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Islamabad Says Blockade On NATO Will Last Until 'Rules Of Engagement' Changed

Pakistanis watch fuel trucks that were set ablaze in the Bolan district of Baluchistan Province on December 12.
Pakistanis watch fuel trucks that were set ablaze in the Bolan district of Baluchistan Province on December 12.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani says his country's blockade of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan -- ordered in retaliation for a deadly NATO helicopter attack in Pakistan -- is likely to stay in place for weeks.

In a December 11 interview with the BBC, Gilani admitted Pakistan was using the blockades on the supply routes as a bargaining chip to get Washington to write new "rules of engagement" for NATO attacks in Pakistan's border region.

Gilani said Pakistan could take further retaliatory action, including the possibility of closing its airspace to the United States -- a move that would further complicate the supply of NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Gilani also told the BBC that neither Pakistan nor the United States trusted each other in the fight against Islamic militancy, and that Islamabad would keep its blockades in place at border crossings into Afghanistan until new rules of engagement were written.

"Yes, there is a credibility gap [between Pakistan and the United States]. We are working together and still we don't trust each other," Gilani said. "I think we have to improve our relationship so that, for better results, we should have more confidence in each other."

Disputed Border Attack

Pakistan's already fragile relations with the United States were shaken further in May when U.S. forces killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani military academy without first notifying Islamabad or Pakistani military authorities.

Pakistani tribesmen stand on a NATO flag during a demonstration against the strikes on Pakistani troops in Islamabad.
Pakistani tribesmen stand on a NATO flag during a demonstration against the strikes on Pakistani troops in Islamabad.
But relations fell to a new low on November 26, when two NATO helicopter strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in what Pakistan's military has called a deliberate attack.

Washington has expressed regret about the strikes on the two Pakistani border posts, but says there will be no apology until an investigation determines exactly what the Pakistani soldiers were doing when the air strikes were called in by nearby NATO ground troops in Afghanistan.

Within hours of the helicopter attacks, Pakistan cut the two main routes in its territory for transporting NATO supplies into Afghanistan -- the Khyber Pass that goes from the border town of Torkham to Kabul and a route through Pakistan's Baluchistan Province that passes from the border town of Chaman on to Kandahar.

Those two routes account for about one-third of all cargo that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ships into Afghanistan.

Northern Route Gains Importance

Another one-third of NATO's supplies are flown directly into Afghanistan, while the remaining cargo goes overland along the so-called "northern distribution network," which passes through Central Asia from the Caucasus or Russia.

With some supplies for Afghanistan's fledgling security forces also passing through Pakistan, a sustained blockade by Islamabad could threaten efforts by the United States and its allies to build up the Afghan armed forces ahead of the planned 2014 withdrawal of international forces from the country.

Gilani's threat to keep the blockade in place on NATO deliveries through Pakistan also raises the importance of the alternative route through Central Asia.

That could lead to further negotiations between NATO and Central Asia states, as well as Russia and Caucasus transit countries like Azerbaijan, that would allow greater amounts of cargo or the inclusion of weapons and ammunition along the northern distribution network.

Seeking End To Pakistan Reliance

Before 2009, most supplies for the 140,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan were shipped to the port of Karachi in Pakistan and then transported by truck into Afghanistan.

But after a series of ambushes against its supply trucks in Pakistan in 2009, NATO began to negotiate transit rights with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Those negotiations took almost a year to complete.

Germany and the United States have been allowed to use the northern route through Central Asia to receive nonlethal supplies. But that route had been closed to NATO forces as a whole, as well as for delivering weapons, ammunition, or other combat supplies to Afghanistan.

Even before Islamabad imposed its blockade, ISAF forces and the U.S. military had decided to push supply networks away from their reliance on Pakistan. In July, more than half of all ground-transported supplies arrived in Afghanistan through Khyber or Chaman.

Since then, the United States has been trying to reduce its supply transit through Pakistan to about 25 percent of overland cargo.

ISAF said the move was aimed at "reducing reliance on any single line of communication to avoid any unnecessary vulnerabilities should that network become unavailable."

Not Many Other Options

Pakistan has briefly closed supply routes through its territory on two earlier occasions -- once after crossborder NATO air strikes in the autumn of 2010 that killed three Pakistani soldiers and again in April when thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated against NATO drone strikes by rallying on a key highway.

The routes through Pakistan are also vulnerable to attacks by insurgents. Since the blockade was imposed, militants have carried out several attacks on NATO supply trucks that have been backed up in Pakistan near the border. The latest such attack, which killed one driver and destroyed several NATO supply trucks, happened early on December 12.

Afghanistan also has a border with Turkmenistan to the northwest and Tajikistan to the north, as well as a small remote border with China in mountainous territory in the far northeast. But the border with China is too remote and high-altitude to create a major transit route.

A convenient and relatively cheap link through Iran's port of Chabahar into western Afghanistan is ruled out because of hostile relations between Tehran and Washington.

U.S. forces early on December 12 completed their withdrawal from the remote Shamsi Air Field in southern Pakistan. The withdrawal from that air field, used mostly as a maintenance and refueling base for unmanned U.S. drone aircraft, began on December 5 after talks by telephone between Gilani and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But that withdrawal is expected to have little impact on the drone campaign because most drone attacks in the Afghan-Pakistani border region originate from air fields in Afghanistan.

with agency reports
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