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The top American commander in Afghanistan declined to predict when Pakistan would reopen its ground supply lines, but he did say that the two countries’ stalled relationship was improving.
Marine Gen. John Allen, head of the International Security Assistance Force, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that he had been heartened by the resumption of the first basic talks with Pakistani counterparts in more than a year. They’re better than nothing, he said, and everyone involved -- the Pakistanis, Afghans and Americans -- had agreed to meet again regularly.
"Anytime you can talk, create opportunities for discussion, share objectives on a strategic outcome, that’s a positive thing," he said. "We’re not there yet, we’ve got more conversation that needs to be had, but there’s a real opportunity here and we should be seizing it if we can."
Pakistani leaders closed the ground supply routes last November after a cross-border air strike killed 24 troops. An American investigation called the incident a tragic mistake, but Pakistan rejected that explanation. The closure of the supply lines trapped about 1,000 cargo trucks bound for Afghanistan as well as the contents of supply ships in the port of Karachi.
Allen said American and international forces had never been in any danger of running low on the supplies that once traveled overland through Pakistan; the closest call was when the stock of gasoline approached, but did not fall below, a 30-day supply. He praised the Air Force and U.S. Transportation Command’s ability to provide "tremendous compensation" for the closed Pakistani supply lines.
In some cases, ISAF’s supply stockpiles are greater now than before the closure, which Allen said has had no effect on his ability to conduct the war.
Still, he acknowledged it takes longer and costs twice as much to ship material via the northern route, and he did not address what Army logistics experts have said would be the massive spike in costs if the U.S. must conduct its withdrawal without the Pakistani supply lines. Officials have estimated using the northern route could cost five times as much as withdrawing equipment south to ships in Karachi.
According to reports last week, the U.S. and Pakistan were said to be close to an agreement to re-open the ground supply routes, with the condition that the Americans increase payments to Islamabad for each vehicle that crosses the border. But officials in Washington have declined to talk publicly about the state of those talks, and Allen said Wednesday he was not involved with them closely.
He also reiterated that neither he nor anyone in the Pentagon knows how many American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of the summer. About 23,000 troops are coming home in the second phase of the drawdown, and as that happens Allen said he’ll need to re-posture the forces that remain; account for Afghan units, some augmented with American advisors; and assess the state of the insurgency.
Only then, he said, will he be able to recommend how many troops should stay in Afghanistan until the "milestone" next year when indigenous forces take control of most of the country, and then when international troops transfer full authority in 2014.
"There’s not a number right now," Allen said. "There's no number out there right now. I owe that analysis to my chain of command and then ultimately, to the White House."