By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, June 13 Pakistan's closure of supply
routes to the Afghan war is costing American taxpayers $100
million a month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on
Wednesday, as he recommended possibly setting conditions on
future U.S. aid to Islamabad.
Panetta's decision to disclose what had been a closely
guarded figure at the Pentagon appeared to be another sign of
frustration with Pakistan and will do little to generate
sympathy for that country in Congress, which is wrestling with
ways to scale back the U.S. budget deficit.
Asked during a Senate budget hearing whether he would
recommend halting aid to Pakistan, Panetta said: "I'd be very
careful about just shutting it down."
"What I would do is look at conditions for what we expect
them to do," Panetta said, without elaborating. He agreed to
help write a letter to Congress with his recommendations for how
to proceed with aid for the Pakistani military and government.
The comments came less than a week after Panetta, using
unusually harsh language, said during a trip to Kabul that the
United States was reaching the limits of its patience with
Pakistan because of the safe havens it offered to insurgents
fighting in neighboring Afghanistan.
The American war effort there has become far more costly,
Panetta said on Wednesday, because of Pakistan's decision last
November to ban trucks from carrying supplies to NATO forces in
landlocked, neighboring Afghanistan.
That forced NATO to use longer, more costly routes through
countries to the north of Afghanistan.
"It's very expensive because we're using the northern
transit route in order to be able to draw-down our forces and
also supply our forces," Panetta said.
"The amount is about ... $100 million a month because of the
closure of those (Pakistani routes)."
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
confirmed to Reuters that the $100 million figure represented
the additional cost of using the northern routes rather than
moving supplies on the ground through Pakistan.
Pakistan shut down the supply routes to protest a
cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
That strike further fanned national anger over everything from
covert CIA drone strikes to the U.S. incursion into Pakistan
last year to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The United States on Monday announced it was withdrawing its
team of negotiators from Pakistan without securing a deal to
re-open the routes, publicly exposing a diplomatic stalemate and
deeply strained relations between the uneasy allies.
One of the sticking points in the negotiations has been
Pakistani demands that the United States apologize for the
November strike, something the Pentagon has been unwilling to
do. But Panetta acknowledged at the hearing that the apology
wasn't the only issue.
"They're asking not only for that, but there are other
elements to the negotiation that are also involved that have to
be resolved," Panetta said.