Islamabad: Pakistan`s Parliament on Thursday unanimously approved new guidelines for the country in its troubled relationship with the United States, a decision that could pave the way for the reopening of supply lines to NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The guidelines allow for the blockade on US and NATO supplies to be lifted, but also call for an immediate end to American drone strikes against militants on Pakistani soil. However, the lawmakers did not make a halt in the CIA-led missile attacks a prerequisite to reopening the supply lines, as some lawmakers had been demanding.
The government and the Army will use the recommendations as the basis for re-engaging with Washington.
Ties between the US and Pakistan all but collapsed in November after US airstrikes inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, after which Islamabad blocked the supply lines in protest. Washington wants the relationship back on track.
The US State Department expressed respect for the Pakistani Parliament`s decision.
"We respect the seriousness with which Parliament`s review of US-Pakistan relations has been conducted," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "We seek a relationship with Pakistan that is enduring, strategic, and more clearly defined. We look forward to discussing these policy recommendations with the Government of Pakistan and continuing to engage with it on our shared interests."
About 30 percent of supplies used by NATO and US troops in landlocked Afghanistan are transported through Pakistan. Washington also needs Islamabad`s cooperation to negotiate an end to the Afghan war because many insurgent leaders are based on Pakistani soil.
The drones are a source of popular outrage in the country and have fuelled anti-US sentiment, although Pakistan`s powerful Army has tacitly aided the missile attacks in the past, weakening Islamabad`s official stance that they are a violation of sovereignty. Washington has ignored previous entreaties by the Parliament to end the strikes, and is seen as unlikely to change its policy now.
Despite calls by Islamists for a permanent supply line blockade, few inside the Pakistani government or the Army believed this was desirable, given that Pakistan relies on the US and other NATO countries for its economic survival and diplomatic and military support.
Soon after the deadly airstrikes on the border, the Pakistani government told Parliament to draw up new guidelines for Islamabad`s relations with the US. The government`s move was widely seen as way to give it political cover for reopening the routes.
The national security committee presented a first set of proposals last month but opposition parties riding a wave of anti-American sentiment rejected them, seemingly unwilling to share any fallout ahead of elections this year or early next.
But on Thursday the opposition voted with government lawmakers to approve a revised set of guidelines, which differed little from the original ones. Opposition lawmakers didn`t explain why they had dropped earlier objections, but they could have come under pressure from the army or extracted other, unrelated concessions from the government.
The guidelines call for NATO and the US to pay Pakistan more for the right to ship supplies across its soil and stipulate that no arms or ammunitions be transported. Western forces have only ever trucked fuel and other nonfatal supplies across Pakistan because of the risk they could fall into the hands of insurgents.
"We believe that the world has heard the voice of the people of Pakistan," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told Parliament. "I would like to assure the house that our government will implement the recommendations that have been made in both letter and spirit."
Gilani did not say when the supply lines would reopen.
Western officials have said Pakistan would come under intense criticism if routes remained blocked during a NATO conference in Chicago on May 20-21 where more than 50 heads of state will discuss progress on ending the war.
Washington`s public line has been that it is waiting for the Parliament to finish its review before calling for Pakistan to reopen the routes. It has refused to apologise for the border incident in November, and last week put a USD 10 million bounty on the head of a militant leader believed close to Pakistan`s security forces.
Behind the scenes, however, negotiations have been going on between the US and Pakistan over the supply line issue and drone strikes. It was unclear whether there has been any new agreement on the strikes, which Washington believes are key to keeping al Qaeda on its back foot. US officials had said they had offered Pakistan notice about impending strikes and new limits on which militants are being targeted.
For most of the Afghan war, 90 percent of the supplies came through Pakistan, but NATO has increased its reliance on an alternate, so-called "northern" route, through Central Asia in recent years. Increased use of the northern route has removed some of the leverage Islamabad had over the West, but at a cost to the coalition. Pentagon officials now say it costs about USD 17,000 per container to go through the north, compared with about USD 7,000 per container to go through Pakistan.