Taliban Is Seizing, Destroying More NATO Supplies

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
August 12, 2008
Pg. 6

By Alan Cullison and Peter Wonacott
By Alan Cullison in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Peter Wonacott in Peshawar, Pakistan
Taliban insurgents have stepped up efforts to seize and destroy supplies destined for North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, driving up the cost of the war and signaling a new setback in the nearly seven-year-old campaign.
The attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the militants' campaign to isolate the fragile U.S.-backed government in Kabul, led by President Hamid Karzai. In addition to targeting supply convoys, insurgents in Afghanistan have blown up roads and bridges that were the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to rebuild the nation after NATO troops helped drive the Taliban from power in 2001.
"There's been a pretty clear trend in the past couple of weeks to interdict our supply routes," says Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, deputy commander for U.S. forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan has taken a rough turn for the U.S. over the last year as suicide attacks surge and Mr. Karzai's control over the countryside ebbs. Recent political turmoil in Pakistan, where the government is trying to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, has exacerbated the problem as militants on the Pakistani side of the border feel emboldened to attack convoys hauling NATO supplies.
The latest attacks on NATO convoys came Monday. A suicide bomber rammed his car into a convoy in Kabul, killing three civilians and wounding at least a dozen people, while a bomb attack on a convoy in the country's northwest killed one soldier, the Associated Press reported. Separately, clashes and an airstrike in the south killed 25 militants and eight civilians held hostage by insurgents, the AP reported.
About 90% of U.S. goods destined for Bagram, the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan, make an eight-day journey from Pakistan's Karachi port through the Torkham border crossing into Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials. Weapons and ammunition are flown into Afghanistan.
The majority of NATO supplies transported through Pakistan continue to reach their destinations, say Western diplomats and army officials. The U.S. government estimates it has lost only about 1% of its cargo going from Karachi to Afghanistan.
Still, the targeting of supply chains marks a new and troubling development. The militants' tactics appear designed to bog down foreign forces and wait them out, the same strategy adopted successfully by Afghan insurgents against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
In response, NATO forces are adopting some of the Soviets' tactics. They are paying more money to local warlords to guarantee safe passage over roads and importing more fuel from central Asia, across Afghanistan's northern borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where roads are still safe. That presents logistical challenges and drives up the cost of the war.
"We saw this situation developing a while ago, so the northern route looked a lot safer," says an official close to the situation. "And it's clear security is not improving."
Standard security precautions, such as armed gunmen accompanying large convoys, are no longer sufficient. In June, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan ambushed a convoy of more than 50 trucks carrying supplies to troops in the south, setting fire to them about 40 miles south of Kabul.
"We had plenty of guards, but we never expected an attack so strong," says Haji Ajmal Rahmani, whose company, Afghan International Transportation & Logistics, lost 40 trucks in the June attack. Mr. Rahmani says 40 of his employees, mostly drivers, were killed and 20 went missing, probably burned beyond recognition or blown up when the trucks exploded.
One of the hardest-hit stretches in Afghanistan has been the U.S.-built Highway 1, a 500-kilometer road connecting the capital with Afghanistan's second-largest city, Kandahar, in the south.
Insurgents blew holes in a major bridge on the road in late April and have been blowing up bridges and culverts with increasing frequency since. On Saturday, in the southern province of Ghazni, officials say insurgents blew up a 25-meter bridge, halting traffic for hours.
Gen. Milley surveyed Highway 1 from a helicopter last week. He says the road was broken and buckled in parts, and several bridges were impassable because large holes had been blown in them. Insurgents haven't yet demolished a bridge entirely, he says, but they placed explosive charges near structural beams, making the bridges impossible to use.
Other parts of the road are scarred by attacks from bombs set off along the road and the carcasses of burned-out trucks. Gen. Milley says there were a half-dozen attacks on convoys along the road in the past few days.
He says the attacks haven't put a serious crimp in supply lines to fuel-hungry armored units in the south. But he says the expertise of some attackers was a surprise. "They show a degree of skill and training that we have not seen before."
Western embassies and private aid groups in Afghanistan advise their staffers to avoid the Kabul-Kandahar road because it is too dangerous.
NATO says the road remains open because engineers have bulldozed routes around the blown bridges. But the bypasses often run through dry creek beds that will fill with the autumn rains. More permanent repairs will be a challenge since insurgents have been kidnapping and killing road workers.
Gen. Milley says the insurgents had evidently recognized that attacking the highway would undermine confidence in the government.
"One of our main goals is to connect the people to the government," he says. "The enemy is trying its best to stop us."
Insurgents also are taking aim at "soft targets," such as government offices, employees and aid organizations, U.S. officials say.
Earlier this month an umbrella group of nongovernmental organizations issued a report noting that NGO workers are "subject to increasing attacks, threats and intimidation, by insurgent and criminal groups." So far this year 19 NGO staff have been killed in Afghanistan, "which already exceeds the total number of NGO workers killed last year," says the report.
The U.N. World Food Programmecq, which delivers direct food aid to some of the country's remotest locales, says it has lost 800 tons of food in attacks on its trucks so far this year, compared to 830 tons in all of last year.
Across the border, Pakistan's security forces face a resurgent militancy as political infighting has dogged a new civilian-led government. In an effort to unite the two main political parties -- the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz -- the government last week said it intends to impeach President Pervez Musharraf. He is an unpopular former army chief but a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Pakistan's army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, says recent militant attacks on convoys represent just a sliver of the total truck traffic. "Three thousand trucks cross daily into Afghanistan," he said in an interview in late July. "Is this a serious disruption?"
But Nawab Sher Afridi, general secretary of the All Pakistan Oil Tankers Owners Association, says ambushes are rising against trucks carrying ordinary fuel and highly flammable jet fuel to NATO forces. Over the past 18 months, as many as 250 tankers have been damaged and 40 drivers have been killed, according to Mr. Afridi. "There is no security in Pakistan. No security in Afghanistan," he says. "We are losing our business."
Imtiaz Alam, a 29-year-old Pakistani truck owner whose vehicles have been delivering cargo to NATO troops in Afghanistan for five years, says he has had to devise his own security measures, partly because poorly paid Pakistani police have provided little cover for his fleet. Mr. Alam makes sure his armed guards hail from the same tribal areas his trucks plan to pass through.
"Even militants and criminals will think twice about shooting tribesmen," he says, standing beside a flatbed truck with an armored personal carrier under a blue tarp.