WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he welcomed Pakistan's decision Tuesday to reopen Afghanistan-bound NATO supply routes through its country, a move made after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called her Pakistani counterpart and expressed regret in the deaths of two dozen Pakistani soldiers in an errant U.S. air attack last year.
"As I have made clear, we remain committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region," Panetta said in a statement.
With Pakistan agreeing to end its seven-month blockade, border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan are expected to open almost immediately, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby.
Resolution of the standoff, however, could leave President Obama open to Republican allegations that his administration apologized unnecessarily to a country where militants, including Osama bin Laden, have taken refuge for years and which has often shunned U.S. requests to address such problems.
At the same time, the Pentagon has been paying $100 million more a month to ship supplies and fuel by air and through routes from Afghanistan's north. Officials increasingly wanted to get the dispute resolved and came up with a carefully choreographed solution in which Clinton said she was sorry without making a sweeping apology.
Though Clinton said the U.S. was sorry for the deaths of the 24 Pakistani soldiers, the Pentagon is not admitting greater culpability for that border incident last November. A Pentagon investigation found that U.S. forces made errors in launching the air attack on two Pakistani border posts but also blamed mutual mistrust in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.
"We were very clear after the incident about what happened," Kirby said. "None of this today changes the statement we made."
The U.S. is going to resume paying "coalition support funds," reimbursing Pakistan for its counterterrorism operations, which have been suspended for months.
"With the GLOCs open, we will look to pay past coalition support fund claims," Kirby said, using a Pentagon acronym for the routes.
The fees paid by the U.S. and its allies to ship supplies through Pakistan will not increase, Kirby said.
— David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta speaks during a news briefing on June 29 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images