Pakistani officials say the U.S.-led NATO military coalition in Afghanistan has offered to import vital supplies through the southwestern port of Gwadar, calling it a much shorter and economically viable route into landlocked Afghanistan.
The federal minister for maritime affairs, Hasil Bizenjo, says NATO representatives proposed the idea at a recent meeting he convened with local and international business leaders.
“They (NATO) are very interested and we are working on it,” Bizenjo told VOA in an interview.
The coalition of about 16,000 troops, known as Resolute Support, mostly consists of Americans advising and assisting Afghan forces in their battle against the Taliban and other militant groups.
The military mission is dependent on ground lines of communication and air lines of communication, known as GLOC and ALOC, through Pakistan for receiving supplies.
Currently, NATO supplies are shipped through the southern Pakistani port of Karachi, where they then are placed on trucks and transported on a week-long journey to neighboring Afghanistan via the northwestern Torkham border crossing.
“NATO people told us it would be extremely convenient for them in terms of quick transportation of supplies from Gwadar directly to Kandahar. They are very interested and we are working on it,” Bizenjo told VOA in an interview.
The Chinese-built, Arabian Sea port of Gwadar is in the southwestern Baluchistan province adjoining Afghanistan's Kandahar province, which hosts one of the five U.S. military bases in the war-shattered country.
Gwadar port is connected to the Chaman border crossing with Kandahar through a newly constructed highway, enabling truck convoys to reach Afghanistan in fewer than 24 hours.
Pakistani minister Bizenjo said companies dealing in Afghan transit trade also want their cargo to be shipped completely through Gwadar.
“Another meeting with Pakistani business and NATO representatives and Afghan transit trade dealers has also been scheduled to further the discussions, Bizenjo said, without saying when.
Pakistan earned the status of non-NATO ally for allowing U.S.-led international forces to use the GLOC and ALOC supply lines to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and oust the Taliban from power for harboring al-Qaida leaders. In return, Islamabad received U.S. security assistance and civilian aid.
The proposal to redirect U.S. and NATO military cargo from Karachi to Gwadar comes as Pakistan’s traditionally rollercoaster relations with the United States suffer fresh setbacks.
It started with a New Year's Day tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump in which he accused Islamabad of providing havens to terrorists fighting in Afghanistan despite receiving over $33 billion in aid in the last 15 years. Subsequently, the Trump administration suspended security assistance to Pakistan until it takes “concrete” steps against militant hideouts on its soil.
Islamabad promptly rejected Trump’s comments as “unwarranted” and “completely incomprehensible,” saying it was being scapegoated for U.S. failures in Afghanistan.
Officials also maintain that Pakistan has received around $14 billion, not as aid, but as reimbursement for money spent on deploying security forces on the Afghan border and conducting counterterrorism operations in support of the U.S.-led mission. They say Washington still owes Islamabad around $9 billion.
The tensions have led to negative public statements coming from both sides; but, Pakistani and U.S. officials have both dismissed the widespread impression that Trump’s Twitter comments pushed the relationship to the brink of collapse and that Islamabad intended to shut down the NATO supply lines.
Pakistan blocked the ground lines of communication for months after a 2011 attack by the NATO air force accidentally hit two Pakistani border posts, killing more than two dozen Pakistani soldiers. The lines were restored only after the U.S. military formally apologized for the incident.
A U.S. government source tells VOA a “robust ongoing” bilateral dialogue is on track between the two countries, particularly their militaries. A U.S. military delegation was in Islamabad on Monday. Late last week, Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had a phone conversation with General Joseph Votel, the CENTCOM commander.
Army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor told VOA the contact helped remove any “apprehensions” about future cooperation. “Cooperation and not coercion is the way forward,” Ghafoor said.
Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain, who heads the defense affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, told VOA his country has allowed U.S. and allied forces to undertake more than “one million overflights free of charge” since 2001 to conduct counterterrorism and other missions.
“The U.S. needs Pakistan more than we need it because of our location, because of our role and because of the options (available to Islamabad),” Hussain said. He was referring to Islamabad's deepening ties with China, Turkey, Iran and improving relations with Russia.
The senator, however, noted that despite the latest strains in mutual ties, the GLOC and ALOC lines remain operational because Pakistan is committed to supporting efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Pakistan is considered the safest and cheapest route to resupply NATO troops. Other possible routes that go through Iran and central Asian countries are more expensive and pass through a region Russia considers its backyard. Tensions between the United States and Russia have been high since Moscow was accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
“Without Pakistani cooperation, our army in Afghanistan risks becoming a beached whale,” wrote former U.S. diplomat Richard Olson in an article for The New York Times this week.
"Pakistan has greater leverage over us than many imagine," noted Olson, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan before being appointed as U.S. special envoy for both the countries by the previous administration of President Barack Obama.