Taliban Raids on NATO Convoys Crippling, Say Analysts

KARACHI – While NATO and United States forces have downplayed raids in Peshawar by pro-Taliban militants, destroying hundreds of their military vehicles and supply containers destined for Afghanistan, analysts here believe that the damage is significant.

On Saturday the militants destroyed 11 trucks and 13 containers in the latest of a series of attacks over the past week designed to disrupt supply lines to NATO and U.S. troops fighting the "war on terror" in Afghanistan

Saturday’s raid defied increased security for some 13 supply terminals around Peshawar, ordered after a major raid last weekend in which hundreds of trucks and containers were torched.

After that raid, the U.S. military in Afghanistan had played down the damage in a statement that said it would have only "minimal effect on our operations." U.S. military spokeswoman in Kabul Lt. Col. Rumi Nielsen-Green was quoted saying, "It’s militarily insignificant."

But analysts here think otherwise and say that if the attacks continue they will impact plans to double the strength of NATO troops in Afghanistan from the present 67,000 – nearly half of them from the U.S.

"More troops mean more supplies," said Ikram Sehgal, a noted defense analyst.

Sehgal does not buy the U.S. dismissal of the attacks as insignificant. "If I’m hurt bad, I’m not going to own up. It is a significant loss whether they [U.S.] admit it or not. It will create horrendous problems."

If troop deployment is increased as planned, then an estimated 70,000 containers of supplies will have to be shipped to Afghanistan annually.

"If the supply lines are cut off, it will have a choking effect on the troops," said Brig. Mehmood Shah, former home secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) that borders Afghanistan.

Already NATO has begun looking for alternative supply routes to Afghanistan, even through Belarus and the Ukraine.

Contractors engaged in moving the containers are jittery at the possible loss in business.

Kifayatullah Jan, manager at the Port World Logistics, a contractor that has been ferrying NATO supplies, said last week’s attack on their terminal, in which 106 containers were torched, "must have cost the U.S. millions."

"And if the loss to the U.S. is insignificant, for us it may mean we close shop," said Jan, talking to IPS from Peshawar over telephone. "We can’t do business if the government cannot provide us protection," he said. According to Jan, the company and its drivers receive regular threats from militants to "stop transporting supplies to the Americans or face the consequences."

In March, insurgents torched 40-50 NATO oil tankers near Torkham. In April, a military helicopter valued at $13 million was hijacked. And in July, there were sporadic attacks on the convoys. Last month, some 60 Taliban fighters hijacked a convoy of trucks in broad daylight as it was traveling through the Khyber pass.

Talk of alternative supply routes has been going on since September. According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Defense Department was seeking safer but longer routes through Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia due to "strikes," "border delays," and "accidents and pilferage" in Pakistan.

"The Iran route is out. And they simply cannot airlift the supplies because it would be far too costly. But the supplies can come from the north," suggested Sehgal.

"The supplies can pass through the northern route by rail through Russia and the Central Asian nations to northern Afghanistan," agreed Mehmood Shah, but added: "It’s a poor alternative and will take very long to reach southern Afghanistan."

About 75 percent of supplies, including food, fuel, equipment, and vehicles meant for the allied forces in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, after being offloaded from ships at the southern port city of Karachi. A second overland route connects Pakistan’s Quetta city with Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Pakistan represents the shortest land route to Afghan cities like Kandahar and Kabul.

In last week’s attack on the Port World terminal, the security guards on duty watched helplessly as around 300 militants blasted their way into two transport terminals and torched vehicles.

"These included APC jeeps, trucks, lifters, and fire brigades," said Jan. "They came through the main gate, which they destroyed using a rocket-propelled grenade, and set fire to 106 vehicles, including 80-90 Humvees. They also shot dead one of the guards."

"I was in my village near Charsadda, less than a hour from Peshawar, when the guards telephoned me around 3:15 a.m. There was no way the dozen or so of our guards could confront the militants who were armed with sophisticated weapons," Jan said.

According to Shah, the attackers were criminal elements and not necessarily the Taliban, as the latter have still not entered the settled area. "However, they all work hand-in-glove. And for all we know, they may have carried out the attack at the behest of the Taliban."

However, Rahimullah Yusufzai, resident editor of English daily The News, thinks otherwise. "These recent attacks show that militants are slowly moving into the settled area; that they have gained strength and are not afraid," he said. "It also shows how weak the government is and that it cannot protect anyone."

Yusufzai told IPS that the earlier hijackings of convoys on the highways were only possible if the drivers, and perhaps even the contractors, were in collusion with the Taliban.

Terming these depots as "soft" targets, Sehgal said it is easier to attack such passive locations than intercept convoys that are protected by Pakistan’s Frontier Constabulary (FC) militia.

While past attacks have been limited to pilfering and sale of the loot in the local markets, the latest attacks were intended to disrupt supplies. "This means they want to sever the supply lines to make it unsustainable for the deployed forces," said Sehgal.

Yusufzai observed that the Taliban were adopting the age-old strategy of cutting off supply lines from the south. "It also signifies that the capacity and numbers of the militants have grown despite the army’s claim of annihilating entire villages in the tribal areas."

"This war on terror has unleashed more horrors than one can imagine. The Pakistan army, by its own act, has steered civilians toward militancy. In a bid to capture one Talib, entire villages have turned into Talibans," said Yusufzai.