NATO Materiel Threatened in Pakistan

Taliban Attacks on Goods for Afghanistan Mission Viewed With Growing Concern

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 19, 2008; Page A23

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."

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