U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said "sorry" to Pakistan today and announced that Pakistan would resume allowing U.S. military goods to flow through its border with Afghanistan, but her near-apology was only one piece in a much larger set of moving parts in the effort to restore some normalcy to the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a Tuesday statement, referring to the Nov. 25 incident when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistan soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. "We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again."
Clinton spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar by phone Tuesday and said that Khar had promised Pakistan would reopen its supply lines for U.S. military flows into Afghanistan, which have been closed down for six months in retaliation for the killings. Pakistan dropped its demand for fees of up to $5,000 per truck and will not even charge the $250 per truck the United States was paying before the incident occurred, Clinton said.
She also indicated that the progress announced today carried with it the prospect of tackling some of the larger issues plaguing the bilateral relationship, namely Pakistan's reluctance to go after the Taliban and other militant groups as well as what the United States sees as Pakistan's refusal to play a useful role in reconciliation talks to end the Afghanistan war.
"Foreign Minister Khar and I talked about the importance of taking coordinated action against terrorists who threaten Pakistan, the United States, and the region; of supporting Afghanistan's security, stability, and efforts towards reconciliation; and of continuing to work together to advance the many other shared interests we have," Clinton said.
Tuesday's announcement came after months of protracted and often excruciating negotiations between the two governments. On the U.S. side of the table, the process was led by Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides, who was in Pakistan Monday, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Peter Lavoy, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman.
ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen also traveled to Pakistan twice over the past two weeks, once at the invitation of Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and again as part of larger discussions regarding the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The internal U.S. process that led to today's remarks by Clinton was extensive -- and rocky at times. It has been well reported that the State Department, especially soon-to-be-former U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter, urged the White House to apologize long ago but was overruled due to objections from the Defense Department, where officials were angered by the fact that the Pakstani military accused the U.S. military of killing the soldiers intentionally.
Three administration sources confirmed to The Cable that between December and early spring, the National Security Council convened at least 8 separate high-level meetings to debate the apology, and ultimately, the White House earlier this year decided to issue one.
The Pakistani government in early Spring asked the White House not to issue the apology because the Pakistani parliament was in the middle of its comprehensive review of the bilateral relationship. Then, following deadly attacks in Kabul on NATO forces in April, which were traced back to the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, the White House took the apology off the table.
That's why today's comments by Clinton came as a huge surprise to many Pakistan-watchers. But experts saw in her comments a careful dance that the administration thinks represents a compromise, because Clinton never actually said the word "apology" or "apologize."
"It allows the administration to say to Congress, we didn't ‘apologize,' we said we were ‘sorry,'" said Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. He emphasized that discussions about several thorny issues in the relationship are still ongoing.
Asked directly at today's press briefing if the "sorry" comment constituted an "apology," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland wouldn't say that it did.
"The statement speaks for itself, the words are all there, and I'm not going to improve on it here," she said.
In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, the Obama administration has agreed to hand over about $1.2 billion to the Pakistanis in Coalition Support Funds (CSF) that were owed but delayed as part of the overall unhappiness between the two governments, two administration sources confirmed. Pakistan, which views the funds as reimbursements the United Sates agreed to pay in exchange for Pakistan's help in fighting the war on terror, argues that America owes it a larger sum.
"It's not a coincidence," Nawaz said, referring to the timing of the CSF funding. "This was part of the overall discussion."
The deal may not stop there.
Pakistan might still ask for money to help repair the infrastructural wear and tear that comes along with thousands of NATO trucks traversing its highways. The Pakistanis might also demand a new system that institutes some regularity in the CSF funds because the U.S. government currently demands detailed receipts and then rejects about 40 percent of the Pakistani reimbursement requests.
In the past, the United States has used delays in the CSF funds to punish Pakistan when the administration is frustrated with Pakistani actions.
"Internally on the U.S. side, when the administration has been pissed off at the Pakistanis, they've just said, ‘Oh, we'll slow down the CSF funds and just not tell them,'" one former U.S. official told The Cable.
Getting the CSF funding was always the real goal of the negotiations as far as the Pakistanis were concerned, according to the former official.
"The Pakistani government doesn't care about the transit fees as much as they care about the coalition support funds," the official said. "CSF offers them more of a short-term benefit. The reason they were making such a big deal about the transit fees before was because that was their negotiating position."
The U.S. side still wants concrete steps to show that the Pakistani government is moving more aggressively to stem the flow of fighters from its territory into Afghanistan, where they regularly attack and kill U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces. Both sides want a better system of on-the-ground operational coordination to make sure incidents like the November killings aren't repeated.
Clinton didn't mention the CSF funds in her speech, perhaps because that money could still be held up by Congress, which has been engaged in some serious bipartisan Pakistan-bashing, especially since a Pakistani court sentenced the doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden to 33 years in prison.
After the administration notifies Congress it wants to release the funds, a notification that could come today, Congress has 15 days to reject it or the money gets released.
A key Republican in the debate over Pakistan will be Sen. Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. In a Tuesday statement, Graham indicated he would support the administration's position.
"These supply lines are essential to supporting our troops in Afghanistan and I believe the terms and conditions negotiated by Secretary Clinton's team are acceptable to American interests throughout the region," he said.
But Graham also indicated that any thawing of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship would only be endorsed by Congress if and when Pakistan gets more serious about helping in Afghanistan.
"This agreement is a good step in the right direction, but more has to be done between the United States and Pakistan in the area of counterterrorism," he said. "If the Pakistani military intelligence services would engage in aggressive efforts to combat terrorism in coordination with coalition forces, it would tremendously enhance our successes in Afghanistan, provide stability to the Pakistani government, and eventually a better life for people on both sides of the border."
Nawaz warned that the relationship is still very fragile and that any number of things could send it spiraling downward once again, including a clumsy drone strike, a U.S. troop incursion into Pakistan, or another attack on NATO forces by Pakistan-based militants.
"This is only a Band Aid for this relationship. Any number of new crises or recurring crises is likely to trigger another round of recrimination," he said. "‘Sorry' was the hardest word, but it's a bit too early to celebrate. We're not yet out of the woods."
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images