Reposted from The New York Times
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Much like the 900-mile highway that links the heaving port of Karachi with the storied Khyber Passon the Afghan border, the United States’ relationship with Pakistan this year has been winding and strewed with unexpected hazards.
After months of painful negotiations that reached a formal conclusion this week, that road has reopened to NATO supply traffic and the broader diplomatic relationship has wobbled back on track — at least for now.
On Wednesday, the Pakistani cabinet approved a 10-page document that sets the terms for NATO transit traffic, codifying a political deal that was struck in early July and that broke a seven-month deadlock that had stranded more than 11,000 military shipping containers bound for Afghanistan.
The Pakistanis received an American apology for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in American airstrikes in November — and other, more tangible benefits. The United States will transfer $1.1 billion in delayed military aid in the coming days, giving an urgent lift to an ailing economy. The Americans have also promised to refurbish 130 miles of Pakistani road.
The breakthrough, American and Pakistani officials say now, was not won through the high diplomacy efforts that dominated headlines through that stretch, but rather through an unconventional back channel run by a low-key duo: Thomas R. Nides, a deputy to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Pakistan’s finance minister.
Both cut their teeth in finance: Mr. Nides came to the Obama administration from Morgan Stanley, while Mr. Shaikh is a soft-spoken Boston University graduate who previously worked in the World Bank and equity finance.
“The bean counters did it,” said a senior American official, in comments intended to convey admiration rather than disparagement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, as did several others interviewed about the talks.
The channel between Mr. Nides and Mr. Shaikh was established in late May amid secrecy after months of mishaps and missed opportunities on the part of more seasoned players. Much of it revolved around the vexed notion of an American apology.
At first Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, asked the Americans to stall their apology until Parliament met. But by the time she met Mrs. Clinton in London in February, anti-American riots had seized Afghanistan after an episode in which American troops burned copies of the Koran. Mr. Obama’s expression of regret for that caused his aides to caution against a similar gesture to Pakistan, amid fears that the president’s rivals could label him as “apologizer-in-chief.”
A major NATO conference in Chicago in May stirred hopes of a breakthrough. But on the first day of the meeting, an article in The Chicago Tribune by the Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, listed five Pakistani demands, annoying Mr. Obama, said senior officials on both sides. “It really set us back,” one American said.
A day later, Mrs. Clinton and President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to the channel between Mr. Nides and Mr. Shaikh. “Make it happen” she told Mr. Nides. Secrecy was paramount: only a tiny group of insiders on both sides was privy to the talks.
Through e-mails, conference calls and discreet meetings, at least four drafts of the American apology went back and forth. The two men played on their personal chemistry and shared business background, often eschewing the traditional posturing of diplomacy. They also had to contend with significant resistance in their own camps.
Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, rejected early American offers of an apology for deaths “on both sides.” Mr. Nides pushed to bring around skeptics in the White House, where anti-Pakistan sentiment was hardening.
The president and his advisers were swayed, however, by money and geopolitics. The alternate supply route, through Central Asia, was costing the American military an extra $100 million per month, or about $17,000 per truck. That route was also, to some degree, hostage to the dissipating good will of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Positions shifted. At a barbecue at Pakistan’s Washington embassy residence in late June, the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, signaled to Ms. Rehman that the White House was ready to move. Mr. Shaikh invited Mr. Nides and an American team to Islamabad. On July 1, the two sides gathered in Ms. Khar’s Islamabad home for a fateful five-hour meeting.
It got off to a rocky start. General Kayani opened the meeting with a new draft apology that the Americans had not seen; Mr. Nides exploded with anger in protest, according to several people present, and officials from both sides took a break, venturing into the garden for fresh air.
On resuming, both sides calmed down and reworked the text, line by line. Two days later, in a carefully orchestrated maneuver, Mrs. Clinton phoned Ms. Khar and said “sorry” for the deaths of the 24 soldiers.
Days later, the first trucks rumbled out of a Karachi port, headed for Afghanistan.
Under the agreement finalized this week, the United States will continue to pay standard trucking fees of about $250 per truck — less than the $5,000 demanded by Pakistan at one point. Crucially, it also eases the immense task of transporting military matériel out of Afghanistan that will be needed as the 2014 withdrawal deadline nears.
Still, officials say it should take at least two months to clear the backlog of 11,000 containers in Karachi, some of which have been stuck there since November. “We’re not looking forward to opening the cheese container,” one diplomat joked.
Despite all the talking, several Pakistani demands remain unresolved: for a halt to drone strikes, which seems unlikely, and a resumption of military aid, which has better chances of success.
Some officials, even while expressing relief that relations had at last reached a corner, if not quite turned it, warned that the crisis highlighted the dangerous frailty of relations between the two countries. One senior Pakistani official said, “This relationship can’t be subjected to so many wounds in such a short space of time.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.