KABUL — The allied commander in Afghanistan reported modest “progress” Tuesday in efforts to repair military relations with Pakistan, although he said he had received no indications that Islamabad would reopen crucial supply routes anytime soon.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said he spoke by telephone Monday with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, for the first time since Nov. 26, when a U.S. airstrike killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border attack.
Allen said that relations with the Pakistanis remain “chilled” but that Kayani has signaled he is willing to reinstate Pakistani liaison officers who had been assigned to joint border communication posts and NATO headquarters. Pakistan withdrew the officers after the Nov. 26 airstrike.
“Although it was cordial, it was a very businesslike conversation between two generals, and in the end both of us were committed to working that issue,” Allen told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who arrived in Afghanistan for a visit Tuesday. “I do have a sense of progress.”
In his conversation with Kayani, Allen said, he did not broach the subject of Pakistan’s closing of two key border crossings into Afghanistan — Torkham Gate and Chaman Gate — in retaliation for the soldiers’ deaths. U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan rely on Pakistani ground convoys for about one-third of their fuel, food and other equipment.
Allen said the border closures have not affected the coalition’s ability to supply its forces in Afghanistan — for now. “At this point, we’re fine,” he said.
Supplies and fuel are also delivered into Afghanistan by airlift and by a Central Asian ground network that transits Russia, Uzbekistan and other neighbors to the north. While the United States has gradually shifted traffic to those routes over the past two years to avoid becoming overly dependent on Pakistan, the ground convoys take longer and the airlifts cost exponentially more.
“There is a cost,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday at a seminar in Washington. “We can adjust, and we can get it done. It’ll be more expensive. It’ll be a bit time-consuming, but we have the time to do it on the available supplies in Afghanistan.”
Dempsey, however, was pessimistic about the state of relations with Pakistan, which have whipsawed over the past decade but nose-dived after the U.S. raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May.
Calling ties with Pakistan “a mess,” Dempsey said he was less worried about the border closures and specific flare-ups with the Pakistanis than about the overall state of relations between Washington and Islamabad.
“What’s troubling to me is that they would close [the border] and what it says about the relationship,” he said.
U.S. defense officials said they still hope that Pakistan will reopen the border crossings in the near future. But they said they expect that Islamabad would wait at least until a U.S.-led investigation into the Nov. 26 attack is completed. Allen said the probe “will probably be wrapping up in the near future.”
Allen said he was mindful of Pakistani sensitivities and was not trying to publicly pressure Islamabad to reopen the border crossings. “We would hope that they would be, but that’s a Pakistani decision,” he said.
Defense officials said they were on pace to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year and 23,000 more by September 2012, leaving them with 68,000 in Afghanistan.
Allen told reporters that the pace of withdrawals after that is still in flux and hinges on the outcome of a broad strategy review that he is leading. He said the United States remains committed to its pledge to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.