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Pakistan's instability compromising NATO's logistics

October 02, 2010 22:48 IST
Twenty-seven NATO oil tankers destined for Afghanistan and 14 private vehicles were burnt to ashes following rocket attacks by  unidentified persons in the early hours on Friday, near a petrol pump, on the Shikarpur-Sukkur National Highway in Sindh. The vehicles did not have any police or military escort. The oil tankers were on their way to Quetta from Karachi. There were 37 tankers in the convoy of which 10 had left before the convoy was attacked.  No group has claimed responsibility for the incident. In another incident, two persons, including the driver of an oil tanker, were burnt alive in an attack on NATO tankers near Khuzdar.

This is the fourth attack by unidentified elements on NATO convoys in Sindh this year. Of the previous three incidents, two were reported from Karachi and one on the road from Karachi to Balochistan. Though none of these incidents has resulted in a successful investigation and prosecution by the Police, the following  organisations were suspected: the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which is an associate of the Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and  the Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islam.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the JUI (F), is known as one of the mentors of Mulla Mohammad Omar, the chief of the Afghan Taliban. He also used to be close to Osama bin Laden. The close links of the JUI with the Al Qaeda and the  Taliban have not prevented President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party from taking its help for forming the coalition government in Islamabad.

Karachi has more Pashtuns than Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunwa. They have prospered in the road transport business. They largely support the secular Awami National Party, which is the head of the coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa. It is also a member of the ruling coalition in Islamabad. The last two years have seen an influx of many internally displaced Pakistani Pashtuns from Swat and other areas of the Malakand Division of Khyber Pakhtunkwa into Sindh. While some of them have settled down in  Karachi, others have settled down in other towns of Sindh such as Sukkur. These Pashtuns are largely supporters of the JUI.

When Altaf Hussein's Muttahida Qaumi Movement alleges a creeping Talibanisation of Karachi, it has in mind the influx of the internally displaced Pashtuns. It suspects that the ANP has also been supporting them. Hence, the frequent clashes between the MQM and the ANP despite both being secular parties.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been  55 attacks on NATO logistic convoys proceeding from Karachi to Afghanistan either via Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkwa. Twenty-two of these attacks took place in September. The steep increase in attacks during September coincided with a steep increase in drone strikes carried out by the US in North and South Waziristan. September also saw an increase in anti-US feelings in Pakistan despite the generous US assistance for flood relief following the conviction and sentencing  by a US court of Aafia Siddiqui, a US-educated Pakistani scientist, on a charge of attempted murder of some US military personnel in Afghanistan. She is from Karachi and there was a huge demonstration in support of her in Karachi on September 24.

The alleged helicopter raids by NATO forces into Pakistani territory during September while pursuing some fleeing Taliban insurgents also contributed to the anger against the  NATO.

September also saw a bench of the Pakistan Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhury taking up for enquiries the role of the NATO logistic convoys following allegations that these convoys have not been paying customs duty to the Pakistan Government, that nearly 10,000 NATO containers have gone missing, that some containers transported by the trucks hired by the NATO were found to contain alcohol and that  there has been considerable smuggling by Pakistani intermediaries associated with the transport of NATO's logistic supplies.

As a result of these developments, the anti-US anger is getting increasingly focussed on NATO convoys. The feeling in the Pakistan Army that the US-led NATO forces cannot win the war in Afghanistan without Pakisatn's logistic transport support has given it a confidence that the NATO will not act against it for allowing the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and its associates on its territory. it has suspended some of the convoys near the Afghan border following the NATO copter raids into its territory.

The US and its NATO allies face a dilemma. Despite three alternate supply routes now available through the Central Asian Republics, they are still dependent to a considerable extent on the transport movement through Pakistan to sustain their forces in Afghanistan. Their dependence on the Pakistan Army reduces their ability to force it to act against the Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban in its territory. Unless they are able to exercise pressure on the Pakistan army, the attacks on the NATO and Afghan forces from sanctuaries in Pakistani territory will continue.

However, because of the alternate routes through the Central Asian Republics being developed by them and their ability for air-lift from Bahrain, the Americans are able to manage despite the increasing attacks on the convoys in Pakistani territory. When the US and other NATO forces start thinning down their presence in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army would not enjoy these benefits. The Pakistan Army and the Taliban acting in tandem would be able to choke the ANA by interfering with its logistic supplies. Even if the US plays a diminishing role in ground operations after July 2011, it cannot reduce its logistics role in support of the Afghan National Army. Otherwise, the ANA could collapse.

How to keep the supplies flowing to the ANA in the face of Pakistani and Taliban attempts to stop them is a question that deserves the immediate attention of the Pentagon strategists.
B Raman