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.
The new contractor will also be required to have intrusion detection devices and a real-time satellite tracking and tracing system that reports the location of each vehicle every 30 minutes.
Russia agreed this year to allow NATO to send material by rail. The coalition in Afghanistan is working to create an intercontinental rail system that would carry nonlethal equipment and materials for both economic assistance and military programs that would go through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. It would not extend into Afghanistan, however.
Separately, the Pentagon's Transportation Command is seeking contractors who could handle what it projects as about 50,000 rail containers a year traveling over a new Europe-Caucasus route or, separately, one through Central Asia.
Meanwhile, heavy security along the Pakistan-to-Afghanistan route has slowed NATO supply traffic to a trickle at Torkham, according to Afghan customs officials and drivers here. To the east, more than 1,000 trucks waited at a near-standstill on the Pakistani side of the pass on Tuesday, engines idling in an hours-long purgatory of dust and unmet deadlines. To the west, a thin stream of tractor-trailers lurched toward the Afghan customs office, churning slowly through an unceasing throng of merchants, day laborers and refugees.
Security restrictions forced customs officials to slow the flow of traffic to 25 trucks every few hours. Before the Taliban raid and border closure last week, an average of 600 to 800 tractor-trailers moved through Torkham a day, according to Afghan customs officials. Customs officials said they hoped at best to see 200 trucks pass through on Tuesday.
Saif ur-Rehman, a NATO supply truck driver, said he was stranded for nearly five days while he waited last week for the crossing at Torkham to reopen. The delay cost him the Pakistani equivalent of about $350 -- no small sum for a man who earns on average about $1,200 a month. Still, ur-Rehman, 45, said he was pleased with the security provided by the Pakistani government. "We are glad they are finally giving us security. Before, they weren't escorting the trucks, but now we're not as scared as we were," ur-Rehman said.
Yet many expect raids on the convoys to continue. Rahmanullah, 28, said the attacks have become so commonplace in recent months and so costly for NATO suppliers that Taliban raiders have begun issuing receipts to drivers when they strike.
"The Taliban give us letters to give to the Americans that say that the Taliban has taken the truck, because otherwise no one would believe us and they would think we destroyed it ourselves," Rahmanullah said. "No one would question a letter like this from the Taliban."
Pincus reported from Washington. Special correspondents Javed Hamdard in Afghanistan and Haq Nawaz Khan in Pakistan contributed to this report.