Pakistani Taliban militants hijacked a convoy carrying wheat and military vehicles headed for Afghanistan Monday, underscoring for NATO forces the vulnerability of their only practical supply route into landlocked Afghanistan.
In a brazen attack in Jamrud, near the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, 60 masked militants held up a convoy of 13 trucks, according to official reports. The trucks, 12 of which were carrying wheat and one carrying two Humvees for Western forces in Afghanistan, were hijacked without the militants having to fire a single shot.
The highway on which the incident took place connects Peshawar, the largest city in northwestern Pakistan, to Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan. Coalition forces receive their food and weapons from the nearest warm-water port in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, over 1,000 miles away, through this route.
"This is the most traditional, most used land route to connect Afghanistan and Pakistan," says Talat Masood, a security expert and retired general of the Pakistani Army. The same supply route was used to support the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union, he says.
At least two other routes connect the two countries. One in the south connects Quetta to the Afghan city of Kandahar, but it makes little sense for supplying NATO forces in and around Kabul, the capital. This route would be an extra few hundred miles, and it passes through even less secure territory. Another route, which passes through the Pakistani town of Parachinar, is ill-suited to large trucks and convoys.
The hijacking was claimed by fighters for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, who posed for photographs with black-and-white banners of the umbrella Taliban organization draped over the Humvees.
According to local press reports, a military operation followed the hijackings involving gunship helicopters. But local residents said Tuesday evening that most of the wheat and the hijacked trucks had been sold off in markets and that one abandoned Humvee had been recovered.
Though hijackings along this route are not unheard of, "it might just be the most flagrant hijacking of a supply convoy yet," says Mr. Masood.
Disruptions along the route haven't always come from militants. In September, after American forces first admitted to having carried out ground incursions into Pakistan, Islamabad blocked the supply route for 24 hours and said it could no longer guarantee the safety of NATO supplies.
"After the ground operation the supply route was closed off deliberately to send a message," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the tribal areas. But this latest incident more "highlights the helplessness of the government and the real danger to the flow of supplies," he says.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said that the military is not responsible for losses from such incidences. Since the hijacking took place inside settled Pakistani territory, it was up to the relevant government wing to tackle the situation.
"If such an incident was to take place inside the tribal territory where the military is already engaged in an operation, that would be when the military would be get involved," he says.
The hijacking took place a week after Pakistani officials lodged strong complaints over cross-border bombings by US drone aircraft with Gen. David Petraeus, during his first trip to Pakistan as chief of US Central Command. General Petraeus had said that the US would take Pakistan's complaints under consideration.
But a few days later another drone attack in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 13 people, signaling that there had been no immediate change in US policy. Since August there have been more than 18 such attacks on Pakistani soil, which the Pakistani government have repeatedly protested.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Pakistan is reluctant to strongly follow up on this incident," says Masood, of the hijacking. The government and military are probably frustrated with America's continued lack of response to Pakistani protests against cross-border strikes, he continues.
"They might be tempted to highlight their leverage over the situation in Afghanistan," he says.