New al-Qaeda focus on NATO supplies
KARACHI - The Taliban and al-Qaeda have with some success squeezed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's)supply lines that run through Pakistan into Afghanistan, especially goods in transit in Khyber Agency on the border.
Now, according to Asia Times Online contacts, the target area is being shifted to the southern port city of Karachi, where almost 90% of NATO's shipments land, including vital oil. From this teeming financial center, 80% of the goods go to Torkham in Khyber Agency on their way to the Afghan capital of Kabul. About 10% go to Chaman, then on to the northern Afghan city of Kandahar. The remaining NATO supplies arrive in Afghanistan by air and other routes.
An al-Qaeda member told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, "The single strategy of severing NATO's supply lines from Pakistan is the key to success. If the blockage is successfully implemented in 2008, the Western coalition will be forced to leave Afghanistan in 2009, and if implemented next year, the exit is certain by 2010."
Several al-Qaeda cells have apparently been activated in Karachi to monitor the movement of NATO supply convoys.
This focus on Karachi coincides with two major events. First, the Pakistani armed forces are heavily engaged in fighting against militants in Bajaur Agency and in the Swat Valley in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.
At the same time, the coalition government in Islamabad is preparing to impeach Washington's point man in the region, President Pervez Musharraf, mainly over his implementation of a state of emergency and dismissal of the judiciary last year when he headed a military administration.
The unpopular military operations and the political crisis, which could see Musharraf respond by using his constitutional powers to dissolve parliament, play into al-Qaeda's hands as the government's ability to counter new threats is considerably reduced.
NATO is understandably acutely concerned over protecting its supply lines into land-locked Afghanistan. When routes in Khyber Agency came under attack this year, NATO reached an agreement with Russia for some goods to transit through Russian territory. This alternative is costly, though, given the distances involved, and can only be used in emergencies.
Washington tried to get Iran to permit the passage of goods from its seaports into neighboring Afghanistan, but Tehran refused point-blank.
So NATO is stuck with Pakistan as a transshipment point, along with its political instability.
The latest crisis has it roots in elections in February, following Musharraf stepping down as chief of army staff. The national elections that followed resulted in a coalition civilian government headed by the pro-American liberal and secular Pakistan People's Party and Nawaz Sharif's conservative right-wing Pakistan Muslim League, whose political constituency is traditional and religious segments of society. The Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party and the traditional religious Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam are another mismatch in the coalition.
As a result, from the beginning the coalition was pulled in various directions, with little consensus on key matters such as the "war on terror". Only recently did the parties agree to move ahead on trying to impeach Musharraf.
Pakistan is the strategic backyard for NATO as well as for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. If Musharraf does go, it would be a huge victory for the militants to see off the US ally through whose office millions of dollars of aid are channeled in the "war on terror".
If he stays, debilitating political turmoil is inevitable, and al-Qaeda's sights are already set on the boatloads of containers that carry fuel, armored personnel vehicles, guns, aircraft spares and other military supplies to Afghanistan.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org