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.
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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.
“There could be nexus between Taliban and some low-ranked intelligence officials, who in their personal capacity have been helping them [Taliban]. But this is not at all the state’s policy," he said "Days are gone, when ISI or other agencies would harbor them. And the recent attacks on army, including intelligence agencies are testimony of this fact.”
He said an affinity with ethnic Pashtuns also helped the Taliban track down and attack the NATO convoys. Pakistani Taliban are mainly ethnic Pashtuns, and the most troubled areas which border with Afghanistan are almost 99 percent inhabited by Pashtuns.
Pashtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan follow the centuries-long Pashtunwali code, under which a Pashtun is bound to provide panah (shelter) to those in trouble, and to badal (revenge), if anyone from his family or tribe is killed by enemy.
This pashtunwali code is the driving force that propels Pakistani Pashtuns to help Afghan Taliban, who are also mainly Pashtuns.
The scenario gets worse.
“Around 80 percent of the NATO contractors and their staff are Pashtuns. If not the contractor, it is not a difficult task for an ordinary helper to give a tip off about the movement of a convoy. They [Taliban] do not need any intelligence information to attack these convoys in presence of their Pashtun brothers,” said Sehgal, editor of the Pakistan Defense Journal who runs one of Pakistan's largest security services, MSM Security, which caters to foreign missions in Pakistan, including the U.S.
The lack of security simply made the task easier for them, he said.
Security experts believe that the lack of adequate security and coordination between Pakistan and U.S. has made the NATO convoys soft targets for Taliban militants.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, who teaches international affairs, and regional security at Quaid-I-Azam International University Islamabad, sees a "trust deficit" between U.S. and Pakistan when it comes to the security of NATO supplies.
“There has been a trust deficit between the two sides on this issue. The U.S. security officials suspect that there is some kind of linkage between Pakistani intelligence agencies and Taliban militants, that is why they reply upon their own security arrangements,” Ahmad told GlobalPost.
Owners of the containers burnt by attackers have also blamed the poor security measures for growing Taliban attacks on NATO convoys.
“This all happened because of poor security. We have requested, time and again, the government for proper security, but to no avail," said Khalid Khan, owner of one of the burnt containers. According to Khan, the Taliban have changed their modus operandi over the last few months.
“Earlier, they [Taliban] would give a chance to the drivers [of containers] to run away to save their lives, but for last few months, they have started killing them before torching the vehicles,” Khan said.
The remote district of Chaghi in southeastern Baluchistan province, which borders southern Afghanistan and Iran, is the favorite target of Taliban. Here, the burning of NATO containers and trucks has become commonplace over the past year, Khan said.
Besides the cost in supplies of incessant Taliban attacks, the U.S. has been paying 10-times higher-than-normal expenses to private contractors to carry on with deliveries to its forces fighting in Afghanistan. Hundreds of transporters stopped operating as the attacks increased and death threats were made against them.
“We have been facing difficulties in hiring drivers and other staff [for NATO supplies] because of lack of security. We have to pay 10 times higher than normal wages to persuade them,” Khan said, warning that if adequate security, including air cover, was not provided to the transporters, they might stop supply runs altogether.
“No doubt, it is a difficult task to provide air and ground cover to the convoys as they have to cover 1,000 to 1,500 miles distance to reach their destinations. But the two sides [Pakistan and U.S.] have to come up with a quick solution, otherwise the NATO supplies will be badly affected," he said.