U.S. Seeks New Supply Routes Into Afghanistan

Traffic moves slowly through Torkham, an Afghan town on the Pakistani border that is a key part of the NATO supply route. A bold Taliban raid last week on the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass caused officials to close the border at Torkham. It reopened Monday.
Traffic moves slowly through Torkham, an Afghan town on the Pakistani border that is a key part of the NATO supply route. A bold Taliban raid last week on the Pakistani side of the Khyber Pass caused officials to close the border at Torkham. It reopened Monday. (By Candace Rondeaux -- The Washington Post)
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By Candace Rondeaux and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

TORKHAM, Afghanistan, Nov. 18 -- A rise in Taliban attacks along the length of a vital NATO supply route that runs through this border town in the shadow of the Khyber Pass has U.S. officials seeking alternatives, including the prospect of beginning deliveries by a tortuous overland journey from Europe.

Supplying troops in landlocked Afghanistan has long been the Achilles' heel of foreign armies here, most recently the Soviets, whose forces were nearly crippled by Islamist insurgent attacks on vulnerable supply lines.

About 75 percent of NATO and U.S. supplies bound for Afghanistan -- including gas, food and military equipment -- are transported over land through Pakistan. The journey begins in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi and continues north through Pakistan's volatile North-West Frontier Province and tribal areas before supplies arrive at the Afghan border. The convoys then press forward along mountain hairpin turns through areas of Afghanistan that are known as havens for insurgents.

Drivers at this busy border crossing say death threats from the Taliban arrive almost daily. Sometimes they come in the form of a letter taped to the windshield of a truck late at night. Occasionally, a dispatcher receives an early-morning phone call before a convoy sets off from Pakistan. More often, the threats are delivered at the end of a gun barrel.

"The Taliban, they tell us, 'These goods belong to the Americans. Don't bring them to the Americans. If you do, we'll kill you,' " said Rahmanullah, a truck driver from the Pakistani tribal town of Landikotal. "From Karachi to Kabul there is trouble. The whole route is insecure."

The growing danger has forced the Pentagon to seek far longer, but possibly safer, alternate routes through Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, according to Defense Department documents. A notice to potential contractors by the U.S. Transportation Command in September said that "strikes, border delays, accidents and pilferage" in Pakistan and the risk of "attacks and armed hijackings" in Afghanistan posed "a significant risk" to supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan.

A reliable supply route is considered vital to sustaining the approximately 67,000 foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan, including 32,000 Americans. Nearly half of U.S. forces operate under NATO command. Attacks on convoys have also been a problem in Iraq, where the United States has improvised effective but costly ways to keep supplies flowing.

A week ago, a bold Taliban raid on a NATO supply convoy on the Pakistani side of the pass forced authorities to temporarily close traffic through Torkham. For days after the attack on the 23-truck convoy, many of the hundreds of truckers who regularly traverse this treacherous route were stranded, forced to watch their profits dwindle. Pakistani authorities reopened the NATO supply route through Torkham on Monday after assigning extra security to the convoys.

But on Tuesday, a day after the reopening, dozens of truck drivers seemed far from certain that their troubles were over. The attack in the Khyber tribal area on the Pakistani side of the border last week was one in a series in recent months that has cost NATO suppliers millions in losses this year. In March, insurgents set fire to 40 to 50 NATO oil tankers near Torkham. A month later, Taliban raiders made off with military helicopter engines valued at about $13 million.

NATO and U.S. military officials have said raids on the supply line from Pakistan to Afghanistan have not significantly affected their operations. "This is nothing new," said Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan. "Bandits and insurgents have long proclaimed that they will attack our supply lines, though nothing they have done has caused any real impact to the military operations here."

Yet the scramble to find new routes appears to indicate the attacks have had some effect. The United States has already begun negotiations with countries along what the Pentagon has called a new northern route. An agreement with Georgia has been reached and talks are ongoing with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to an Oct. 31 Pentagon document. "We do not expect transit agreements with Iran or Uzbekistan," the Transportation Command told potential contractors.

Whichever company gets the contract will have to provide security forces to protect the convoys. Port World Logistics, the transport company currently handling supplies going from Pakistan to Afghanistan, uses a Pakistani service, Dogma Security, and has also had some assistance from the Pakistani government's Frontier Corps, according to a statement from the public affairs office of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan.

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