The recent spate of attacks on NATO’s supply convoys in Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar and the adjacent Khyber Tribal Agency has not only tested Pakistan’s much-touted performance in the global war on terror, but has also compelled U.S-led forces in Afghanistan to dispense with what some Western officials call the “dependency syndrome” of using only Pakistan as a major supply route for NATO and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Previously, most of the supply convoys came under attack somewhere in the remote parts of the Khyber agency of the tribal belt – the lawless region that straddles Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is disturbing, however, that the latest spike of attacks happened at depots and terminals in the city of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where militants razed to ashes hundred of trucks and containers in recent weeks. All these vehicles and containers loaded with goods were destined for NATO forces based in Afghanistan.
The attacks on NATO convoys have put enormous pressure on Pakistan, and thus its security forces began an operation in early January to root out militants and Taliban fighters in the suburbs of Peshawar and parts of the Khyber Tribal Agency. These militants, according to local officials, have attacked NATO supply convoys and supply depots in recent months with rockets and missiles. As part of the Pakistani military offensive code-named “Daraghalam” (“Here I come”), authorities temporarily closed the main road connecting Pakistan with Afghanistan. Security forces arrested dozens of people and demolished the homes of influential tribal elders for allegedly providing shelter to Taliban militants involved in the attacks. Tribal authorities have claimed 80 percent success in the current military operation conducted jointly by the Pakistan army and local paramilitary troops (The News [Islamabad], December 31, 2008; Daily Times [Lahore], January 2, 2008). At the same time, while considering these attacks as a symptom of a bigger problem in the War on Terrorism, Washington and its Western allies have started exploring ways to replace Pakistan as a transit country by re-routing the supply lines and lines of communication. Besides Russia, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors, like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, seem to be potential partners in establishing new routes for NATO supplies (Daily Times, November 14, 2008).
The issue is gaining an explosive political dimension because the region’s religious parties have for the first time opposed the use of Pakistan’s soil as a major route for supplies headed to Western forces based in Afghanistan. Addressing thousands of angry protesters in Peshawar two weeks ago, leaders of the radical religious party Jammat-e-Islami said, “It is a shame for an Islamic country to provide logistics to the U.S. forces, which are working against the interests of Muslims all over the world.” The rally demanded the government abandon its role as an ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, and warned if logistical support came through Pakistan soil, Jamma-e-Islami leaders would mobilize the masses to rise up and drive U.S. and NATO forces from their land. Amid the chanting of slogans like “Death to America” and “No supplies to NATO,” one of the religious leaders urged the gathering, "You, the brave people of the Frontier province and Tribal Areas, should at least show your hate against supply to United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan by displaying black flags on the routes through which the vehicles pass" (Daily Statesman [Peshawar], December 19, 2008).
Important but Dangerous: The Khyber Pass
The famous Khyber Pass is a vital and important route connecting Central Asia to the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent via Afghanistan. For centuries it has been the key trade route between Central Asia and South Asia. Similarly, the historic Khyber Pass is no stranger to wars and conflicts, as it was used for centuries by different invaders to enter India. During the 19th century Afghan Wars, the Khyber Pass was a battleground for numerous clashes between Anglo-Indian soldiers and native Afghans. This mountainous pass through craggy hills was again the focus of global attention during the 1980s, when the Afghans fought against Soviet aggression with the help of the United States, Pakistan, and the Arab countries.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, the Khyber Pass once again gained critical importance, as the bulk of the supplies and equipment required by US-led forces battling the Taliban insurgency started shipping equipment through it. According to a Coalition forces official in Kabul, more than 70 percent of their supplies go through Peshawar and the Khyber tribal agency, while the remaining 30 percent go by air or use other roads. Flying in supplies is very expensive and does not allow large amounts of equipment to be brought in at once, while the main alternate land route through Pakistan, from Karachi to Quetta and on to Kandahar city, runs through a Taliban stronghold. Alternatives to Coalition forces are limited and consequently they remain heavily dependent on the Karachi-Khyber Pass route (The Nation, [Islamabad] December 12, 2008).
This route was considered to be insecure from day one of the intervention because of the fragile security situation in the tribal belt and the ever-growing anti-Americanism in the region since the U.S invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. However, apart from occasional attacks, the route was safe for several years despite that the pro-Taliban six-party religious alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), was in power in the North West Frontier Province from 2002 to 2007. Many believe the MMA government was taken into confidence by Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf at the time agreements were signed and later renewed with the United States and NATO for providing transit facilities to their forces in Afghanistan (Daily Statesman [Peshawar] December 20). The situation worsened due to the increase in militant activities in the Khyber Tribal Agency (see Terrorism Monitor, May 29, 2008).
Taliban militants, who have controlled large parts of the North and South Waziristan agencies for the last few years have long had their eyes on the Khyber Agency because of its importance as a vital logistical life-line for the U.S-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. Baitullah Mehsud, head of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan – an umbrella organization of Pakistani Taliban – told media local media in early 2007 that he would “cut off” supply lines for Coalition forces through the Khyber Pass by the end of 2008 (Daily Times, December 9, 2008).
At the time, this claim looked like a far-fetched dream. However, the ground realities show that local Taliban forces have been trying to fulfill their leader’s objective. The last few months of 2008 were the worst for NATO convoys as Taliban gunmen have destroyed, stolen, or looted hundred of trucks and containers destined for Afghanistan. The killing of around 80 drivers from NATO’s convoys by militants, mostly in the last year, speaks volumes about the insecurity of the route (Daily Times, December 15, 2008). Besides conducting raids on militants and conducting low-level military operations in the region, Islamabad has also tried to use local tribal chiefs for the protection of the convoys. As a result, many tribal elders from the Khyber Agency signed agreements with the authorities promising to provide protection to vehicles bound for foreign troops in Afghanistan (Daily Times, June 3, 2008).
None of these measures worked as the Taliban went ahead with brazen attacks on the NATO supply lines. In November 2008, Taliban militants loyal to Baitullah Mahsud snatched and plundered 13 containers at three different places on the Peshawar-Torkham Road in the Jamrud area of Khyber Tribal Agency. Besides goods meant for NATO troops, the militants also captured two Humvees. The highjacking of NATO convoys on the main Khyber Pass route was disturbing, but more worrisome was the impression given to the local population by militants posing for photographs and showing their booty to the media (Daily Dawn [Islamabad], November 12, 2008; The News, December 9, 2008). This situation compelled thousands of vehicle owners and truck drivers to stop running supplies to Afghanistan (The News, December 15, 2008).
At a time when President-elect Barrack Obama is talking about a troop surge in Afghanistan, Pakistan seems to dominate the foreign policy agenda of the next administration. In such a situation, Pakistan needs to use its strategic location and the leverage created by the landlocked situation of Afghanistan wisely. There are many in Pakistan who believe that if they were to stop this flow of resources, the U.S-led military operation would come to a grinding halt. Such people, particularly some TV anchors on popular private TV channels, have strongly urged the government to take a tough stand by using what they call this “awesome leverage” in dealing with the United States and NATO (Daily Dawn, August 1, 2008). The example, they say, should be Islamabad’s decision to temporarily cut off NATO supplies last September as retaliation against the U.S. drone attacks in the NWFP.
Pakistan’s Minister of Defense, Chaudry Ahmad Mukhtar, has been quoted as saying that his country is serious about safeguarding its territorial integrity – a reference to the U.S drone attacks inside Pakistan’s tribal belt (Daily Times, September 7, 2008). But there are those who think that transporting material for the Coalition forces in Afghanistan has for many years been a hugely profitable business, not only for the long-distance shippers of Pakistan – transporters, drivers, loaders, and ancillary staff, but also for the government of Pakistan, which receives a huge reimbursement of economic and military aid for providing these logistical facilities. The search for alternative routes by the United States and its NATO allies indicates they are trying hard to get rid of the “dependency syndrome” of reliance on routing their supplies through Pakistan. If the search for an alternative route is successful, Pakistan will not lose its much talked about role as a “front line state” in the War on Terrorism, but it will suffer heavy economic losses, as will thousands of local transporters involved in shipping NATO supplies to Afghanistan.