Pakistan Cabinet to decide on NATO supply lines

By REBECCA SANTANA | July 3, 2012 | 2:39 PM EDT

Oil tankers, which were used to transport NATO fuel supplies to Afghanistan, are parked, in Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, July 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Senior Pakistani government officials are expected to meet Tuesday to decide whether to reopen the country's Afghan border to NATO supplies amid signs that a deal to end Islamabad's 7-month blockade is within reach, a Pakistani official said.

The dispute over the supply lines, which Islamabad closed late last year after an American airstrike killed 24 Pakistani troops, plunged relations between the Pakistan and the U.S. to new lows and threatened regional cooperation needed for negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan. Reopening the routes could significantly reduce tensions between the wary allies.

A Pakistani official said Tuesday that "hopes were high" that a deal would be reached when the Cabinet's defense committee meets later in the day. The committee is made up of key decision makers from the military and civilian leadership.

The official did not provide details on the possible deal. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The two countries have been in a standoff over how much the U.S. should pay in transport fees, and Pakistani demands for an apology over the border deaths.

The U.S., insisting the incident was an accident, has so far refused to issue an apology.

Domestic considerations have also shaped the debate.

The Pakistani government has been worried about the inevitable political backlash from reopening the route, given the high level of anti-American sentiment in the country.

The Obama administration, in the midst of an election year, has dug in its heels over the apology issue apparently out of fears it would open the president to criticism from Republicans angry over Pakistan's alleged support for militants attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The decision to call the Cabinet meeting followed a visit Monday by a high-level American delegation to Islamabad that included the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen; Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller; and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides, said a senior U.S. official. It was Allen's second visit in less than a week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

With the supply routes closed, the U.S. has been forced to use other, more costly transportation routes through Russia and Central Asia. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the route is costing an extra $100 million a month now and could grow as the U.S. starts to withdraw equipment in advance of the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan.

Similar deals to end the impasse have ended without result, leaving both sides cautious about appearing too hopeful. When Pakistan appeared close to reopening the supply lines in May, NATO invited Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to a summit in Chicago largely focused on the Afghan war. But Pakistan failed to follow through on the deal.