Trucks carrying NATO supplies rolled into Afghanistan for the first time in more than seven months Thursday, ending a painful chapter in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Thousands of trucks have been waiting at ports in Karachi since the government shut the border in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in November that killed the two dozen border troops. The decision to reopen them, after a U.S. apology, marked an easing of strains in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad in recent months. The Americans have said they did not intentionally target Pakistani forces, but Pakistan disputed that.
Drivers are eager to get behind the wheel and start earning a lucrative salary again in what can be a deadly journey because of attacks from the Taliban.
"I risk my life for my family, and I risk my life because I get better pay for taking NATO supplies," said Tajawal Khan, who has been driving the dangerous route for the past few years. "I know the Taliban may attack our trucks. But I tell the Taliban that we are doing this job for our family," he said by telephone from the cab of his tanker in Karachi, waiting to be loaded with oil before driving north toward Afghanistan.
'I risk my life for my family … because I get better pay for taking NATO supplies.' — Tajawal Khan, truck driver
Pakistan and the U.S. differed over how much Islamabad should be paid for trucks to move through its territory. In the end, they appeared to compromise with the U.S. issuing an apology but paying no extra fees from the $250 per truck that it paid previously.
Pakistan faces a domestic backlash, given rampant anti-American sentiment in the country and the government's failure to force the U.S. to stop drone strikes targeting militants and meet other demands made by parliament.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a re-election battle, faces criticism from Republicans who are angry that his administration apologized to a country allegedly giving safe haven to militants attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
During the closure, the U.S. was forced to use more costly and lengthy routes into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Pakistan is also expected to gain financially, since the U.S. intends to free up $1.1 billion US in military aid that has been frozen for the past year.
When the routes were closed, trucking companies pulled almost all of their vehicles back to Karachi to better protect them. Getting from the southern port city to the border at Chaman can take days, and they must also be loaded with supplies and cleared through customs, which can take time.
Only two trucks crossed the border Thursday, both at the Chaman frontier in the province of Baluchistan. The other, known as the Torkham crossing, is farther north in the Khyber Pass, a high mountainous area far from waiting shipments.
Before the closure, an estimated 150-200 trucks crossed the border daily, U.S. Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Brian Badura said, speaking from Kabul.
Few trucks had been expected to cross in the first days following the reopening.
The decision to reopen the routes sparked protest with many conservative Pakistani religious parties, but there was dancing and celebrating in Karachi on Tuesday night when the decision was announced. The reason is fairly straightforward: Driving a truck, even one that gets shot at or blown up, pays a decent wage in Pakistan.
However, militants have destroyed hundreds of trucks carrying NATO supplies in the past few years, and often the drivers are killed or wounded. In one particularly deadly attack in June 2010, militants destroyed dozens of trucks near Islamabad and killed seven people.