Pakistani militants attack key NATO supply line

As part of their own 'surge,' they destroyed more than 160 Humvees and trucks bound for Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Wreck: Militants in Pakistan torched vehicles carrying goods for Western troops in Afghanistan Sunday.
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    Carnage: Sunday’s attack destroyed more than 160 vehicles carrying supplies to US-led troops in Afghanistan. Some 70 percent of their equipment passes through the same supply route in Pakistan. Here, damaged Humvees and trucks sit at a terminal in Peshawar.
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Militants near the Pakistani city of Peshawar destroyed more than 160 Humvees and trucks bound for Western forces in Afghanistan Sunday – the latest reminder that as the world focuses on Pakistan's eastern border with India, the militant threat along its western border is still spreading.

Sunday's attack marks an intensification of a militant strategy: attacking US and NATO supply lines. Some 70 percent of their equipment in Afghanistan comes through Pakistan.

At the same time, militants are pushing outward from tribal areas toward Peshawar in a "surge" of their own – trying to make headway before President-elect Obama takes office and sends more troops to Afghanistan.

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"The Taliban will want to gain maximum ground before troops come," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Descent Into Chaos," a book about Pakistan and Afghanistan since 9/11.

According to several reports, gunmen stormed two transportation terminals near Peshawar Sunday, blasting their way through and torching more than 160 trucks, some of which carried Army Humvees.

This follows a smaller attack Nov. 12, when militants hijacked a convoy that included two Humvees. Taliban members took pictures of themselves atop the Humvee after that incident.

The US military said Sunday's attack will not have a significant impact on its warfighting ability. Officials note that some 350 trucks pass through Peshawar each day on their way to Kabul.

"This incident hasn't affected our supply lines," says Lt. Cmdr. Walter Matthews of US Forces Afghanistan.

But it illustrates why the US has been working tirelessly in recent days – sending its top diplomat and military officer to Islamabad last week – to keep Pakistan focused on militants on its Afghan frontier, not on India.

"We can't solve Afghanistan without solving Pakistan. We are going to have to make sure that India and Pakistan are normalizing their relationship if we are going to be effective in some of other these areas," Mr. Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

After the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the Indian government said elements in Pakistan were responsible. Since then, tensions have escalated, with the Pakistani Army saying it would relocate forces from its Afghan border to its Indian border if India makes an aggressive move.

In a twist, Pakistani officials admitted to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, that they had put the military on high alert Saturday after receiving a threatening call from someone claiming to be the foreign minister of India. The call turned out to be a prank.

It highlights Pakistan's preoccupation with the threat presented by India, which possesses an Army twice the size of Pakistan's. Yet along the western border with Afghanistan, many Pakistanis agree with the US: the greatest threat to Pakistan comes from its own tribal belt.

The destruction of the supply trucks are part of a months-long trend in northwestern Pakistan. This year the Pakistani Taliban has inched closer to Peshawar. Several times this year, a Taliban commander gained control of the Kohat tunnel, a strategic transportation link to Peshawar.

In general, the Pakistani Taliban operate closer to the major highway to Peshawar than they did last year. The assassination of people like Hajj Namdar, a former Taliban operative who joined the Pakistani government and vowed to protect the route, has played a part.

The Army is currently engaged in two offensives against militants along Pakistan's Afghan border: one in the tribal agency of Bajaur and a second in the Swat Valley. The assault in Bajaur began in September and is the nation's largest-ever military operation in the tribal belt, which in the past has been largely left to sort out its own troubles.

But the progress has been slow, say locals. Bushra Gohar, a member of the national parliament from North West Frontier Province (NWFP), questions if the Army has the resources to fight militants. "People are losing their faith in the whole operation," she says. "It's not going anywhere, and it is not producing the security that we hoped for."

The Pakistani Army has eight corps of troops along the Indian border, notes Mahmood Shah, a former brigadier general in Pakistan's Army. It has two along the Afghan border, though these are supplemented by local paramilitary forces.

It is evidence that Pakistan is concentrating on the wrong border, he says. "These people are making steady progress into the NWFP. They need to be pushed out through a sustained and robust response."

He suggests that three to four corps should be along the Afghan border.

Saying that nuclear deterrence is enough to keep India at bay, he adds: "We need to change our complete military posture."

For the US, the attacks raise logistical vulnerabilities. Pakistan closed the pass beyond Peshawar for several days after the Nov. 12 to arrange for more security.

The Associated Press reports that, at one of the terminals, one guard was killed in the fighting and the other nine stood aside. Guards say there were as many as 300 attackers; a police chief said there were only 30, according to the AP report.

Anand Gopal contributed from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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