Another blow to NATO's supplies
KARACHI - Taliban militants are striking terror into the container business handling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) supplies passing through Pakistan on their way to Afghanistan, virtually crippling the operation.
On Saturday, militants destroyed 11 trucks and 13 NATO containers in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), in their sixth attack in 13 days. Overall, they have destroyed approximately 400 containers carrying food, fuel and military vehicles.
If troop deployment is increased in Afghanistan beyond the present 67,000 - nearly half of them from the US - an estimated 70,000 containers will have to be shipped to Afghanistan every year. Currently, about 80% of NATO's supplies pass through Pakistan.
NATO has now been forced to seek alternative - and much more costly - overland routes though Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus and Ukraine. (See NATO seeks out new Afghan supply routes Asia Times Online, December 12, 2008.)
Zia ul-Haq Sarhadi, the chairman of the standing committee for the dry port of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce (the chamber for NWFP), confirmed in a press statement that the surge of attacks on the 11 terminals in Peshawar had created so much terror that people associated with handling the containers, contractors and even drivers are not prepared to do their jobs. This affects non-NATO trade as well.
Kifayatullah Jan, manager at Port World Logistics, a contractor that has been ferrying NATO supplies, commented to Inter Press Service, "For us it may mean we close shop. We can't do business if the government cannot provide us protection." According to Jan, the company and its drivers receive regular threats from militants to "stop transporting supplies to the Americans or face the consequences".
After an earlier raid in Peshawar, a US military spokesperson in Kabul was quoted as saying the losses were "militarily insignificant' and would have only a "minimal effect on our operations'.
This can't disguise NATO's concern though. It has urgently requested Islamabad to assign the Frontier Constabulary (FC), as promised recently, to the security of its supplies. However, the FC said it could not spare any men as they were tied up in combat operations against the Taliban.
In other regional developments, the influential International Council on Security and Development (ICOS - formerly the Senlis Council) said that the Taliban now have a permanent presence in 72% of Afghanistan, up from 54% a year ago.
The Taliban are also closing the noose around the capital Kabul, with three out of four main highways into the city now compromised by the Taliban, according to the report.
There are independent observations that, given the Taliban's activities, other Afghan guerrilla groups such as the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have been emboldened and are playing a more pro-active role in the insurgency. This could see several thousand more fighters as well as resources pitched into the fray next year.
At the same time, following November's attack on Mumbai in India, Pakistan has moved some of its forces from NWFP for deployment on the border with India. And before next summer, Pakistan could have withdrawn at least half its troops along the Afghan border after striking secret peace deals with the Taliban. This will allow the Taliban based in the Pakistani tribal areas to consolidate.
A year back, the Taliban carried out their first attack on a NATO supply line, in Khyber Agency, and boasted they would follow the strategy of Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap in slowly squeezing the enemy into submission.
This was greeted with some derision in Kabul and Brussels as the Taliban were still viewed as a ragtag militia.
Much has changed over the past year, with the Taliban's gains in Afghanistan and with the decision to make a move on Peshawar. The goal was never to seize control of it, but to create terror. And this are doing.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com