As the Pentagon prepares to nearly double the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year, the urgent question now occupying planners is just how the U.S. military is going to get its soldiers the food and fuel they need in the face of increasingly devastating attacks on supply convoys.
Right now, roughly three quarters of supplies for U.S. troops run either through or over Pakistan, from the country's southern port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass. Some 150 truckloads of supplies travel the road from Pakistan to Afghanistan daily.
The problem is an alarming upswing in attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, which alternately steal and destroy vital NATO equipment. In one week in December, insurgents set fire to 300 trucks carrying supplies, including military vehicles. Another recent raid destroyed a dozen trucks carrying humvees. On Saturday, the Taliban fired rockets at fuel tankers, killing three drivers.
The attacks are creating anxiety at the top levels of the Department of Defense. "I've had a concern about this for months," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in a December 10 Pentagon briefing. The convoys are both a lifeline for U.S. troops and, adds Mullen, "a single point of failure" for U.S. forces.
The U.S. military is closely monitoring the growing popular support for these insurgent attacks among Pakistani locals. Angered by increasing strikes by Predator drones operated by the CIA and by civilian deaths in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, more than 10,000 protesters turned out for a demonstration in Peshawar last week. "What's developed significantly in the last couple of weeks is the emergence of popular opposition to NATO supply convoys," says Andrew McGregor, who edits a series of reports on terrorism for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
The influential, hard-line Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami said publicly this month that it would not allow NATO to use the Karachi-to-Khyber Pass route to resupply its soldiers after mid-December. The convoys, it says, will simply bring supplies to troops who in turn are waging attacks on Pakistani soil. "It's really coming to a crisis point right now," adds McGregor.
There are indications that opportunism may be involved in some of the attacks on convoys as well. U.S. military officials speculate that some drivers are selling fuel along the road in Pakistan before torching their trucks at the border to collect insurance payouts. McGregor adds that this may also happen when drivers receive advance warning of attacks from insurgents, who may be family or fellow tribesmen.
In Iraq, the United States has a secure logistics hub in Kuwait that allows U.S. forces to protect their own supply convoys, an option that the U.S. military does not have in sovereign Pakistan. What's more, the distance supply convoys need to travel to reach Afghanistan is far greater than in Iraq—approximately 850 miles from Pakistan's port of Karachi through the Afghan border town of Torkham to Kabul. The treacherous route also involves navigating narrow, twisting mountain roads and passes.
As the attacks in Afghanistan worsen, military analysts point to indications earlier this year that these routes would be attractive targets. In March 2008, 25 fuel trucks bound for coalition forces were destroyed in a series of explosions in a parking lot in Torkham, the border town at the end of the Khyber Pass and the main gateway for NATO supplies. In a study last spring, McGregor reported that the day before this attack, a U.S. Army colonel was unable to expedite border clearances for military transport when the chief of Pakistani customs refused a meeting. Vehicles can sit in parking lots in Torkham for up to 20 days awaiting customs clearance, McGregor adds.
Pentagon officials are currently studying alternate routes for supply lines. The Russian government has agreed to allow nonlethal NATO supplies to cross through its territory, though not NATO troops, according to a November report by the Congressional Research Service. Uzbekistan has also volunteered to allow the transit of U.S. supplies, but on the condition of better relations with the United States. As Uzbekistan is a repressive state helmed by a dictator, this could be a problem. Currently, the majority of fuel supplies for many NATO members in Afghanistan come via Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.