February 5, 2009 – Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey, and Peshawar, Pakistan — A day after blowing up a crucial land bridge, Taliban militants torched 10 supply trucks returning from Afghanistan to Pakistan on Wednesday, underscoring the insurgents’ dominance of the main route used to transport supplies to Afghan-based U.S. and NATO troops.
Months of disruptions on the route from the Pakistani port of Karachi through the historic Khyber Pass have forced NATO and American military authorities to look for other transit options. About three-quarters of the supplies for Western forces in Afghanistan — mainly food and fuel — are ferried through Pakistan by contractors, usually poorly paid, semiliterate truckers. Many now refuse to drive the route because of the danger.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said last month during a visit to the region that routes outside Pakistan had been found, but he provided no details and gave no timetable for their use. The supply question has taken on added urgency with the planned deployment of up to 30,000 more U.S. troops in the Afghan theater in the next 18 months.
The complications of moving supplies through Central Asia were also highlighted Tuesday when the government of Kyrgyzstan said it would close a U.S. air base important to the Afghan war effort. U.S. officials said talks were underway to keep the base open.
Kyrgyzstan’s announcement could bode ill for American efforts to negotiate passage through countries bordering Afghanistan, such as Uzbekistan, particularly if it was clear that the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization were over a barrel.
In response to dozens of Taliban attacks, the Pakistani military launched an offensive late last year in the Khyber tribal agency, which borders Afghanistan, and subsequently declared the Khyber Pass secure. But, as has happened before when the Pakistani army carried out short-term operations in the tribal areas, militant attacks resumed almost immediately after the troops left.
Initially, the Taliban hijacked vulnerable, slow-moving lines of heavy trucks. After Pakistani authorities beefed up their military presence on the roads, the insurgents took to attacking the truck stops in Peshawar, where hundreds of vehicles are backed up at any given time, waiting to cross the Khyber Pass. More than 100 trucks were burned in an attack last year.
Tuesday’s bombing of a 100-foot-long bridge over a dry riverbed about 15 miles west of Peshawar stranded hundreds of truckers.
Pakistani and U.S. officials said the bridge was expected to be repaired soon and that some trucks had been able to cross via a makeshift road.
NATO and U.S. officials in Afghanistan have said the disruption to the supply lines is militarily insignificant so far. Weaponry is transported to Afghanistan by air, although dozens of Humvees have been lost in militant attacks on the supply routes in Pakistan. NATO says it keeps a 60-to-90-day supply of fuel and other goods, but shortages of everyday items, varying from raisins to razor blades, are being felt on bases throughout Afghanistan.
After the bridge attack, militants appeared to be trying to keep Pakistani forces off balance. A Pakistani soldier was wounded Tuesday night when suspected insurgents fired rockets at a base near Landi Kotal, along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Elsewhere in Pakistan’s volatile northwest, Taliban insurgents freed about 30 police officers and paramilitary troops who were captured after their base in the Swat Valley was overrun late Tuesday. The defenders surrendered when they ran out of ammunition.
The freed men said they had agreed to quit their jobs and expressed gratitude to the Taliban for setting them free rather than beheading them, often the fate of captured members of the security forces. A Taliban spokesman said the release was a “humanitarian gesture.”
The freed captives also complained that the Pakistani army had failed to come to their rescue during a 24-hour siege of their remote outpost in the Shamozai district, despite pleas for help. Four officers died in the Taliban attack.