CANBERRA - NATO still hopes to reopen transport supply routes to Afghanistan through neighbouring Pakistan despite securing new transit deals with three Central Asian states, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday.
Pakistan banned trucks from carrying supplies to and from coalition troops in Afghanistan late last year in protest against a cross-border NATO air strike that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
On Monday, the United States withdrew its team of negotiators from six weeks of talks with Pakistan without a new deal on re-opening the supply routes in a sign of deepening tension between the two uneasy allies in the war on militancy.
Rasmussen said the NATO transit agreements with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would give NATO forces more flexibility ahead of the planned withdrawal of most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
“We want as many options as possible,” Rasmussen told the National Press Club in the Australian capital, Canberra.
“Winding down a very comprehensive mission in Afghanistan is logistically quite a challenge, and to manage that we need as many transit opportunities as possible,” he said.
However, Rasmussen also said officials were hopeful the transit route through Pakistan would be re-opened “in a not too distant future”.
US officials have warned that resupplying troops in Afghanistan through the northern, Central Asian route could be up to two-and-a-half times more expensive.
That route could also require cooperation from Russia to ensure access to sea ports, but Rasmussen said NATO already had an agreement with Moscow. He gave few other details.
“We have already a reverse transit agreement with Russia, and the fact that we have now concluded transit arrangements with a number of Central Asian states makes our transit arrangement with Russia even more effective,” Rasmussen said.
He refused to comment on the costs of using northern supply routes, adding the system worked on a commercial basis with transport companies in the transit countries.
The NATO chief also vowed not to abandon Afghanistan as foreign nations plan to transition forces out of the country after a decade of conflict.
“We will not abandon Afghanistan, we will not leave behind a security vacuum,” he said.
NATO plans to withdraw its 130,000 troops by the end of 2014, and Rasmussen said there would also be a likely political transition as Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to step down at the next election, due the same year.
“Yes, we would expect President Karzai to abide by the Afghan constitution which... doesn’t allow him to run again for president,” he said.
Secretary General Rasmussen said the international community had a “common interest in and a common responsibility” to see the decade-long intervention in Afghanistan through to a successful end. He said he understood impatience regarding the conflict in which foreign troops have been helping Afghans fight an insurgency by hardline Taliban militants, saying people “want to see the light at the end of the tunnel”.
“People want to see progress, so do I,” he said, adding that foreign forces had deployed to Afghanistan to prevent the country from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists from which to launch attacks.
“Despite this impatience, all ISAF coalition partners have decided to stay committed, to see this operation though to a successful end. And that’s encouraging despite the economic crisis and declining public support.”