By Candace Rondeaux and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 19, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A recent increase in Taliban attacks on a crucial NATO transportation route from Pakistan to Afghanistan could imperil efforts to bolster the flagging, seven-year U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
Attacks on NATO supply lines have become a regular occurrence in parts of northwestern Pakistan, including the country's inhospitable tribal areas near the Afghan border. In the past two weeks, Taliban fighters have mounted at least six assaults on NATO supply depots near the Pakistani city of Peshawar, setting fire to more than 300 armored Humvees, military vehicles and other supply containers.
The attacks come as Pakistanis are increasingly calling for Western forces to stop using their territory for transport: Thousands of people rallied here Thursday to demand that the government cut off U.S. and NATO access to the main transit route.
Senior American military leaders have acknowledged the potential for supply problems as additional U.S. troops are brought into Afghanistan. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, said in a recent speech that there was a "new urgency" to find alternative routes into Afghanistan. "The supply-line issues in Pakistan are quite serious," Petraeus said.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this month that he recognized the supply lines were vulnerable and that he has been "increasingly concerned" that the latest attacks could have a troubling impact. "I've had a concern about this for months. . . . Even without incidents, it's a single point of failure for us," Mullen said.
He said the United States has been working with Pakistan to increase protection for the convoys. But he also said the American military was developing other options.
Efforts to find routes through Central Asia or even the Far East were made public this summer when the U.S. Transportation Command solicited a bid from contractors to move goods along different routes in those regions.
Supplying troops has consistently been a major challenge for U.S. forces in Iraq, with the need for heavily armed private security contractors to guard convoys dramatically inflating costs.
But in many ways, the challenge is even trickier in landlocked Afghanistan, where 70 to 80 percent of supplies have to be trucked in from Pakistan. Supply issues have historically been the Achilles' heel of foreign armies in Afghanistan: During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, rebel Afghans made attacking Soviet convoys -- and stealing the goods -- a centerpiece of their strategy.
Pakistani officials and local Pakistani transporters say lax security along the NATO supply route from the southern port city of Karachi through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border has made the convoys particularly vulnerable to attack. Fear of Taliban assaults prompted a leading Pakistani transport association to say this week that it will no longer carry goods for NATO through the pass.
Provincial police officials, meanwhile, have threatened to close key NATO transport depots in Peshawar within about a week if private transport companies fail to beef up security. And on Thursday, thousands joined a protest in Peshawar led by the Islamist Pakistani political party Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leaders called for an end to the use of Pakistani roads to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
"We will no longer let arms and ammunition pass through . . . and reach the hands of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan," Sirajul Haq, the provincial head of Jamaat-e-Islami, told the crowd. "They are using the same against our innocent brothers, sisters and children."
Meanwhile, Taliban leaders in Pakistan have vowed to step up their campaign to disrupt the flow of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, saying the recent attacks on NATO transport depots are a direct response to an increase in suspected U.S. missile strikes on insurgent havens in Pakistan's remote tribal areas.
"We will attack every vehicle transporting weapons, food and medicine to foreign troops in Afghanistan and will not allow them to cross the border," said Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban group headed by commander Baitullah Mehsud.
The targeting of supply routes has exposed a major strategic vulnerability that experts say could have wide-reaching effects on the U.S.-led war effort in neighboring Afghanistan. With more than 3,000 more American troops expected to arrive in Afghanistan in January and February, Western military planners face the additional logistical challenge of securing NATO supply routes in northwestern Pakistan, an area that has become a Taliban stronghold.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Defense Department analyst and current national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the recent attacks may be "just a warning of what's to come."
"Remember, they don't have to get every convoy. Delays will force a larger line of trucks waiting to cross," Cordesman said.
The Khyber Transport Association, a trade group representing about 3,500 truck drivers, cited the recent surge in attacks in its decision this week to drop deliveries of NATO goods to Afghanistan.
Shakir Ullah Afridi, president of the association, acknowledged that Pakistani government efforts to improve security along the route have been noticeable. But he said many owners of small transport companies still fear that their trucks will be destroyed and their drivers killed. Afridi, who said his association facilitates 60 to 70 percent of NATO transports through the Khyber Pass, said truck traffic has dwindled from about 300 vehicles a day to 30 to 40 near the pass. "The situation is getting worse and worse. It is now totally out of control," Afridi said.
Pressure on the transport companies to improve security at the 17 depots in Peshawar increased after arson attacks on NATO supply containers. For the city's underequipped and undermanned police force of 1,000 officers, the attacks have become a public safety issue that threatens to further erode the government's precarious hold on stability.
Malik Naveed Khan, inspector general of police in the North-West Frontier Province, said in an interview this week that the transport companies share much of the blame for the attacks because of their inadequate security. Despite claims by NATO transporters that they provide private security for their convoys, Khan said only a handful of the companies have trained, armed guards.
"One to two companies have retired army forces as guards. But the rest of them, they have employed just people from the street," Khan said. Recently, he delivered an ultimatum to transporters: Improve security at the depots within a week or face closure. Failure to install extra barrier walls and security lighting, and to hire more guards at the depots will bring the NATO transport business to a halt in the region, he said.
"We have told them we will cancel their licenses. We will take action against them. We will not allow them to take their containers here," Khan said. "We will be harsh with them."
In July, the Army Contracting Agency issued a proposal seeking private contractors to provide daily armed escorts for the convoys. The contractors would be required to provide at least 10 escort teams at a time and be able to generate up to 20 teams if needed and even more on 90-days' notice.
The teams are slated to operate from three points -- the port of Karachi, and Bagram air base and Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Small steps have already been taken, meanwhile, to secure the routes near Peshawar, a city of more than 3 million. Early this week, provincial authorities began to establish checkpoints and patrolling teams to ward off Taliban attacks. Additionally, about 1,200 officers with the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, including several anti-terrorism squads, have been deployed along the route near Peshawar.
"Even then you cannot rule out the attacks," Khan said. "If they're determined, they will hit them."
Pincus reported from Washington. Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.