ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's foreign minister suggested Monday that the country should reopen its Afghan border to NATO troop supplies, saying the government has made its point by closing the route for nearly six months in retaliation for U.S. air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Reopening the border risks a domestic backlash in Pakistan given Washington's refusal to apologize for last year's attack, which it says was an accident. But it could help ensure Pakistan has a role in the future of Afghanistan as NATO prepares to retool its strategy there during a major conference that starts Sunday in Chicago.
Pakistan's presence would benefit the U.S.-led coalition as well, since the country is seen as key to striking a peace deal with the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan that would allow foreign troops to withdraw without the nation descending into further chaos.
The supply line running through Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan will be key to that withdrawal as NATO pulls out a large amount of equipment. It has been critical for shipping in supplies as well, although the United States has reduced its reliance on Pakistan in recent years by using a more costly route through central Asia.
Shams Shahwani, a senior official in Pakistan's Petroleum Tanker Owners Association, said he was contacted Monday by Petroleum Ministry officials who told him the NATO supply route would likely be opened by Wednesday evening. They told him to assemble his tankers in Karachi so they would be ready to start transporting petroleum.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said the government made the right decision to close the border to NATO to send a message to Washington that the attack on its troops in November was unacceptable.
"It was important to make a point. Pakistan has made a point and now we can move on," Khar said at a news conference in Islamabad when asked whether she believed Pakistan should reopen the supply route.
The United States welcomed Khar's comments, but said the two countries have yet to reach a final deal.
"Our team is still in Islamabad working on the land-route issue," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. "My understanding this morning is that they have made considerable progress but they are still working."
The defense committee of Pakistan's cabinet, which is responsible for deciding the fate of the supply route, was scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue and could authorize the route's reopening.
The United States and Pakistan still disagree on the circumstances that led U.S. helicopters to strike two Pakistani army posts on the Afghan border, with the Pakistani military claiming the attack was deliberate.
The incident fueled already rampant anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and negatively impacted the troubled relations between the two countries, threatening the vital, if spotty, antiterrorism cooperation Washington has received since 2001 in exchange for billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Pakistan not only retaliated by blocking NATO supplies, but it also evicted the United States from a base used by American drones targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in the country's tribal region along the Afghan border.