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How Secure Is NATO's Supply Line In Pakistan?

  • Charles Recknagel

Standing guard near an oil tanker that was allegedly attacked by Taliban militants near the Afghan border in Chaman in July

Standing guard near an oil tanker that was allegedly attacked by Taliban militants near the Afghan border in Chaman in July

For almost a week now, there have been almost daily attacks on NATO's supply line through Pakistan.

The most spectacular of the attacks have destroyed dozens of trucks at a time. On October 4, some 60 trucks were destroyed in northern Pakistan.

That was just days after Islamabad shut down NATO's supply route through the Khyber Pass to Kabul. The government says it is keeping the key Torkham border crossing closed indefinitely due to public anger over a September 30 NATO air strike from Afghanistan that killed at least two Pakistani soldiers.

Yet another spectacular attack hit 40 trucks parked in a terminal near Quetta, in the southwestern province of Baluchistan on October 6. That strike targeted the only supply route through Pakistan that Islamabad has left open, the Chaman border crossing leading to Kandahar.

With trucks going up in flames, and several drivers reported killed, Pakistan transport associations say they desperately need better protection to carry NATO supplies from the port of Karachi to the Afghan border. But despite the importance of the supplies to the alliance, no-one is stepping forward to help.

"It is the [Pakistani] government's responsibility to protect people's lives and property. I can only say that up to this date, no one has provided us any security," Israr Ahmad Shinwari, the information secretary for the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Association, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "The security situation is already complicated, and every third or fourth day our tankers are targeted in different parts of the country, a number of people have been killed in these incidents, and we have suffered huge [economic] losses."

He urged the government in Islamabad to "resolve this issue at all costs and protect people's lives."

"Those who are in this business are compelled to be because the economic conditions are really worse, and they have no other option," Shinwari said.

But just who in the Pakistani government feels responsible for providing the absent security is unclear -- despite the fact that Islamabad is a key partner for NATO in the regional counterterrorism effort.

Immediately after the attack in Quetta, that city's police chief, Malik Mohammad Iqbal, said it was the responsibility of the trucking companies themselves, and not the government, to protect their fleets.

Independent Contractors

The senior superintendent of police in Islamabad, Mir Waiz Niaz, told "The New York Times" this week that "the government gives advice on security and gives advice on where [truckers] can place their terminals, but the security is up to the private contractors."

Telephone calls by Radio Mashaal to senior military and civilian officials have elicited no further comments.

The only thing clear about NATO's supply line via Pakistan is that NATO itself does not and cannot provide security for it. NATO and Washington have some 140,000 troops in Afghanistan but no mandate to put forces in Pakistan to escort convoys.

"ISAF is operating only in Afghanistan, that's the first point. And secondly, from that emerges the fact that ISAF, or NATO, cannot provide security in Pakistan," said Brigadier General Josef Blotz, the spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. "The responsibility for security in Pakistan lies with the Pakistani authorities."

He told Radio Mashaal that the trucks that carry NATO supplies were independent contractors with no organizational ties to the alliance itself.

"These are private individuals who have contracts to supply the alliance, the NATO alliance, here in Afghanistan," Blotz said. "They are private companies, they are Pakistanis who drive trucks or Afghans who drive trucks, but they are not NATO convoys with NATO staff or NATO equipment or a NATO label or NATO legal protection, none of these things apply."

The alliance pays the contract companies after they deliver their supplies to Afghanistan and is widely reported to pay premiums for insurance polices the private contractors obtain from local providers.

The sabotage of the supply line via Pakistan has been a steady concern for NATO over recent years but never has reached the scale seen this week. As so many trucks have been damaged, a perennial debate over just who is attacking the trucks is getting new attention.

Identifying The Culprits

NATO and Pakistani authorities says militant groups with ties to the Taliban are responsible. The groups have equally stepped up attacks on government and military facilities, as well as the civilian targets such as bazaars, across Pakistan as the Pakistani Army has moved against strongholds in the northwest of the country in recent months.

But not everyone agrees it is solely militants who target the trucks. "As far as Baluchistan is concerned, there is no evidence that the Taliban have attacked those trucks or set them on fire or robbed them," Abdul Qadir Baluch, a deputy to the Pakistani parliament from Baluchistan and a former governor of the province, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

"According to the information I have, it is mostly criminals who rob those trucks, unload their products, and sell them," he says. "We haven't observed any clear-cut activity of the Taliban in Baluchistan. A situation like this, where criminals are allowed to act like this and a blind eye is turned to the sale of the products, I would call that evidence of the government's failures."

Some observers believe that truckers themselves may at times pirate their fuel loads to sell on the black market or even destroy old trucks to claim insurance settlements. Police in the district of Nowshera, near Peshawar, recently arrested some truck drivers and their helpers after two attempts to blow up oil tankers there.

Amid such multiple threats to its supply line, NATO has sought to diversify its delivery routes into Afghanistan. The alliance now has two major land routes from Central Asia into northern Afghanistan. One is via the Hairaton border crossing at the Uzbek border, the other via Imam Sahib at the Tajik border.

But most nonlethal supplies for coalition forces in Afghanistan are still routed through Pakistan.

Reuters reported on October 8 that some 150 trucks carrying supplies for NATO remain stranded at the Torkham border crossing while non-NATO traffic continues to cross. The news agency estimated that a total of 6,500 vehicles carrying supplies for NATO are backed up across Pakistan along the 1,500-kilometer route from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass.

NATO and Pakistani officials are still discussing the border crossing closure although top U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and General David Petraeus, have formally expressed Washington's regret for the deaths of the Pakistani soldiers in the September 30 strike. There was still no word on when the border crossing might reopen.

Radio Mashaal correspondents Kasim Khan Mandokhel and Shaheen Buneri and Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sayid Sami Abass contributed to this report

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