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The twisty road to US-Pakistan re-engagement

Pakistan has closed crucial roads used to ferry supplies to U.S and NATO troops in Afghanistan -- leaving Pakistani drivers stranded and driving up the U.S. price tag for the war. NBC's Amna Nawaz reports from Peshawar.

  
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The ring road in Peshawar is a rough ride: navigating certain stretches means dodging enormous potholes, steering clear of steep ditches and swerving to avoid the occasional brave soul who darts from one side of the road to the other.

Yet this has been, for the last decade, one of the main arteries on which convoys of trucks carrying supplies for U.S. and NATO forces have made their way into Afghanistan. Those ground lines of communication that run from Karachi's ports to two border crossings in Pakistan have been a fundamental part of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, as has the air line of communication.

When the U.S.-Pakistan alliance was tested once again in late November after a U.S. cross-border air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan reacted by shutting down the ground supply routes – a step they've taken before in protest to U.S. actions. The air lines of communication remain open.

But access to those crucial land routes has never been denied to the U.S. for this long, and the two accounts from the U.S. and the Pakistan military of the cross-border strike that prompted their closure are so starkly different that it's hard to see how they can be reconciled.


Even though the Americans have reduced their dependence on Pakistan's roads over the last few years by using alternative routes running through Russia and Central Asia, the cost of moving goods via air and on that northern route is much greater – reportedly six times more a month – than using Pakistan's routes.

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

This photograph taken on Dec. 18, 2011 shows a general view of the NATO supply of oil tankers stand parked near oil terminals in Pakistan's port city of Karachi.

It now costs about $104 million per month to send supplies through the longer northern route, according to Pentagon figures shown to the Associated Press. That is $87 million more than when the cargo was shipped through Pakistan.

Pakistan's government is conducting its own internal review of the alliance with the U.S., and officials here say no decision will be made about the supply lines until that review is complete and recommendations have been discussed by the government. Already, however, there are forces at work within Pakistan's religious and political parties to prevent the government from reopening those lines and re-engaging on the same level with the U.S.

Issue of nationalism
At a recent rally in Rawalpindi for the Pakistan Defense Council, made up of dozens of religious and political parties, leaders mentioned the NATO supply lines with the same fervor as they did deeply nationalistic issues such as divided Kashmir and the country’s nuclear weapons. The crowd of thousands cheered as speaker after speaker threatened that there could be countrywide protests should the government decide to reopen the supply lines.

"The NATO supply lines should not be restored at any cost," said Mohammad Abdullah Gul, chairman of the National Youth Conference and a member of the Pakistan Defense Council.

"Even if the government restores (them), we are not going to accept it. The people of Pakistan, we are going to mobilize. From Khyber to Karachi, they will be mobilized and they will stop the NATO supply lines," he said.

Retired Col. Nazir Ahmed is the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an organization which he describes as having a "purely Islamic platform."

He said that the NATO supply lines were "rightly" blocked, and should stay blocked "forever," unless the U.S. "comes to us on the basis of equality."

He was particularly outraged by the recent cross-border attack.

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

This photograph taken on Dec. 18, 2011 shows NATO's supply of oil tankers stand parked near oil terminals in Pakistan's port city of Karachi.

"After the aggression that the Americans committed on the Pakistan Army?  They slaughtered and killed so many Muslim soldiers," said Nazir. "Every country has the right to defend its borders and its ideology."

For this segment of the population – frustrated by what they see as a decade of subservience to American policy in a deeply unpopular war here – a decision to reopen the supply lines is tantamount to a decision to put U.S. interests ahead of Pakistan's.

That sentiment felt by a growing number of Pakistanis who think the relationship with the U.S. has not benefitted their own country will make it difficult for Pakistan's leaders to publicly re-engage with the U.S., and reopen the supply lines in the same manner and under the same conditions as before.

Both U.S. and Pakistani officials say they remain committed to their alliance. How the NATO supply routes will fit into that alliance, however, is yet to be seen.