Afghan wrestles with protecting NATO supply routes

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's top security officials are urging President Hamid Karzai to establish a new military-run trucking system to take control of critical NATO supply routes now protected by a rag-tag network of unsavory private security firms slated to be disbanded by year's end.

With the Karzai-imposed deadline looming to shutter the nation’s private convoy protection companies, Afghanistan officials told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday that they are calling the creation of a new state-run military brigade equipped with its own trucks and thousands of soldiers to ferry essential NATO supplies around the country.

But Afghan leaders have yet to figure out how to confront the most vexing issue facing Afghan supply routes: How to co-opt powerful local highway barons who alternatively protect and attack NATO convoys depending on whether or not they are paid to look after the supply routes.

Creation of a state-controlled trucking system could be the next step in Afghanistan’s efforts to adequately protect NATO supply routes from constant attacks that continually threaten convoys that supply everything from ammunition to food for the 150,000 U.S.-led troops battling Taliban-led insurgents in the South Asian nation.

If Karzai approves the proposal, Afghanistan could create a special military brigade with as many as 5,000 troops charged with protecting NATO convoys, said Gen. Abdul Razak Amiri, the Afghanistan Interior Ministry’s deputy director of counter-terrorism.

Protecting NATO supply routes has re-emerged as a central issue in recent days because of new attempts by anti-Western forces to sabotage the vital convoy network running from Karachi, Pakistan, through the fabled Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan.

Last Thursday, the Pakistan government blocked NATO trucks heading into Afghanistan after U.S. helicopters apparently killed three Pakistani paramilitary soldiers during a confused attack on a Frontier Corps base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The following day, insurgents in Pakistan attacked a convoy of NATO fuel trucks heading for the Afghan border and set more than two-dozen ablaze.

The new attacks have put increased strains on the U.S-led military coalition, which has been tried — with limited success — to reduce its reliance on the Pakistan supply route. Currently, about half of the military supplies run through Pakistan.

On the Afghan side of the border, Karzai has shaken up the supply system by ordering the abolishment of dozens of convoy protection firms that employ more than 25,000 people.

The network of Afghan firms has been accused of attacking NATO convoys if they are not paid to protect them, of recklessly killing civilians while trying to protect convoys from attack, and of paying insurgents with U.S. money for free passage through areas they control.

“It’s difficult,” said Abdel Manan Farahi, a top advisor to the Afghan Interior Ministry. “If they believe they have lost their power, they will attack.”

While Karzai has called for the convoy protection companies to be disbanded by year’s end, top NATO and Afghan officials privately concede that it will be nearly impossible to meet the president’s timeline.

On Sunday, Afghan officials announced that they have begun the process of dismantling eight companies operating in Afghanistan, including the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

Top Afghan security officials are urging Karzai to establish the new military brigade, but have yet to offer details on how the state-run system would operate.

Some leaders are pushing Karzai to absorb the private security companies into the government and allow them to continue protecting convoys under state-control.

Other Afghan officials fear that continued reliance on dodgy companies won’t solve the problems.

And there is widespread concern that dispatching thousands of Afghan police to protect NATO convoys will divert an already strained Afghan military from the central task of battling Taliban-led insurgents spreading throughout the country.

“If we send police and soldiers to protect the convoys, then who will fight?” said one top Afghan security official who asked not to be identified because Karzai is still weighing the proposal.

U.S. military officials declined over the weekend to discuss the looming challenge facing the supply routes. MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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