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Militant's Killing Threatens NATO Supply Route

Pakistani drivers guide trailers carrying armored vehicles for NATO forces near Quetta. (file photo)
The killing of Pakistan's top Taliban leader could result in another casualty -- a major NATO supply line that runs through the country en route to Afghanistan.

Following the death of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Hakimullah Mehsud in a suspected U.S. drone strike in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on November 1, the governing party in the bordering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province voted to block a NATO supply route that runs through its territory as of November 20.

Officially, such decisions lie with the federal government, which has opposed the strike but so far has taken a cautious approach in its response.

With the closure of the supply route now being debated in Islamabad, there is a possibility -- albeit a slight one -- that national consensus could be reached and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province's decision would be formally adopted.

If not, there is also the possibility that the province could go rogue and blockade the route on its own. Below we chart some of the possible effects such a blockade might have.

High Costs

Previous blockades and attacks on supply lines have forced NATO to establish alternative routes through Central Asia in recent years.

Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, says that 80 percent of supplies to Afghanistan are now carried by air or the Northern Distribution Network.

But Pakistan's seaports and proximity still make it a key avenue for supplying international forces in Afghanistan, and remain the cheapest way for NATO supplies to reach Afghanistan.

Joshi says a blockade would complicate operations. "It would stop some equipment from getting in and it would also make it much, much more expensive because more equipment has to be flown in immediately via air, either from places like Dubai or other ports in the region," he says.

Center Vs. Province

Islamabad is far from united behind the idea of shutting down NATO supplies. The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which is led by former cricket star Imran Khan's Tehrik-e Insaf party, has no control over the country's foreign policy, which is in the hands of its political rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Though both parties have publicly opposed drone strikes carried out in Pakistan, Tehrik-e Insaf has so far failed to unite the country's fragmented political spectrum in its opposition to Islamabad's antiterrorism alliance with Washington.

Observers say that, at best, Tehrik-e Insaf can close the supply route that links Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass. A shorter route through the southwestern province of Balochistan could still cope with most NATO supplies.

Economic Impact

Joshi says that the potential economic harm caused by a NATO supply route closure could persuade Islamabad to prevent the authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from imposing a blockade.

He says that powerful Pakistani interest groups would also likely resist any closure of the route.

"Local Pakistani trucking companies, particularly those involved or affiliated with retired members of the Pakistani army, benefit considerably from hauling American equipment," Joshi says. "I think, if there is a major backlog, if the U.S. increases its dependency on northern routes and shifts away from Pakistan, this will hurt [local suppliers'] own pockets."

The Pakistani economy is struggling with sluggish growth, inflation, an ongoing energy crisis, and diminishing foreign investment. A major diplomatic rift with the West would likely damage foreign aid, and international economic support for the country of 180 million.

Afghan Withdrawal

The blockade of NATO supply routes through Pakistan could disrupt plans to withdraw alliance troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year. Joshi says that a closure of one of the exit routes would make it difficult to remove the vast amounts of equipment NATO has accumulated in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.

But he says that, after dealing with previous blockades, Western forces are better positioned to deal with a potential disruption.

"What's likelier is that the United States will simply decide to destroy some of its equipment -- to sell some of its equipment within Afghanistan to local forces, and I think, it will shift to the northern routes more and more," Joshi says.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.