My latest piece, on the disruptions to NATO supplies through Pakistan, was published at NewMatilda.com today:
There are over 50,000 troops representing 40 nations in Afghanistan. The US and its NATO allies comprising the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan believe their military presence in the country is vital to rooting out extremism and resurrecting the failed Afghan state.
Most of the supplies for this effort, including around three-quarters of general non-military supplies, are delivered by land through Pakistan.
All of the supplies reach Pakistan at the southern port city of Karachi. The vast majority of it — everything from weapons to spare parts and petrol — is trucked through two entry points from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The first, which is presently facing the most disruption, is through Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province. 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 destined for Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
The other route goes from Chaman, in Pakistan’s southern state of Balochistan, to Kandahar, the southern Afghan city where the Taliban was founded. Although NATO claims to control the city, the region is one of the most volatile in Afghanistan. As a result, the carriage of goods to Kandahar is fraught with danger.
In recent years, and particularly since 2008, the supply routes through Pakistan’s tribal borders with Afghanistan have been placed in jeopardy by pro-Taliban militants and bandits. It is alleged by some truckers contacted in Karachi that errant soldiers have skimmed a tidy amount of NATO supplies too, or have accepted kickbacks to allow black-marketeers to do the same. The manager of one freight company told newmatilda.com that entire helicopters and other military hardware have been stolen from the truck convoys.
Although NATO claims that the theft or destruction of supplies in Pakistan is “insignificant”, the reality is that these convoys are the soft underbelly of its powerful, modern military presence in Afghanistan.
Caught in the crossfire are the truck drivers who make the hazardous journey delivering NATO goods. In recent months a string of truckies have been killed or abducted in attacks on their convoys.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that few of the trucks are insured. “We have many claims against [NATO and] the Pakistan 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 AU$600-700) per trailer, per [tribe] in protection money,” explained one trucking company manager.
Most truckers invariably come from the large, powerful Afridi and Shinwari tribes that control the region that includes the Khyber Pass.
Many convoys travel under armed escort and the Pakistan army has stepped up operations against pro-Taliban militants and bandits disrupting supplies. But these initiatives too have not proved sufficient to stem the disruptions to NATO’s supplies.
The Taliban have recently orchestrated a number of devastating attacks on convoys. A series of strikes on a major trucking terminal in Peshawar have caused a sharp reduction in the volume of supplies. One in early December last year resulted in the destruction of over 160 NATO military vehicles.
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.
With the alarming increase in such attacks, NATO has been desperately seeking alternative routes to send the bulk of its supplies to Afghanistan. The very public push by the United States to increase the foreign military presence in Afghanistan has also added pressure for new supply routes.
Already the US is considering using roads through Iran, although many basic supplies, like food and fuel, are already transported through the country. 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.
The conundrums point to Pakistan’s continuing strategic importance in the conflict against the Taliban. They also suggest that defeating the Taliban may ironically have as much to do with logistics as warfare.