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Reopening Pakistani routes crucial for NATO exit plan
by Staff Writers
Chicago (AFP) May 20, 2012

Karzai: Afghanistan no longer a 'burden' after 2014
Chicago (AFP) May 20, 2012 - President Hamid Karzai said Sunday it was important to complete a security transition to his Afghan forces by 2014 so that the country would no longer be a "burden" to the international community.

After talks with US President Barack Obama at a NATO summit, Karzai also looked ahead to a future for Afghans without the pain of war, and thanked the United States for its sacrifices on the country's behalf.

Karzai said it was important to complete the security transition and withdrawal of foreign combat troops from Afghanistan that the summit will ratify.

At that point, Afghanistan will be "no longer a burden on the shoulders of our friends in the international community, on the shoulders of the United States and our other allies."

"Afghanistan, indeed Mr President, as you very rightly put it, is looking forward to an end to this war and a transformational decade in which Afghanistan will be working further for institution building and the development of sound governance in the country."

NATO chief downplays France's early Afghan withdrawal
Chicago (AFP) May 20, 2012 - NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen downplayed on Sunday the impact of France's decision to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying the French would contribute in other ways.

"There will be no rush for the exits. We will stay committed to our operation in Afghanistan and see it through to a successful end," Rasmussen told reporters before the start of a NATO summit aimed at cementing a 2014 withdrawal deadline.

French President Francois Hollande, who took power on Tuesday, has promised to stick to a campaign pledge to pull his combat troops by the end of this year, a year earlier than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy had decided.

Rasmussen said he was "not surprised" by Hollande's decision to withdraw some 3,500 combat troops, adding the new French leader has offered to continue supporting Afghanistan "in a different way."

The Hollande plan, he insisted, is actually "very much in accordance" with NATO's plan to gradually hand over security control to Afghan forces with the goal of ending the foreign combat mission by December 31, 2014.

"All that will take place in a coordinated manner and based on consultations within our alliance," Rasmussen said. "I feel confident that we will maintain solidarity within our coalition."

Rasmussen later wrote on his Twitter account that he had a "good and substantive meeting" with Hollande ahead of the summit.

Hollande said after White House talks with Obama on Friday that his withdrawal plan was "not negotiable" but he indicated that he would honor a deal signed by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy to train Afghan forces.

"Training missions, namely for the Afghan police and army, those missions will also take place under NATO's auspices," Hollande told reporters.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told AFP on Saturday that the withdrawal would not affect NATO "unity."

Le Drian said combat troops mostly deployed in the Afghan province of Kapisa and the district of Surobi would be pulled out in a way that ensures "the best security conditions for French forces and allied forces."

With Pakistan so far unwilling to reopen supply routes to Afghanistan, NATO faces a potential logistical nightmare as it prepares for a costly withdrawal of military hardware over the next two years.

In the run-up a NATO summit that opened Sunday, US and Pakistani officials had signaled growing optimism that a deal would be clinched on reopening the routes, which Islamabad had closed in November over a botched American air raid.

But negotiations stumbled over Pakistan's demand to charge several thousand dollars per truck, instead of the current rate of roughly $250.

A senior US official told AFP on Sunday the exponential hike in fees, reportedly as much as $5,000 per truck, was "unacceptable" and that Pakistan had failed to present a consistent, coherent negotiating position.

US officials have so far refused a demand from Islamabad for an explicit apology over the air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Since Pakistan shut the northwest border crossing to NATO about six months ago, the US-led force in Afghanistan has managed to endure the closure by relying on cargo flights and a more costly northern route through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The shift has carried a price, costing two and a half times more per container than the Pakistani route, according to US military officials.

But under NATO's plan to withdraw most of the 130,000-strong coalition force in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 -- including a vast fleet of vehicles and equipment -- the Pakistani route is considered crucial.

General William Fraser, head of US Transportation Command, told senators in February that the shorter Pakistan route was needed to ensure hardware could be withdrawn on schedule.

"With the amount of equipment we need to move... we need the Pakistan GLOC (ground line of communication) open," Fraser told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

Last year, before the Torkham gate border crossing was shut, the United States moved more than 35,000 shipping containers through Pakistan, according to Fraser.

In another complication for NATO's exit plan, countries along the northern route have approved the transit of military vehicles and supplies but have prohibited shipping weapons through their territories.

German Defense Minister Thomas De Maiziere, speaking to reporters in Chicago, acknowledged using the northern route was a "complicated process" because it passed through so many countries.

The most practical and inexpensive route into Afghanistan runs through Iran's port of Chabahar, but that is not an option given the long-running hostility between Iran and the United States.

For Pakistan, the border crossing is a valuable source of revenue and leverage that will dry up once NATO completes its planned departure in 2014.

The United States for its part provides more than $2 billion in military assistance every year to Pakistan, including $300 million devoted to financing Pakistani forces along the border with Afghanistan.

The US administration last year suspended hundreds of millions in military aid to Pakistan, saying Islamabad needed to do more to fight Islamist militants allied with the Taliban.

Six months after shutting the border to NATO, Pakistan on Friday had allowed containers of office supplies for the US embassy in Kabul to cross into Afghanistan through the Torkham gate, feeding speculation that Islamabad was on the verge of reopening the crossing.

But officials at Torkham, a mountainous outpost through which trucks packed with fuel and food for NATO used to trundle through daily, said there was no link between supplies for embassies and NATO goods.

In Chicago, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was scheduled to meet Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on the eve of the alliance summit but the session was canceled.

Both NATO and Pakistani officials insisted that the last-minute change was due to the late arrival of Zardari's flight.

Rasmussen expressed cautious optimism on Sunday that Pakistan would reopen the border to alliance convoys.

"I do hope that we will see a reopening of the transit routes in the very near future," he said.


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