My latest column for The Guardian is on the quandaries of supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan:
NATO’s soft underbelly
Nato operations in Afghanistan depend on a precarious international supply system – and the Taliban have realised it
“An army marches on its stomach”, Napoleon apparently once said some two centuries ago. For the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF), those stomachs, literal and metaphorical, are fed by a complex series of supply lines through Pakistan and Central Asia. ISAF’s 62,000 soldiers predominantly come from Nato countries – 8,900 of them, the largest non-US contingent, are British.
Armies are intensely resource-hungry. But when they are operating in Afghanistan, a landlocked country in one of the most politically sensitive regions in the world, the task of keeping them supplied becomes especially challenging.
The first of these challenges is delivering what are termed “lethal supplies”, or ammunition and weapons systems. Because of the risk of theft or destruction posed by delivering these supplies by land, most are flown into the country from airbases in neighbouring Central Asian countries and Pakistan. According to the manager of one freight company I met recently, in the past entire helicopters and other military hardware have been stolen from convoys travelling over land through Pakistan.
This has led western planners to consider bolstering supplies through alternate routes. Already the US is considering using roads through Iran that are already used to deliver basic supplies, like food and fuel. Negotiations are also afoot with Afghanistan’s neighbouring Central Asian nations, but any deal will also have to be okayed by Russia. For its part, Moscow has already agreed to allow “non-lethal” Nato supplies through the region.
Despite these developments, negotiating supply routes through Russia and Iran are a political minefield. The calculations with Iran are easy to understand – because the emerging nuclear power has been economically boycotted by Nato countries, any major deal over supply routes will have to be part of a wider improvement in diplomatic and trade relations.
With Russia, the calculations have much more to do with hegemonic rivalries. Having historically dominated the Central Asian countries, it views the expansion of western forces into the region – along with the conscription of former Eastern European satellite states into Nato – as a serious threat to its security and regional influence.
In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the government ordered the United States and Nato to vacate the vital Manas airbase after Russia offered a better deal. It hasn’t helped that western forces are unpopular with the local population.
These considerations have led Nato countries to rely on Pakistan for the delivery of most supplies. Pakistan also has the advantage of offering the shortest land route to Afghanistan. At present, close to 75% of non-lethal supplies are sent via two land routes in Pakistan. Almost all of these supplies reach Pakistan by sea at the southern port city of Karachi. The vast majority of it – everything from soap to spare parts and petrol – is trucked through two entry points from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
The first, which is facing the most disruption, is through Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). From Peshawar it travels towards Torkum, a small town along the Khyber Pass that sits immediately on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. From Torkum, supplies are eventually transported to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
The other route goes from Chaman, in Pakistan’s southern state of Balochistan, to Kandahar, the southern capital of Afghanistan and original home of both President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban. Although Nato claims to control the city, Kandahar province is one of the most volatile in Afghanistan.
Both Chaman and Torkam and the surrounding regions are home to traditional Pashtun societies. The people in both regions, and particularly the tribal agencies around Torkam, have been fiercely independent for centuries. Smuggling and banditry – the theft of goods and kidnapping for ransom – have occurred here for just as long.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan authorities have only limited control of these regions and tensions between these authorities and the tribes, and between Pakistani and Afghan troops along the border, have been high for decades.
All of this makes for two of the most volatile trade routes in the world. On 27 March a suicide bomber destroyed a mosque near the Khyber Pass supply route, killing at least 24 but possibly more. A Taliban strike last December resulted in the destruction of over 160 Nato military vehicles. Last week in Chaman, two men on a motorbike attacked a truck delivering an excavation machine to Nato. The militant group destroyed a key bridge in the Khyber Pass last month.
The militants are not the only ones disrupting the NATO convoys. Last September, for instance, the Khyber Pass was closed to NATO convoys in protest at US missile strikes in Pakistan. In January, members of the tribal communities in Khyber Agency blocked key roads in protest at the unrelated murder of a tribesman during a police raid.
Truckers blocked the Chaman crossing earlier this month in protest at hikes in taxes by Afghan authorities. And let us not forget the truck drivers who make the perilous journey. Every one of the several truck drivers I’ve spoken to along the road to Chaman and in Karachi share the same sense of trepidation. “We are always fearful [for our safety], but what can I do? A job is a job,” said one driver who had stopped for a cup of tea along the road to Chaman. In recent months a string of truckies have been killed or abducted in convoy attacks.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that few of the trucks are insured. “We have many claims against [Nato and] the Pakistani government, but our drivers and companies receive nothing,” explained Noor Khan Niazi, president of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association, the representative body for many of the trucking companies that transport Nato supplies.
Companies have taken to hiring only drivers from the tribes who control the regions bordering Afghanistan around Chaman and Torkum. “We pay around 30-35,000 rupees (around $600-700) per trailer, per [tribe] in protection money,” explained one trucking company manager.
Some convoys travel under armed escort and the Pakistani army has stepped up operations against pro-Taliban militants and bandits disrupting supplies, but attacks remain frequent.
“[These attacks] do not pose a strategic threat to the ISAF mission,” spokesman Brig-Gen. Richard Blanchette told me this week.
But supply convoys are the soft underbelly of a powerful, modern military force that the Taliban is incapable of matching in conventional combat.