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Taliban Pressures NATO Supply Lines in Pakistan

By Gary Thomas
29 April 2009

Although Taliban fighters are battling Pakistani army troops only 100 kilometers from the capital, analysts downplay the potential for a direct armed takeover by the Islamic militants. However, there is a potential for them not only to ratchet up suicide attacks, but also to put greater pressure on the routes ferrying supplies through Pakistan to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Analysts say the move by Pakistan-based Taliban fighters out of their traditional base in the tribal areas along the border could spell trouble for the Obama administration's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

The U.S. plan calls for increasing troop levels in Afghanistan as well as a gradual increase in counterinsurgency aid for Pakistan.

More troops will require more supplies. Landlocked Afghanistan can be supplied only overland and by air. And the most viable overland supply lines run through Pakistan, which is locked in its own insurgency.

Kamran Bokhari, an analyst with the private intelligence firm Stratfor, points out that the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban have different primary goals. The Pakistani Taliban wants to destabilize the Islamabad government, while the Afghan Taliban wants to force Western troops out of Afghanistan.

"Obviously, striking at the supply line is helping the brethren across the border in Afghanistan. But there is a complex disconnect between those who say the focus of the fighting or the insurgency should be in Afghanistan and those who say we should raise an uprising against the Pakistani state. So definitely, they're helping their guys on the other side. But at the same time, they have these other differences that are running parallel. It's like cooperation and competition taking place in tandem," he said.

Seventy percent of Western supplies to NATO forces have to pass through lawless ground in the tribal areas of Baluchistan and militant-held areas in the North-West Frontier Province. Supplies are offloaded in the port city of Karachi and trucked to depots in Peshawar, then through the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul.

The Khyber Pass, which has been a supply and trade route since the time of Alexander the Great, is particularly vulnerable. Blowing up a bridge there can shut down convoy traffic for days, as has happened at least seven times since last September. The depots and terminals that store supplies in Peshawar also have been plagued by suspected Taliban sabotage.

But the convoys are not escorted by either U.S. or Pakistani forces. Using American troops is politically untenable in Pakistan, so the United States uses Pakistani security contractors rather than enlisting the Pakistan army for security.

Stratfor analyst Kamran Bokhari says that does not sit well with Islamabad. "They don't want the United States overriding them and making their own direct channels with local security contractors and other firms and transportation company. So that's their main incentive. Second of all, if the army is doing it or is in charge of ferrying all these supplies and making sure they reach their destinations, there is a monetary incentive in that because there's a lot of money involved and the military will get a cut in that," he said.

Brian Cloughley, a former Australian army military attaché in Islamabad, says the system is riddled with corruption even among the contractors. "There's quite a lot of underhanded maneuvering concerning contracts and, of course, the actual passage of vehicles because one contractor can perhaps say, 'Right, if you are not going to pay me off, I will ensure that your convoy is torched [i.e., burned],'" he said.

Retired Lieutenant General Ali Aurakzai, former army corps commander in Peshawar and former governor of the North-West Frontier Province, says that even if the supplies are not weapons-related, the routing of NATO convoys through the province nevertheless is resented among local tribespeople.

"The plea [position] that the militants have taken is that the government of Pakistan allows these convoys to use our territory where ammunition and weapons are transported to Afghanistan, and then the same weapons and ammunition are used against us in the form of drone attacks and helicopters coming and artillery fire coming across from Afghanistan and killing innocent people in the tribal areas," he said.

There are also air routes, but those supply lines have been subjected to political pressures. The United States has been trying to persuade Kyrgyzstan not to close the Menas air base in the central Asian state, which has been used to move military personnel and goods in and out of Afghanistan. The U.S. had an air base in Uzbekistan, but was evicted in 2005 in a dispute over that country's poor human rights record. The U.S. has also started moving some supplies through Russia and other central Asian states. But Pakistan remains the most direct route - if not the safest one.

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