JANUARY 2017

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NATO Supplies: Endgame

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By Anurag Tripathi
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

As the US drawdown in Afghanistan approaches its culmination, Pakistan continues to extract all it can from its reluctant alliance in the War against Terror, leveraging its 'strategic location' to a maximum. Nevertheless, this strategy appears to be approaching its natural limits. and, on December 9, 2013, the United State (US) Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, during his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reportedly warned Pakistan that, if it failed to secure the supply routes to and from Afghanistan, the US Congress may withhold military aid to Pakistan. An unnamed US defense official stated, “The Secretary made the point that we need to demonstrate the continued flow of goods in order to be able to continue fulfilling their reimbursements.”

Significantly, on October 19, 2013, the US had decided to give USD 1.6 billion in assistance to Pakistan. The sum had earlier been blocked because of tensions between the two countries over events inside Pakistan, including the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden at Abottabad, on May 2, 2011.

On December 12, 2013, however, the Pakistan Government denied having received any US warning. An official spokesperson of the Foreign Office declared, “I am not aware from where those reports appeared in the media. These were misleading reports.”

It is, nevertheless, the case that, on December 4, 2013, the US announced the suspension of NATO shipments to and from Afghanistan via the Torkham Gate route of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The action was taken following violent protests across the Province by the Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its partners - Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI) and Awami Jamhoori Ittehad Pakistan (AJIP) - in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Government. The alliance of three parties formed the Government in KP in June 2013. Thousands of party supporters have been protesting against US drone strikes. The protests escalated following the killing of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud on November 1, 2013, in a US drone strike in the Dandy Darpakhel area of North Waziristan Agency in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). 

On November 24, 2013, PTI and JeI set up a 'protest camp' at Hayatabad Toll Plaza in Peshawar to prevent NATO containers from entering Peshawar. They stopped trucks passing through the route for verification and turned back those carrying goods for NATO Forces in Afghanistan. Many have been accused of damaging goods and manhandling truck drivers, with Police registering cases against 40 PTI workers. On November 29, 2013, three PTI activists were arrested for their alleged involvement in manhandling truck drivers carrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Again, on December 2, 2013, cases were registered against PTI and JeI workers for breaking the seal of a NATO container bound for Afghanistan, during the sit-in at Hayatabad Toll Plaza. JeI leader, Kashif Azam and PTI camp in charge Malik Raees, were named in the FIR. Fayaz Ahmed Khalid, a political organizer with the PTI, declared, on December 18, 2013, “We will continue this sit-in until there is a good decision on the drones. It’s for ourselves, for our country.”

Amidst the existing chaos at the Torkham Gate, Imran Khan asserted, on December 3, 2013, that his party was considering blocking NATO supply routes in other Provinces as well. “PTI may block NATO supply routes in Punjab and Balochistan, as supply is being carried out via Chaman border in Qilla Abdullah District of Balochistan.”

There are two supply routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Both routes start in Karachi, Pakistan's principal port in its southern Sindh Province, on the Arabian Sea. From there, one route crosses the Khyber Pass, enters Afghanistan at Torkham, and terminates at Kabul, supplying northern Afghanistan. The other passes through Balochistan Province, crosses the border at Chaman in the Qilla Abdullah District of Balochistan, and ends at Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan.

NATO convoys coming through Pakistan were originally the principal source of logistical support for the allied Forces in Afghanistan, at one time accounting for 80 to 90 per cent of all supplies for NATO Forces.

The latest episode of protests against NATO shipments to and from Afghanistan is not a new development. In most past cases, protests have followed US drone attacks against top militant leaders inside Pakistan. For instance, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Pakistani Parliamentarians on May 14, 2013, voted to review all aspects of their relationship with the US amid the worsening political fallout from the Navy Seals raid. The unanimous motion was passed at the conclusion of an extraordinary 10-hour parliamentary session, when the military's top brass offered apologies and an admission of failure.

Islamabad has also, on several occasions, attempted to evade responsibility for the security of the NATO supply lines. On June 9, 2010, then Federal Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik declared that NATO was responsible for the security of its supply lines, and that the Federal and Provincial Governments of Pakistan could not provide security to the 4,000 trucks which travelled daily across Pakistan. He added, further, "Various terminals, including the one attacked by TTP in Islamabad, have been established without Government knowledge and permission, and are involved in smuggling of different commodities." Ignoring the fact that NATO has no authority to engage in security operations on Pakistani soil, and the billions of dollars Pakistan receives in military aid for its ‘cooperation’ in the campaigns against terrorism, Malik argued that NATO’s ‘security budget’ was not provided to the Pakistan Government, but rather to private contractors directly hired by NATO: "This is not ours, but NATO’s responsibility — to arrange security for its convoys." He conceded, nevertheless, "As per [an] agreement between the two sides, Pakistan is supposed to allow the transportation to Pak-Afghan border."

On December 5, 2013, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson claimed in a press briefing, “We have seen reports that the United States has suspended the NATO supplies through Torkham for security of transporters. The Government has continued the arrangement for passage of NATO supplies in order to facilitate draw down of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”

Emboldened by the Governments ambivalent approach on the issue, various terrorist formations have engineered repeated attacks targeting NATO convoys. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the militants have carried out at least 291 such attacks since 2008, in which at least 163 persons have been killed. In the current year alone, 31 such attacks have taken place, resulting in 19 deaths.

US worries over the supply lines are naturally escalating. These lines are not only important for the safe and secure withdrawal of troops and materials, but are crucial to the Forces that will remain in Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown. Reports currently suggest that up to 15,000 US troops may remain in Afghanistan until 2024. Given the situation in Pakistan, and Islamabad's demonstrable unreliability as a partner, the US is exploring other viable supply routes. As far back as January 20, 2009, then US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General David Petraeus had stressed, "It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country… There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia." A major component of this strategy was the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of rail, water and road links to deliver cargo to Afghanistan through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The route was created as an alternate way to move supplies into Afghanistan, instead of the exclusive dependence on Pakistan. The first shipment along the NDN commenced on February 20, 2009. By 2011, the NDN had started carrying 40 per cent of the supplies to US forces in Afghanistan (while the Pakistani routes accounted for 30 per cent, according to the US Department of Defense). According to data from the US Military's Transportation Command, only 40 containers of new cargo have moved across Pakistani ground routes between July 2012 and February 2013. During the same period, about 28,000 containers came through NDN into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has already lost its logistical criticality for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and its utility as an ally in America's War on Terror has long been suspect. As the 2014 withdrawal deadline approaches, moreover, Pakistan will be tempted into escalating adventurism in its efforts to restore dominance in Kabul, even as it seeks to harness a strategy relying on destabilization and terrorism to contain the Pashtun challenge in its own territories.

The Americans have failed to display much strategic sagacity through their long engagement in Afghanistan, and particularly in the terminal stages running up to their flight from the country. Pakistan has directed a pattern of convoluted mischief towards Afghanistan for over three decades now, in the process, enormously compromising its own security. This game, however, is now being played out at increasingly high risks, as US vulnerabilities to Pakistani blackmail diminish, and patience running dangerously low in Washington.

[Source: SATP]

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