NATO supply lines into Afghanistan.
The agreement could save the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars in war costs.
The resolution of the dispute also bandages a relationship with Pakistan that will be crucial in stabilizing the region. The ties have been torn in the past year and a half by everything from a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis to the unilateral U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound.
The accord also carries risks for both governments, threatening to make Pakistan’s already fragile civilian leadership look weak and subservient to the United States while offering fodder to Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who contend that President Barack Obama says “sorry” too easily.
The first trucks carrying NATO goods should move across the border today, U.S. officials said. It could take days to ramp up supplies to pre-attack levels, but around two dozen truck drivers celebrated the news in a parking lot in the city of Karachi by singing, dancing and drumming on empty fuel cans.
“We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military,” Clinton said, recounting a telephone conversation she had with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar concerning the deaths that led Pakistan to close the supply routes.
“I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives.”
“I am pleased that Foreign Minister Khar has informed me that the ground supply lines into Afghanistan are opening,” Clinton added in her statement.
It marked the first time any U.S. official formally apologized for the deaths, a step hotly debated within the Obama administration and one demanded by Pakistan before it would reopen the supply routes.
Pakistani lawmakers also wanted Washington to halt all air strikes in the country and stop shipping weapons and ammunition to Afghanistan through Pakistani airspace, demands the U.S. has ignored.
The November incident was the deadliest among the allies in the decade-long fight against al-Qaida and other extremist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.
An American investigation found that Pakistani forces fired first and U.S. soldiers responded in self-defense. It blamed bad maps, poor coordination and Islamabad’s failure to provide the locations of its borders for the failure to determine if Pakistani forces were in the area.
Pakistan argued that its troops shot at militants who were nowhere near coalition soldiers, and accused the U.S. of launching a deliberate attack.