Container trucks and oil tankers bound for U.S and NATO troops in Afghanistan were forced off the road on Sunday after militant attacks prompted Pakistan to block a major supply line, highlighting the vulnerability of the mountain passage.
The suspension in northwest Pakistan was confirmed on Sunday and was intended to allow for a review of security in the famed Khyber Pass. The convoys currently have little to no security detail as they travel to Afghanistan with vital food, fuel and other goods.
The ban on container trucks and tankers could be lifted as early as Monday with new procedures in place, said Bakhtiar Khan, a No. 2 government representative in the area.
Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are behind much of the escalating violence along the lengthy, porous Afghan-Pakistan border. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have accused each other of not doing enough to stop militant activity, while U.S. missile strikes in Pakistani territory have ratcheted up tensions further.
Militants hijack trucks
Last Monday, dozens of suspected Taliban militants hijacked several trucks near the Khyber Pass whose load included Humvees heading to the U.S.-led coalition. Over the weekend, U.S.-led coalition troops reported killing 38 insurgents in fighting in southern Afghanistan and detaining two militant leaders near Pakistan's lawless border.
U.S. and NATO officials in Afghanistan have sought to downplay threats posed to the convoys coming through Pakistan, but NATO has said it is close to striking pacts with Central Asian countries that would let it transport "non-lethal" supplies from north of Afghanistan.
In April, NATO concluded a transit agreement with Russia, but it will be of practical use only once the Central Asian nations between Russia and Afghanistan come on board.
"It's not the first time this has happened," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said of the hold up on Sunday. "When this has happened in the past it did not have any impact in the long term."
A Pakistani official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said authorities planned to offer paramilitary Frontier Corps escorts to trucks carrying supplies for troops in Afghanistan. He did not say when this would happen.
"The suspension was made to review the security arrangements and that has already been done," Khan said. "Along with increasing the security and establishing more checkpoints, we have issued orders to deal with attackers and snatchers more strictly."
The suspension left dozens of trucks and oil tankers stranded along a main road near Peshawar, the regional capital.
"This is our job, and we have to do it, but yes, we have a security risk every time we pass through the route," said Rehmatullah, a driver who gave only one name and said his truck was carrying a military vehicle of some sort.
Most supplies come via Karachi
Most of the supplies headed to foreign troops in Afghanistan arrive in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi in unmarked, sealed shipping containers and are loaded onto trucks for the journey either to the border town of Chaman or on the primary route, through the Khyber Pass.
The recent ambush took place at the entrance to the pass. U.S. officials say the attackers seized two Humvees and a water truck. Several trucks carrying wheat for the World Food Program were also hijacked.
While critical of recent U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's northwest tribal regions, both Pakistan's prime minister and president denied any plans to subvert the supply line as a pressure tactic in recent interviews with The Associated Press.
U.S. troops battling escalating insurgency
U.S.-led troops are battling an escalating insurgency in Afghanistan that has pushed violence to its highest levels since the 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban regime and raised the specter of American failure in a key theater in the war on terror.
The U.S. military reported Sunday that 38 insurgents were killed during a clash with coalition troops in southern Helmand province.
Also Saturday, in eastern Paktia province's Zurmat district, coalition troops killed five al-Qaida-associated insurgents and nabbed eight, including a militant leader accused of helping the Taliban move and train Arab and other foreign fighters into Afghanistan, a statement said. The militant was not identified.
In eastern Khost province Saturday, coalition and Afghan troops detained a militant leader of the network of Afghan insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.
The U.S. once supported Jalaluddin Haqqani as a "freedom fighter" when he fought against the former Soviet Union's 1980s occupation of Afghanistan. He and his son Sirajuddin are now considered major threats to U.S. forces.
Security for Taliban chief
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, meanwhile, offered Sunday to provide security for the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Omar, if he agrees to enter peace talks, and suggested that if the U.S. and other Western nations disagreed they could leave the country or oust him.
"If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices, remove me or leave if they disagree," Karzai said.
Omar is believed to be in hiding but still running the insurgency.
Karzai has long supported drawing the Islamist militia into the political mainstream on the condition that they accept the country's constitution.
Omar has not directly responded to these calls, but spokesmen associated with the Taliban have previously said U.S. and other foreign troops must withdraw before any talks. Karzai dismissed that, saying foreign troops are necessary for Afghanistan's security.
Also Sunday, suicide car bombers struck a NATO convoy in the northern Baghlan province and a U.S. convoy in western Herat province, officials said. One civilian died in the northern attack.
The British military said one of its soldiers was killed when his vehicle was hit by an explosion in the southern Helmand Province on Saturday. NATO reported one of its soldiers was killed in a roadside bombing, but it was unclear if the two attacks were related.
Attacks in Afghanistan are up 30 percent from 2007, military officials say. More than 5,400 people — most of them militants — have died in insurgency-related violence this year, according to a tally of official figures provided to the AP.