By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 4, 2010; 9:28 PM
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Militants carried out two new attacks on NATO convoys in Pakistan on Monday as the government closure of a vital entry point into Afghanistan continued for a fifth day, underscoring the fragility of the coalition forces' most important war supply route.
NATO has tried to diversify its paths for importing fuel and other supplies, most recently by opening new land routes via Central Asia. But it remains heavily dependent on the highways of Pakistan, where popular opposition to the war and to the United States, along with political instability and a simmering Taliban insurgency, poses constant threats to convoys' safe passage.
U.S. and NATO officials have played down the significance of the ongoing closure of the busy Torkham crossing, saying it has had a minimal effect on their ability to equip troops. One senior NATO official said he expected the border crossing to reopen this week, after the completion of an investigation into the NATO airstrike that prompted Pakistan to seal Torkham.
But Pakistani officials conditioned a reopening on improved security for convoys, and security only deteriorated Monday. In a pre-dawn attack, a band of armed men shot and torched as many as 20 NATO fuel trucks parked at a depot near the capital, Islamabad, killing three people. Later, two trucks were ambushed in an attack that killed two people in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where a second crossing into Afghanistan has remained open.
The Pakistani Taliban, an offshoot of the Afghan insurgency, asserted responsibility for the attacks and vowed to carry out more. Pakistani government officials expressed doubt about the Taliban assertion, but the threat raised the prospect that the Torkham blockade might last longer than expected.
Pakistan closed Torkham to war supply trucks Thursday after a series of NATO helicopter incursions and strikes on Pakistani territory, including one that Pakistan says killed three border troops and injured three others. NATO tankers were set ablaze in two separate attacks Friday.
The NATO airstrikes have enraged and embarrassed the Pakistani government, which depends on U.S. military and civilian aid but also faces domestic criticism for its alliance with the United States, a nation that a majority of Pakistanis consider an enemy.
Pakistan's importance in the supply chain also gives it leverage over the U.S. war effort, a power it exercised by closing the Torkham crossing. Officials have continued to denounce the airstrikes - which NATO said were carried outin self-defense - as violations of Pakistani sovereignty.
Pakistan and NATO have since embarked on a joint investigation into the most recent air incursion. Pakistan's foreign minister met in Brussels on Monday with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who apologized for the deaths of the troops and expressed hope that the border "will be open for supplies as soon as possible."
The Pakistani supply route was precarious even before the tensions over the airstrike. In 2008 and 2009, a spate of ambushes, some of which employed rocket-propelled grenades, caused Pakistan to temporarily close border passes, and many drivers refused to make the dangerous trips.
Authorities say thieves who loot the trucks' cargo, sometimes with the complicity of drivers, carry out many such attacks.
Given the unpredictability of the Pakistani roads, NATO announced in June that it had opened a new route into Afghanistan through Central Asia. Some Afghan officials said this week that NATO should continue to reduce its dependence on Pakistan, where the Afghan Taliban insurgency is based.
"It can no longer be sold that because of communication lines, because of transportation, we should be turning a blind eye to whatever is happening there," said Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan's deputy national security adviser. "Afghanistan has five other neighbors. . . . You cannot justify that because of trucks bringing oil to me I would allow terrorists."
Hustle and bustle continued Monday at the Torkham pass, where passenger vehicles and trucks carrying food and other non-NATO supplies crossed freely. But at one muddy field near the crossing, nearly 200 trucks carrying NATO cargo sat idle, their drivers lounging nearby.
The convoys, owned by private contractors, are typically loaded in the southern port of Karachi, then make their way north to the border. Drivers complained Monday that their companies typically provide security in the form of two poorly trained and poorly paid private guards per 10 vehicles, an arrangement that they said was no match for armed gangs or Taliban fighters.
Many said they had spent the last several nights awake, vigilant against attacks on themselves and their cargo. Restaurants and police at checkpoints had chased them away out of fear that they would attract ambushes, they said. One driver said he and his colleagues were each paying about $1.20 a day for an additional private guard.
"No one is worried about us and our lives and financial losses," said Sharif Khan, a truck driver. "Neither the Americans nor our own government or these private contractors are concerned about us."
firstname.lastname@example.org Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Torkham. Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.