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منگل، 15 مارچ، 2011

Vulnerability of NATO supply line

It is ectimated that 75% of NATO supplies from food to fuel, and heavy military equipments enter through Karachi sea port. Then there are two land routes used for their furgther transportation to Afghanistan - 70% through the volatile Khyber Pass and the remaining 30% via Chaman crossing in Baluchistan.

By Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud

“The line of supply may be said to be as vital to the existence of an army as the heart to the life of a human being.” - Col. George Francis Robert Henderson


Secure and swift flow of supplies has vital strategic significance and is considered life-line for troops combating insurgency. The disruption of the flow of supplies to a combating army would certainly undermine their ability to fight effectively.

All great warriors throughout history have carefully planned their strategies around logistics and supplies. Alexander the Great once said, “My logisticians are a humourless lot - they know if my campaign fails, they are the first ones I will slay." On the other hand, 18th century’s French military conqueror and genius, Napoleon Bonaparte describes, “An army marches on its stomach.” In an asymmetric warfare the guerrillas’ main objective is to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines in order to undermine its operational skills.

Supply to Afghanistan has never been an easy task. Afghanistan is a landlocked country and heavily depends on neighbouring Pakistan for its imports and exports. According to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, "Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Everything we (Coalition troops) want to use to eat, drink and to shoot has to come in from outside."

It is estimated that 75% of NATO supplies from food to fuel, and heavy military equipments enter through Karachi sea port. Then there are two land routes used for their further transportation to Afghanistan - 70% through the volatile Khyber Pass and the remaining 30% via Chaman crossing in Baluchistan.

The recent series of coordinated attacks by outlawed TTP-linked militants on NATO vulnerable supply convoys and terminals across Pakistan are seriously affecting its military operations in Afghanistan. These attacks were well-planned and executed finely. The police and paramilitary Frontier Constabulary (FC) and Rangers were taken aback and could not manage to thwart these attacks. So far hundreds of container trucks consisting both of military and non-military goods have been torched. The cost is estimated in millions of dollars.

Ironically, attacks on coalition logistics have become a lucrative business for insurgents both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Looted goods from NATO-bound supply convoys are ending up in main markets of the lawless tribal belt - most noteworthy the famous Karkhano, Miranshah and Bara markets - where one can find a variety of looted goods including arms and ammunition, medical equipment, office supplies and even frozen food items at low prices.

Just last year three Afghan currency laden container trucks were hijacked by local outlaws in Landi Kotal, Khyber Agency, which were later on recovered by the political administration after immense pressure from US and Afghan governments. Also earlier the past year, four US helicopter engines worth more than USD13 million were stolen in north-western Pakistan while being trucked from Afghanistan to Karachi port for shipment. Persistent reports have surfaced in numerous influential western media outlets that Taliban are being paid by NATO-designated logistics contractors for safe supply to coalition forces.

It is estimated that nearly 250 container trucks and tankers loaded with military hardware, fuel, food and medical stuff leave Karachi port for Afghanistan to satisfy the voracious appetite of thousands of Allied forces on daily basis. These trucks owner receive Rs90,000 to Rs120,000 for each trip. Meanwhile, local media reports that truck owners have also been involved in plundering loaded trucks destined for Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

One of the major causes of Soviets' defeat in Afghanistan was their failure to preserve their supply-lines from growing Mujahideen raids. Soviets’ main supply route ran through famed Salang Highway which links Kabul with former Soviet city of Termez in Tajikistan. Some highly successful raids were carried out by veteran Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masood led Panjsheri militants on Soviets supply convoys passing through this route.

Pakistani law enforcement agencies seem unable to contain these attacks as they have already been engaged in counter-insurgency operations across FATA and KP. However, one of the main objectives behind military operations in Khyber Agency against militants was to secure NATO supply line from day to day raids of the militants.

Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain, landlocked geographical location, harsh weather and most vitally the intense resistive nature of its inhabitants has always made it a hard bite to swallow for all the invading forces.

These recent attacks on Coalition’s logistic line across Pakistan triggered Western military planners to find out another transit route bypassing Pakistan. But they have fewer options. The other alternative supply route to Afghanistan passes through Russia and Central Asia. A ‘Central Route’, which would go through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and then into Afghanistan is also being discussed. Presently, only 25% supply comes into Afghanistan via air using Russian air space.

But Americans and their European allies are still reluctant as they do not want to bring Russia back to a region from where it was forcibly ousted in 1989 as a result of decade-long western-sponsored Afghan national resistance. They also don't want to be a victim of Moscow diktats and blackmailing in future. Russia, in its conflict with Georgia had threatened to suspend an agreement struck in April, 2008 allowing NATO to take supplies and equipment to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia. Meanwhile, northern routes are longer, more expensive, much difficult, largely landlocked and under Russian influence.

Safety of these supply routes is vital for the Coalition forces’ military operations against Taliban in Afghanistan. Especially, after the surge in US troops in most restive parts of the country; Helmand and Kandahar will certainly need a more secure, easy and swift flow of supplies. Taliban have intensified their ambushes on allied forces’ supply convoys inside Afghanistan, mimicking tactics used against the British in 1841 and the Soviet Union two decades ago.

British and Canadian troops based in Southern Afghanistan are the most vulnerable as they hugely rely on supplies from Pakistan. For instance, the main British military base at Camp Bastion, Helmand province in southern Afghanistan alone requires more than a million litres of liquid fuel a week.

The vulnerability of the supply line has made majority of NATO member countries reluctant to send more troops to Afghanistan. These attacks by insurgents both in Pakistan and Afghanistan made it clear that Coalition’s jugular-vein has almost fallen in Taliban’s hands.

The writer extensively writes on security issues, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other resistance movements in AfPak region. He can be reached at ihsantipu@yahoo.com
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