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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that negotiations with Pakistan over reopening its ground supply lines are stuck over more than a disagreement over an apology.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's defense panel, asked Panetta that if the U.S. concedes it made mistakes in the cross-border raid that killed 24 Pakistani troops last November, why not just offer to apologize?
Panetta answered very carefully.
"This is an issue that is still under negotiation; there are discussions that continue with respect to how we can resolve this, and the issue you discussed is one of those areas," he said.
"I think [U.S. commander] Gen. [John] Allen, and the United States, has made clear mistakes were made. They were made on our side. They were also made on the Pakistani side. We expressed condolences for the mistakes that were made; we've made that clear; we certainly have continued to make clear that mistakes were made. I think the problem is that, at this point, they're asking not only for that [an apology] but other elements of negotiation that are also involved that have to be resolved. It isn't that alone. It isn't the only issue that‘s being discussed and needs to be resolved to get the [supply lines] open."
Panetta did not elaborate and Feinstein – who also chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee -- did not press further.
It's possible that Panetta could be alluding to unofficial reports that Pakistan has demanded higher payments from the U.S. to admit supply trucks. According to the Associated Press, it may have asked for as much as $5,000 per vehicle, up from about $250 before the closure.
Since Pakistan shut its supply routes, NATO has resupplied through its northern distribution network, which includes Air Force flights and over-land truck and rail shipments. Allen told reporters at the Pentagon last month that the Pakistan supply line closure has had no operational effect on his ability to conduct the war, and that he never came close to running low in key supplies.
But Panetta acknowledged to Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that the higher costs of relying exclusively on the northern supply lines meant that the Pentagon would have to request extra money from Congress for the current fiscal year. Although he did not give a total amount, he said relying only on the northern route adds about $100 million per month to the cost of the war.
Army logistics leaders also have warned that if they must rely only on the northern route to withdraw their vehicles, equipment and troops in time for the planned end of combat in 2014, it could cost five times what it might cost to conduct the "retrograde" through Pakistan.
Although Panetta was careful to tell senators on Wednesday that negotiations were continuing with Pakistan to re-open the supply routes, a top Pentagon spokesman acknowledged on Monday that the American team that had been meeting with Pakistani leaders had come home after about six weeks without a deal.
An American investigation concluded that last November's cross-border air strike took place in part because NATO and Pakistani troops did not trust each other enough to communicate clearly about the locations of American troops or a Pakistani border post. The soldiers there opened fire on American troops and kept up their attack even after a "show of force" by U.S. warplanes, leading commanders to believe it was a hostile target and fair game for an airstrike, the report said.
Pakistani commanders, who refused to take part in the American investigation into the incident, rejected the report's conclusions. They accused the Americans of attacking deliberately.