Features | Security | South Asia

NATO’s Afghan Lifeline

Mustafa Qadri investigates one of the main NATO supply routes from Karachi to Chaman on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

By Mustafa Qadri for

‘We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and allies,’ said US President Barack Obama in March when announcing his Administration’s policy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are some 72,000 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). By their very nature, armies are intensely resource hungry. And given that this force is operating in a landlocked country in one of the world’s most politically sensitive regions, the task of keeping the troops supplied is especially challenging. Adding to the difficulties are attacks on the ISAF supply convoys by both the Taliban and local bandits; the former wanting to scupper operations and win the conflict, the latter seeking to steal supplies for sale on the black market.

Entire helicopters stolen

Delivering ‘lethal supplies’ – ammunition, weapons system and other security-related equipment to the country – into Afghanistan is particularly fraught. According to the manager of one freight company, in the past entire helicopters and other military hardware have been stolen from convoys travelling over land through Pakistan. So now security-related equipment is flown in from airbases in neighbouring Central Asian countries and Pakistan.
For most other, non-lethal supplies, however, there is little choice but to use land routes through Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour. ‘For clear geographical reasons, Pakistan does play an important role in the logistical support of the ISAF mission,’ explains ISAF spokesperson Brigadier-General Richard Blanchette.
According to Blanchette, the ISAF is ‘actively working on transit agreements’ to increase the delivery of supplies via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along routes that, while not entirely peaceful, are certainly less volatile than those through Pakistan. Even so, securing these supply channels is proving to be a political minefield. Russia has historically dominated Central Asia and it views NATO’s expansion into the region, along with the conscription of former Eastern European satellite states into its ranks, as a serious threat to its security and regional clout.

In February, the Kyrgyzstan government, for instance, under pressure from Moscow ordered the United States and NATO to vacate the vital Manas airbase. The two main land routes into Afghanistan from Central Asia are effectively under Russian control. They pass through Russia and two republics, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which are staunchly aligned with Moscow. While Russia has permitted the transportation of non-lethal materials through these routes, they are not major supply channels. An increase in the flow of goods will need to be part of a broader political agreement with Russia.

The Pakistan connection

These permutations have led NATO countries to rely on Pakistan for the delivery of most supplies. At present, close to 75 per cent of non-lethal supplies are delivered via Pakistan. Almost all of these supplies reach the country by ship at the southern port city of Karachi. The vast majority of it – everything from tyres and petrol to toiletries – is trucked through two entry points from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The first, which is facing the most disruption, passes through Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province, and on towards Torkum, a small town along the Khyber Pass that is on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. From Torkum, supplies are eventually transported to the Afghan capital, Kabul. The other route travels from Karachi to Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s southern state of Balochistan, to the border town of Chaman and on to Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the birthplace of the Taliban. The ISAF claims to control Kandahar, but the threat of attacks from the Taliban or bandits remains high.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

‘[These attacks] do not pose a strategic threat to the ISAF mission,’ General Blanchette asserts. ‘We have a robust inventory of food and supplies, are able to absorb delays or closures, plan for or anticipate such events.’ But as the US-led forces seek to escalate operations against the Taliban, militants will likely step up attacks on what remains its soft underbelly.

The Western Bypass Road that runs from Quetta to Chaman is a bumpy track of raw bitumen and dirt. Much of Afghanistan’s supplies, including those of the ISAF and the Afghanistan National Army, are delivered along it. Quite apart from the security risk, the dreadful road conditions make it difficult to traverse. ‘Seven years ago there used to be a single lane; it was a very good road. Then they decided to build [a dual carriageway], but we’re still waiting for it to be built,’ explains Mahfouz, a lawyer from Quetta.
Trade has made many of Chaman’s families wealthy by the standards of this otherwise very poor and marginalised part of Pakistan. The road running from Quetta to Chaman is dotted with large, high-walled estates that are typically home to two or three generations of rich trading families. Like small castles of times past, these estates stand in stark contrast to the surrounding dry emptiness that is a familiar sight in northern Balochistan.

Chaman itself is a surprisingly bustling small town. At the dusty border gateway that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials inspect an endless line of trucks and people transiting between the two countries. Next to the border post, not more than 100 metres away, is a dirt track patrolled by donkey caravans moving items between the two countries, part of the informal economy that has flourished in these parts for decades.
‘We are one people here,’ explains Haji Rehmatullah, a local import-exporter. Rehmatullah has family on both sides of the border, as do most people in Chaman and along the Khyber Pass.
A volatile trade route

‘Why should I be scared, it is part of the risk of my job,’ says Atif Raza, a Pakistani border guard. But there are good reasons for Atif to be frightened. Convoys transporting NATO goods are attacked on an almost weekly basis. Behind Atif, a short walk across the gateway that is the official border crossing, rows of NATO cargo containers, neatly stacked like giant Lego pieces, await transportation to Kandahar and Kabul. These are precisely the sorts of targets for militant attacks of the kind that destroyed more than 160 ISAF military vehicles in December last year.

Militants are not the only ones disrupting the NATO convoys. Last September, the Khyber Pass was closed to convoys in protest at US missile strikes in Pakistan. In January this year, members of the tribal communities in Khyber Agency blocked key roads in protest at the unrelated murder of a tribesman during a police raid. Earlier this month, truckers blocked the motorway through Chaman to protest corruption among border officials.

Companies have taken to hiring only drivers from the tribes that live in the regions bordering Afghanistan around Chaman and Torkum – the large, powerful Afridi and Shinwari tribes along the Khyber Pass, or the Achakzai and Noorzai around northern Balochistan. Transport companies also pay protection money to these tribes. ‘We pay around 30-35,000 rupees (around US$370-430) per trailer, per [tribe],’ explained one trucking company manager.

Working conditions are poor for most truck drivers, who are routinely abducted or killed. ‘We are always fearful [for our safety], but what can I do? A job is a job,’ says Inayat Khan with an air of resignation. Drivers earn from Rs7000 (US$85) a month for ordinary deliveries to Rs105,000 (US$1300) for taking large containers from Karachi to Kandahar. That typically does not include external costs and few of the trucks are insured.

‘We have many claims against [the ISAF and] the Pakistan Government, but our drivers and companies receive nothing,’ explained Noor Khan Niazi, President of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association, the representative body for many of the trucking companies that transport NATO supplies. It appears armies are not the only ones engaged in battle in this part of the world.