Risky Pakistan route imperils Afghanistan bound U.S. supplies

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 15, 2010 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The proportion of supplies for American troops in Afghanistan passing through Pakistan has dropped by half in the past two years, as attacks and bureaucratic delays have forced Pakistani transport companies and individual truck drivers to reconsider the job.

While investigations have found no high-level extremist involvement behind recent attacks on the supply convoys, U.S. officials said, the risks of the journey through Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan remain high, with some 150 trucks burned and several drivers killed this month.

"Price and reward don't seem to balance out any more. A lot of people are talking about getting out of the business," said Nadeem Khan, the chief executive of Raaziq International, a Pakistani transportation company that sub-contracts to truckers for delivery into Afghanistan. "You reach a point where you wonder: Is it worth it?"

Friday saw another attack in Pakistan, when gunmen ambushed a truck that had just returned from Afghanistan, killing the driver and his assistant. The main border crossing at Torkham was closed at the end of September for 10 days in protest of the accidental death of two Pakistani soldiers guarding the border. They were killed by American helicopter fire.

The issue of military supplies passing through Pakistan goes to the heart of the current debate in Washington over the war in Afghanistan and the fight against global terrorism: Is Pakistan a reliable ally?

It's unclear who was behind the attacks on the trucks and some suspect the involvement of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency or its proxies.

"It's not very hard for militants to target the trucks and the Torkham closure created targets of opportunity for them," said Kamran Bokhari, director for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor, a geopolitical consultancy. "There is a long-standing view in Washington that such attacks are done by the militant assets of the ISI. The (general) suspicion in Washington towards the Pakistan army and the ISI seems to be increasing."

The Torkham crossing near Peshawar, the main Pakistani route, which delivers goods into western Afghanistan, reopened on Oct. 10 after a closure that had caused long lines of trucks at the border and a backup of thousands of trucks that had to park along the way and wait it out. The other route, through the city of Quetta, to the crossing at Chaman, which enters southern Afghanistan, remained open.

Khan estimated that carrying NATO supplies is worth $5 billion to the struggling Pakistani economy and employs 30,000 people, if all the dependent businesses are counted.

Remarkably, trucks traveling through Pakistan have no security: no armed guards and no escorts, with the vehicles looking like any other commercial traffic in the country.

The industry is a sensitive and secretive business in a country with rampant anti-Americanism. It's a private business, but unlike other private enterprises, it seems that the Pakistani authorities don't think they need provide it with any security.

Following the recent attacks, the police chief of the western city of Quetta, Malik Mohammad Iqbal, and the a senior Islamabad police officer, Mir Waiz Niaz, said they had no responsibility for protecting NATO supplies

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Islamabad said: "The U.S. has been involved in investigating who's behind these attacks, and so far, there's no evidence or proof that any actual militant group have been involved. However, there may be some lower level militants using these attacks on fuel trucks as a way to establish bona fides, but that does not establish a pattern of concentrated operational planning by Taliban on these resources."

A U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that criminal elements and rival truckers are thought to be behind the attacks. He added that there's no evidence of Pakistani state involvement.

The official said that 2,000 to 3,000 trucks with U.S. supplies are on the move through Pakistan on any given day, on a journey to the Afghan border that takes each truck one to two weeks. Less than 1 percent of the supplies are lost on their way through Pakistan, he said.

The alternative route to get supplies into Afghanistan, through central Asia, entering the country from the north, is rapidly developing but takes much longer and costs more. The goods come from Riga, Latvia, and traverse Russia, or through the Caucasus — Georgia and Azerbaijan — and across the Caspian Sea. These major routes thread Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, then on to Afghanistan.

Cynthia Bauer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Transportation Command, which is based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., said that the dependence on Pakistan had been cut from roughly 80 percent to 40 percent over the last two years, with another 40 percent now going through central Asia and 20 percent by more expensive air routes.

However, Bauer said that given the surge in American troops — roughly 100,000 U.S. soldiers now deployed in Afghanistan — the total volume of supplies passing through Pakistan remain much the same.

U.S. supplies are contracted to a global logistics firm — the Danish giant Maersk has the largest chunk of the business — which then hires a Pakistani freight forwarding business. In turn, the freight forwarders hire local trucking companies for each load.

Asad Gill, chief executive of Cosmic Transportation, a Pakistani freight forwarding business, said that margins had collapsed in recent years as competition mushroomed. He said that it used to take six to seven days to deliver goods from Karachi to Kabul via Peshawar, but today it takes 15 to 20 days, as trucks are held up at multiple checkpoints.

"This business is in the national interest, but were losing out because of bureaucratic delays," said Gill.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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