NATO’s Frayed Lifeline

There was much fanfare as President Barack Obama announced the eagerly anticipated “AfPak” policy review, what the White House terms is “a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Many have argued, however, that the new AfPak policy is very much a continuation of the old policy with a few tactical grafts from the occupation of Iraq.

Whether or not this is true, one thing that is unlikely to change is the dilemma of supplying the massive military presence in a landlocked country, Afghanistan, surrounded by ambitious emerging powers. There are over 70,000 troops representing 40 nations in Afghanistan. The United States and its NATO allies that make up the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan claim their military presence in the country is vital to rooting out extremism and resurrecting the failed Afghan state.

Most of the supplies for this effort, including around three-quarters of general non-military supplies, are delivered by land through Pakistan. This military lifeline is under serious threat.

Supporting the Troops

All of these supplies reach Pakistan at the southern port city of Karachi. The vast majority of it — everything from weapons to spare parts and petrol — is trucked through two entry points from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The first, which is presently facing the most disruption, is through Peshawar, capital of the Northwestern Frontier Province. From Peshawar it travels toward Torkum, a small town along the Khyber Pass that sits immediately on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. From Torkum, supplies go to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

The other route runs from Chaman, in Pakistan’s southern state of Balochistan, to Kandahar, the southern Afghan city where the Taliban was founded. Although NATO claims to control the city, the region is one of the most volatile in Afghanistan. As a result, the carriage of goods to Kandahar is fraught with danger.

In recent years, and particularly since 2008, pro-Taliban militants and bandits have jeopardized the supply routes through Pakistan’s tribal borders with Afghanistan. Truckers contacted in Karachi allege that errant Pakistani soldiers have skimmed a tidy amount of NATO supplies or have accepted kickbacks to allow black-marketeers to do the same. The manager of one freight company told me that soldiers have stolen entire helicopters and other military hardware from the truck convoys.

Although NATO claims that the theft or destruction of supplies in Pakistan is “insignificant,” the reality is that these convoys are the soft underbelly of its powerful, modern military presence in Afghanistan.

Convoy

Caught in the crossfire are the truck drivers who make the hazardous journey delivering NATO goods. In recent months a string of truckers have been killed or abducted in attacks on their convoys.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that few of the trucks are insured. “We have many claims against [NATO and] the Pakistan government, but our drivers and companies receive nothing,” explained Noor Khan Niazi, president of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association, the representative body for many of the trucking companies that transport NATO supplies.

Companies have taken to hiring only drivers from the tribes who control the regions bordering Afghanistan around Chaman and Torkum. “We pay around 30-35,000 rupees (around $400-$500) per trailer, per [tribe] in protection money,” explained one trucking company manager.

Most truckers invariably come from the largest, most powerful tribes — the Afridi and Shinwari that control the Khyber region, and the Achakzai and Noorzai around Chaman.

Many convoys travel under armed escort, and the Pakistan army has stepped up operations against pro-Taliban militants and bandits disrupting supplies. But these initiatives haven’t proved sufficient to stem the disruptions to NATO’s supplies. For instance, the Taliban recently orchestrated a number of devastating attacks on convoys. A series of strikes on a major trucking terminal in Peshawar have caused a sharp reduction in the volume of supplies. One in early December last year resulted in the destruction of over 160 NATO military vehicles.

Other Roadblocks

Militants aren’t the only ones disrupting the NATO convoys. Last September, for instance, protestors closed the Khyber Pass to NATO convoys because of U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan. In January, members of the tribal communities in Khyber Agency blocked key roads in protest of an unrelated murder of a tribesman during a police raid.

With the alarming increase in such attacks, NATO has been desperately seeking alternative routes to send the bulk of its supplies to Afghanistan. The much-publicized push by the United States to increase foreign military presence in Afghanistan has also added pressure for new supply routes.

Already the United States is considering using roads through Iran. Many basic supplies, like food and fuel, are already transported through the country. Negotiations are also afoot with Afghanistan’s neighboring Central Asian nations, but any deal will also have to be okayed by Russia. For its part, Moscow has already agreed to allow “non-lethal” NATO supplies through the region, but only in limited quantities. Russia has also played a role in Kyrgyzstan’s decision to evict Western forces from Manas Airbase, currently their only airbase in Central Asia. NATO officials have put up a brave face about the eviction, saying it won’t have a major impact. But privately, they’re scrambling to either reopen it or seek an alternate airbase in the region.

These conundrums point to Pakistan’s continuing strategic importance in the conflict against the Taliban. They also underscore the military truism: You’re only as good as your supply line. And NATO is stretched thin.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Mustafa Qadri is a freelance journalist who has covered the Israel-Palestine conflict from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. You can see more of his work at mustafaqadri.net.