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NATO convoys a soft target in Pakistan

Taliban attacks on NATO trucks reveal the vulnerability of the Afghan war supply route.

NATO trucks on fire
Firefighters stand silhouetted against vehicles that were carrying supplies to foreign forces in Afghanistan but were set ablaze by suspected Taliban on the outskirts of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, overnight on June 8, 2010. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An audacious attack on June 8 by Taliban militants on a NATO convoy carrying supplies to U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan has not merely exposed the vulnerability of the supply chain, but also shows a deep penetration of militants within the ranks of security agencies here.

The attack, which left seven people dead and many more wounded, was the latest in a string of Taliban ambushes on NATO convoys passing through northwestern and southeastern Pakistan over the past year.

It was the first time, however, that the Taliban had carried out such a daring operation just a few miles from the capital, their preferred ambush spots being the remote areas of southeastern Pakistan, on the border with southern Afghanistan, and northwestern tribal routes that also lead to Afghanistan.

Security sources say the convoy was carrying more than military vehicles and oil to the NATO forces fighting in northeastern Afghanistan.

The Pentagon, while expressing concern over the latest attack, said supplies to fighting forces would not be affected. A Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, during a briefing a day after the attack, called it a "vicious attack of some scale" but said it represented only a small fraction of the supplies pouring into Afghanistan amid a major buildup of U.S. and NATO forces.

A Pakistani foreign office official, who requested anonymity, said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi after the attacks and expressed her concern over poor security. The spokesman said that the security of NATO convoys would top the agenda between two leaders in a forthcoming meeting.

However, Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik, visiting the wounded drivers at an Islamabad hospital after the attacks, told reporters that the security of NATO convoys was none of his country’s business.

“This is not ours, but the NATO’s responsibility — to arrange security for its convoys,” Malik said, pointing out that NATO had a security budget that was not provided to the Pakistan government but rather to the private contractors hired by NATO.

“As per [an] agreement between the two sides, Pakistan is supposed to allow the transportation to Pak-Afghan border,” he said.

Read about how the market in U.S. military hardware and technology in Pakistan is compromising the Pakistan-Afghanistan supply route. 

Malik suggested that huge fees were not the only incentives for transporters to continue running supplies in the region: Smugglers also paid huge commissions to use the containers and trucks to smuggle diesel, drugs, and liquor.

“Many NATO contractors are involved in smuggling of petroleum and other products, especially diesel, to Afghanistan," Malik said.

Pakistani anti-narcotics officials have raided various NATO convoys in southeastern Baluchistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa Province in recent months and recovered a huge quantity of drugs, liquor, and diesel booked in the name of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

“Various terminals, including the one attacked by Taliban in Islamabad, have been established without government knowledge and permission, and are involved in smuggling of different commodities,” Malik said.

U.S. and NATO officials often point finger at alleged links between Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence officers who patronize and protect them.

In the June 8 attacks, “It seems if the attackers were fully informed about the logistic importance and movement of this convoy,” said Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst.
Sehgal pointed out, however, that any double dealing between the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence also put Pakistani forces at risk.