The Taliban Movement of Pakistan (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan or TTP) claimed on Monday that it was responsible for yet another attack on NATO fuel trucks, this time near Islamabad. Some twenty trucks were set ablaze and 6 people were killed. The trucks were parked in a poorly guarded area near the capital, awaiting permission to cross into Afghanistan at Torkham, the Pakistani checkpoint at the Khyber Pass. Since Friday, Pakistan has closed the crossing to US and NATO military supply vehicles, as a way of protesting the attack last Thursday by US helicopter gunships flying from Afghanistan on a Pakistani checkpoint inside Pakistan, which killed and wounded Pakistani Frontier Corpsmen. A similar attack took place near Shikarpur in Sindh on Thursday night.
The closing of the Khyber crossing and the exposure of stalled NATO convoys to attacks by Muslim extremists has roiled Islamabad’s relations with Washington. The Pakistani government appears to have felt that it had no choice but to take some visible action against the US, given the public rage throughout the country over the US attack on the Pakistani checkpoint and US violations of Pakistani sovereignty.
Some 75 percent of supplies (food, ammunition, even military vehicles) and 50 percent of the fuel needed by US and NATO troops in Afghanistan flow from the Arabian Sea port of Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh Province up highways to Peshawar and then across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. The convoys are being impeded not only by the closure to them of the crossing at Torkham but also by all the bridges and highways washed out by Pakistan’s recent massive flooding.
High US officers in Afghanistan are said to be furious about the Pakistani closure of the Khyber pass to their convoys. Some one hundred trucks are waiting at Torkham. After Monday’s attack on more fuel trucks, the officers must be even more angry.
Pakistan receives aid monies in recognition of its help with transiting supplies, and the American officers are reported by Pakistan’s “The News” daily to have threatened Islamabad with a cut-off of that aid if the boycott continues. They also are exploring other routes for resupply, including using the Latvia port of Riga to offload the cargo and then putting it on trains through Russia to Uzbekistan and thence Afghanistan. It would also be possible to ship from Russia through Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (the latter has a lively trade with Afghanistan, which it borders). A third route would be to ship through the Bosphorus Straits to the Black Sea, offloading at Georgia, going through the Russian Caucasus, and taking the goods across the Caspian to Kazakhstan and thence to Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. This route is costly and inconvenient since it would require loading and unloading the materiel several times, according to “The News.” It however points out that the Karachi-to-Khyber route is by far the shortest, least expensive and most convenient.
The Central Asian republics may also be reluctant to be drawn into the conflict by becoming transit points for US military goods, as “The News” says. The Taliban have already increased their attacks in Qunduz in the north in part to block Afghan trade with Tajikistan and to intercept the military goods already coming in via that route. Tajikistan suffered a civil war in the 1990s and would not be eager to return to violence by picking a fight with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
So the US may be done out with Pakistan, and vice versa, but as long as the US and NATO are fighting in Afghanistan, likely Pakistan is the indispensable country for them.
Even inside Afghanistan, convoys are often attacked or are guarded by a ragtag band of private companies, which President Hamid Karzai plans to get rid of, even though there is nothing to put in their place. They have been accused of demanding big bribes.