25 October 2010
Continuing attacks on NATO supply routes through Pakistan are threatening ISAF in neighbouring Afghanistan, as Anthony Tucker-Jones reports…
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan remains almost completely reliant on neighbouring Pakistan. Around 75 per cent of all non-lethal supplies required by the 130,000 ISAF troops come via the Pakistani port of Karachi and are then trucked north. For road traffic there are essentially just two key crossing points over the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In southern Pakistan the road runs from the city of Quetta to Chaman through the Khojak Pass across the border up to Kandahar, which sits astride Afghanistan's great ring road. To the north the road runs from Islamabad through Peshawar to the Khyber Pass and over the border to Jalalabad and on to Kabul. In contrast militants are able to cross the border via the innumerable mountain footpaths, many of which were developed during the Soviet-Afghan War.
In recent years American forces have taken considerable steps to secure Kunar province to the north of the Khyber. This was in response to insurgents filtering through the Pech and Kunar valleys toward Kabul. American Marine, Mountain and Airborne units have established a string of bases in the Pech, Waygal, Shuryak, Chowkay and Korengal valleys. There are rumours that elements of the 9/11 attack were planned in the Korengal. Similarly there are rumours that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri used this route to regularly transit in and out of Pakistan. It seems though it is far easier to cut off ISAF from Pakistan than it is the insurgents.
The Pakistani government is under increasing pressure from Washington to crack down on the unrest and lawlessness that is blighting supply convoys in the border regions. The different Pakistani militant groups, including the Taliban, have the ability to strike with seeming ease. The All Pakistan Oil Tankers Association says that its exposed drivers, working as contractors for the military, are open targets for the militants.
The NATO-ISAF supply routes are highly vulnerable, a fact not missed by the Taliban. Convoys have little or no security and the Pakistani Police state that it is impossible to provide 24-hour protection. As a result NATO civilian supply lorries have been regularly targeted in Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar and the southern province of Baluchistan since the summer of 2008. In the border areas the Taliban regularly hijack lorries, kidnap the drivers and steal their cargos on a regular basis. In the Khyber tribal region militants have wrecked or seized dozens of NATO transport vehicles.
Worryingly the Taliban now claim they have set up a special unit to target the convoys and that this strategy will not cease until the supply routes have been completely severed. The Taliban scored a notable propaganda coup when they filmed themselves with seized American Humvees in November 2008, which had been destined for US forces across the border in Afghanistan. Once more there were red faces all around.
The threat came to a dramatic head on 4 October 2010 when a dozen armed men swarmed into a NATO vehicle depot near Rawat outside the Pakistani capital Islamabad. The convoy was preparing to pass through the Khyber Pass to the Torkam border crossing. However, the crossing had been closed for five days following a very public row between Pakistan and NATO.
The Pakistani authorities were furious after a NATO airstrike killed three Pakistani soldiers. NATO helicopters had chased Taliban fighters across the border in late September and NATO argued that the crews were acting in self-defence after being fired on by a Pakistani checkpoint. Pakistan's decision to close the border left lorries and tankers exposed all along the lengthy supply routes from Karachi. While over 200 trucks carrying NATO supplies were trapped at the border post, according to the oil tankers association over 3,000 tankers were stranded across Pakistan.
This meant that supplies could only be brought into northern Afghanistan via Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Militants were quick to strike at such tempting targets. Perhaps predictably at the beginning of October almost 30 supply lorries were set on fire in Pakistan's southern Sindh province. This was followed by the attack at Rawat that claimed 27 tankers. In total well over 100 fuel tankers headed for Afghanistan were set ablaze. Understandably in Karachi local transport associations have been demanding better security from the authorities.
The more cynical allege that organised crime is also behind these attacks. Oil tanker owners claim the destruction is suspicious; that in some cases NATO contractors are siphoning off the fuel and then blowing up their elderly vehicles to hide their tracks and claiming compensation from NATO for both the trucks and cargo. That way they profit twice from the situation. Despite crude attempts at fraud the main threat to the truckers remains the Taliban.
Earlier in June this year around a dozen militants walked into a vehicle depot just six miles outside Islamabad and shot up 20 lorries, setting them on fire. The attackers quickly escaped in two cars and on motorbikes leaving behind millions of dollars worth of destruction along with seven dead and four wounded. Alarmed at the complete lack of security, local truckers closed the grand trunk road between Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar before the police managed to move them on.
It is not just NATO convoys that are under threat. In mid-July a civilian convoy was ambushed en route from Parachinar to Peshawar leaving 18 dead. The attack was blamed on sectarian violence between Pakistani Shia and Sunni Muslims. The convoy, which was under the protection of the Pakistani security forces, was attacked with automatic weapons at Char Khel in the Kurram region. Suicide bombers also continue to target both civilian and military convoys. In recent years North-West Pakistan has experienced continual violence against the security forces as they go about their business.
Despite the Taliban publicly acknowledging they are targeting the trucks and tankers, the Pakistani government refuses to step up security. It has also been alleged that Pakistan's intelligence and security forces are deliberately looking the other way to encourage the attacks to punish NATO for the border violations. ISAF claims its operations remain unaffected by the destruction of these vital supply convoys, but behind the scenes it must be looking at alternatives in order to reduce its reliance on ever-volatile Pakistan. Clearly ISAF cannot sit idly by while the Taliban strangles it.Anthony Tucker-Jones is a former Defence Intelligence analyst and author of the recently published 'The Rise of Militant Islam.'
HAVE YOUR SAY
25 October 2010
if we cant defend NATO Convoys now, What chance after all the cuts .Our enemys grow stronger, and the west gets weaker. That surely means something will go bang , sooner or later
criss of herts - london
26 October 2010
How convenient for NATO that these convoys keep getting attacked in Pakistan. Before you can say "OBL died years ago", the US forces under the guise of protecting these routes will have taken over thousands of square miles of Pakistani territory.
"Now...about those nukes."
Karlo - Northwich
07 February 2011
Shades of the Atlantic in WW2, intelligence was at the root of the defeat of the U Boat in that threat and most other's since.
Barratt - Bakewell
18 June 2011
Stop all aid.
frees all there assets.
Fly in all supplies.
Don't import from them.
JE - LONDON
27 October 2011
It's easy to criticise Pakistan for not pulling their weight and for secretly supporting the Taliban. But why should we need their help in the first place?
Ideally, we would have armed forces that would be able to accomplish any task given them in a matter of weeks, without our needing to form military alliances with other countries, and without having a major impact on the environment. They would be able to do all this covertly, where that was desirable for political reasons.
The Pakistanis have plenty to answer for, they've been two-faced from the beginning of the War on Terror. But let's not go overboard putting blame on a country which, even if it did have the will to fight the Taliban, lacks the resources of the US or even the UK. If things in Afghanistan are'nt going as well as they might be, the effectiveness of our own forces is the first thing we should look at.
Historically, Western militaries have often been slow in adopting new technology and new tactical ideas, even when their effectiveness is proven. I don't think the history of the campaign in Afghanistan to date exactly disproves that notion. The numbers of UAVs and special forces operators are increasing, but the way in which most units operate has'nt changed greatly during the conflict.
J. Southworth - University of Hull
14 November 2011
From a strategic perspective, it might well be argued that control of the north Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman is critical to the ultimate success or failure of the War on Terror. For obvious geographic reasons, both of the principal sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Pakistan, depend on imports and exports through this region. The imposition of a blockade would have drastic economic effects on both countries.
If acting true to form, Iran and Pakistan would of course retaliate by attacking the shipping of other countries. In order to prevent this, it would be necessary to establish regional air superiority, neutralise Iranian and Pakistani long range artillery, and deploy ground forces on both the Iranian and Pakistani shores, to prevent attacks using small fast boats, of the kind that were seen during the Iran-Iraq war. This perhaps provides an example of how it is sometimes possible to turn terrorism back on itself, to use it as a justification for taking action against it's sponsors.
As a temporary measure, it might be possible to re-route oil exports from Kuwait and Iraq through Saudi Arabia to Jiddah on the Red Sea.
J. Southworth - University of Hull