Taliban Destroys a Key Bridge in Pakistan

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Hundreds of trucks bearing NATO supplies idled at terminals near the city of Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday after Taliban fighters blew up an iron bridge about 15 miles away. The explosion, the latest in a spate of attacks, cut off the main supply route for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, complicating plans to substantially increase the Western military presence there and roll back recent gains by Taliban forces.

For a quick look at the state of the war on terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, one need travel only as far as Peshawar's Karkhano Market. Set at the edge of the sprawling city of 3 million in a dusty warren of ramshackle kiosks, the 24-year-old market has long been known as a key smuggling hub for the hundreds of traders who regularly cross the mountainous no man's land that lies between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Business has been especially brisk in recent months, in the wake of more than a dozen major Taliban attacks on NATO supply routes and the creeping encroachment of insurgents in northwest Pakistan, according to Karkhano shopkeepers. Goods pilfered from raids on NATO supply trucks have become a mainstay for shopkeepers like Noor Mohammed.

Customers at Mohammed's small kiosk can easily purchase a set of American-made tools or an American flag or a durable American-made pistol holder. A U.S. military-issue ammunition vest and staff sergeant's sun cap together cost a mere $20. "It's not a problem to get anything here as long as you have the money," Mohammed said. And, with AK-47 assault rifles selling for about $1,000 apiece, profits have never been better.

"Because of the Taliban and the conflict in Afghanistan and the region, the price of weapons and ammunition has gone up," Mohammed said. "Six or seven years ago, a single bullet cost two or three rupees. Now, it's about 25 rupees apiece."

Capt. Tariq Hayat Khan, the top political administrator for Khyber Agency, the tribal area closest to Peshawar, said the unrest has been costly for residents and security forces in his area. Government forces are charged with providing security for 750,000 residents, covering a mountainous area that spans about 1,429 square miles. Khan said the 2,000 tribal agency troops he is in charge of are up against an estimated 20,000 insurgents who have streamed into the area in recent months.

"The strongest point about the Taliban has been their mobility and their firepower. Man for man, we have not been able to match them," Khan said. "The militants have in every vehicle light machine guns. They have rocket launchers and more than enough ammunition to boot. My tribal levy forces cannot stand up to that."

The increase in fighting in the northwest has taken a heavy toll on police in Peshawar and the North-West Frontier Province as a whole. Malik Naveed Khan, the provincial police chief, said there are about 1,000 working police officers in Peshawar and 48,000 for the entire province. Overworked and underpaid at about $100 a month, officers are experiencing more casualties than ever before, and their morale has never been lower. Seventy-two police officers were killed in suicide bombings and clashes with insurgents in 2007 in the northwest. The number of police casualties nearly doubled in 2008 with 148 killed in action and about 500 injured.

"My men are fighting these terrorists without bulletproof jackets," the police chief said. "And hats off to them. They're standing on the road checking people, knowing any minute they can be hit by a suicide bomber or miscreant who has no respect for life, who thinks that if they do this they'll go to heaven."

Pakistani officials have had to get creative when it comes to outfitting their security forces. Both the police chief and the Khyber political administrator said equipment shortages have forced them to buy black market supplies at Karkhano in recent months. This year, Khan, the police chief, bought 500 to 600 pairs of U.S. military boots at $30 a piece for his officers, while Khyber security officers have been kitted out with magazines of ammunition bought on the cheap at the market.

"I don't know where it all comes from," said Khan, the Khyber political administrator. "But I know that when I need something or I'm short on ammunition, that's where I send my men to buy it."

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