ISLAMABAD, June 16: Pakistan, weighing the latest US offer of a soft apology for death of 24 troops in the Salala attack last year, is staring at a fast closing window on prospects of a rapprochement with Washington.
A senior western diplomat disclosed that the US offer on the apology issue had been communicated to Islamabad.
“The ball is once again in Pakistan’s court,” said the diplomat, who was cautiously optimistic about an impending breakthrough because of the domestic context in both countries.
Details of the US offer weren’t available, but it could be easily made out from background discussions with some well-informed sources that the apology to be tendered at a lower level would be mild in language.
The offer has coincided with some positive vibes from Washington. Senators Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, and McCain – two influential voices on the Hill – have urged the Obama administration to move forward in relationship with Pakistan.
The bipartisan Congressional advice helped White House ease its tough stance on apology. Furthermore, the disclosure that the US was losing $100 million every month because of suspended supply routes, analysts say, may have been designed to minimise the political cost of an apology for the Obama presidential campaign.
The move has also got the backing of some European friends.
“The Americans have showed a lot of flexibility,” a Pakistani official, who was aware of the latest offer, conceded.
Contrary to expectations in Islamabad of getting a package deal involving apology, cessation of drone attacks, assurance against a repeat of Salala-like attack and reimbursement of Coalition Support Fund, the offer is just about a toned down apology. Separately, there has been some movement on CSF repayments also.
“A package deal seems to be attractive, but may not be happening,” a US diplomat noted.
The Friday night huddle at the Presidency in Islamabad looked into the offer with a caution from one of the government’s top advisers that the time for a decision on the latest offer would not be much long.
The previous lost offer of apology weighed heavily on minds of the participants as they decided on expanding their consultations on the issue by convening the top national security coordination forum — Defence Committee of the Cabinet — that would also finally decide the matter.
The date for the DCC meeting is being discussed. It was to meet on June 11, but was put off because there was no settlement in sight.
The apology, if accepted, may provide a space for the government to move forward towards the new normal with the US by providing the right face-saver in the form of acceptance of one of the parliamentary demands made through a joint resolution on new terms of engagement with the US.
The immediate quid pro quo from Islamabad will be reopening of the transit routes suspended since November last year. Pakistani and American negotiators have been discussing a new agreement on the routes for almost a month and are said to have settled on most of the issues before Washington pulled back its team last week.
In private discussions, American diplomats had then blamed Pakistan for scuttling the Nato route deal by renewing the demand for apology.
The biggest challenge in the way of getting the soft version of apology accepted by Pakistan will be to persuade the military to give its consent. The army was ready to accept the offer of an unconditional apology in February, which was on that occasion fumbled by the political leadership. But it may not be very keen about the milder version. The top brass, however, is also said to be mindful that relations with the United States stand at a critical point.
The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen Khalid Shameem Wynne, said on Friday: “We will accept no pressure for standing up for our principles.”
His comments at the graduation ceremony of National Security and War Course at the National Defence University, which was attended by senior military officials, came shortly after the US offer was conveyed to the Pakistani leadership.