WASHINGTON: The Pentagon said on Monday the United States was pulling its negotiators from Pakistan but the State Department said the team could go back at an appropriate time.
Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, also indicated that the talks would continue.
But diplomatic observers in the US capital noted that “no spin can hide the fact that relations between the two countries are at their worst now”, as one of them said on an American news channel.
“I believe that some of the team left over the weekend and the remainder of the team will leave shortly,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told a briefing in Washington. “This was a US decision.”
At the State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland noted that six weeks of negotiations had only achieved some progress on the technical level, so the US decided to “take a break”. But “we are prepared to send the team back” at an appropriate time, she said.
The Wall Street Journal described the US decision as “an abrupt turnabout in the course of the talks, which seemed last week to be gliding towards a resolution”.
Quoting sources in Washington, the newspaper reported that the US negotiators left after Pakistan “refused to allow a senior American defence official, Peter Lavoy, to meet the country's military chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani”.
Ambassador Rehman, however, rejected the suggestion that it was an “institutional pullout” from Pakistan.
“Pakistan is seeking to be part of the solution for Nato and the US as they transfer security in Afghanistan, not an obstacle,” she said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little said the office of the US defence representative in Islamabad would stay engaged with the Pakistanis for reopening the Nato supply routes.
At the State Department, Ms Nuland said the decision to resend the team would be taken after consultations with Pakistan.
“We need to hear from the Pakistanis when they think it is a good idea,” she said, noting that the negotiators had made some, “relatively small” progress but main differences remained unresolved.
She said she would not comment when a journalist suggested that Gen Kayani refused to meet Mr Lavoy because US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had made adverse comments about Pakistan in New Delhi and Kabul last week.
But “we stand by the statements that have been made”, she said.
Ms Nuland said State Department officials were the first to leave but “we are ready to support the talks when it is appropriate”.
At the Pentagon, Mr Little told reporters that “both sides would like to reopen the ground supply routes” and they had “an agreement in concept” on that issue.The US media noted that last week the two sides appeared closed to concluding a deal on the supply lines. The United States had agreed to increase transit fees per container by nearly 2.5 times over the amount Pakistan received before the Nov 26 incident. The US also seemed inclined to repair and upgrade roadways on which the cargo trucks would travel.
Ambassador Rehman said that Pakistan had not closed the supply lines for leveraging a price advantage and the talks focused on Pakistan’s main demand for an apology over the Nov 26 incident.
Asked if she believed the US would apologise, the ambassador said: “Don't you think they should?”
She said she was actively engaged with Congress and the US administration and believed that the Americans would show “justice and fair play” while seeking a resolution to this dispute.
She said US and Pakistani negotiators in Islamabad were trying to “build a transparent framework for all possible future agreements, not for a price haggle”.
Ms Rehman said Mr Lavoy had “a candid and potentially constructive” meeting with the Foreign Secretary in Islamabad this weekend.