U.S. downplays attacks on Afghan supply line

Image: Afghan truck driver Stanekazai
An Afghan truck driver chats with a friend at the U.S. military base in Bagram north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday.Musadeq Sadeq / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Traveling in a convoy of 30 supply trucks escorted by security guards, the young Afghan driver hauled bottled water through Afghanistan's dangerous south to a U.S. outpost in Helmand province.

Stanekzai then headed back to the main American base at Bagram — without an armed escort. Halfway home on the country's main highway Monday, he heard gunfire tear into his rig. He stepped on the gas and prayed.

"I was afraid. I was bracing for a rocket-propelled grenade, because they usually fire those, too, but fortunately they didn't," the 22-year-old said Tuesday, standing beside his pockmarked truck.

Militants are trying to put the squeeze on supplies reaching U.S. and NATO troops, with attacks on trucks in both Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass of neighboring Pakistan. American commanders insist attacks have had a minimal impact, but they also say they are exploring new routes.

Gunmen have staged a series of raids on truck depots near the Pakistani city of Peshawar in recent weeks, killing several guards and burning hundreds of vehicles, including dozens of U.S.-bought Humvees destined for the Afghan army.

During the summer, militants attacked and burned dozens of U.S. supply trucks on Afghanistan's main highway.

Afghan and Pakistani truck drivers say their work is becoming increasingly risky, and some are becoming wary of crossing Taliban-held areas despite their relatively high pay.

Because 75 percent of U.S. military supplies in Afghanistan come by road from Pakistan's ports, a functioning supply line through the Khyber Pass is critical.

'It's not hurting us at all'
Brig. Gen. James C. McConville, deputy commanding general in charge of support for U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, called the most recent attacks "insignificant," with only two transport trucks and "a couple containers of culvert" lost in the last two months.

"What terrorists try to do is create a perception of insecurity," he said Tuesday in an interview. "We can get more trucks, we can get more supplies, but what we can't get back are these innocent people (drivers) who are trying to make a living. It's not hurting us at all. It's hurting the local people."

Although a Pakistani truckers association said Monday that its drivers were refusing to haul supplies to Afghanistan because of the risks, some trucks continued to travel through Khyber. More than 50 trucks lined up outside Bagram on Tuesday, many full of fuel, waiting for clearance to enter the base.

McConville said more than half of the U.S. military's fuel arrives through Afghanistan's northern neighbors Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

He also said the military has enough supplies on hand to operate for "many weeks" even if militants succeeded in cutting the supply chain.

"In the military, we keep large amounts of supplies in containers. We can weather it when things go wrong," he said. "If you were a businessman, you wouldn't consider that efficient, but in the military it's about being effective, and it's effective."

'Threats every day'
Safiullah, a 24-year-old from Ghazni who had just driven to Bagram from the large NATO base outside Kandahar, said Tuesday that drivers now travel in convoys of 80 to 100 trucks accompanied by 30 or 40 private security vehicles.

He said Zabul province and Wardak province, south of Kabul, pose the greatest risks.

"Every time we drive through we are fired upon or there's an ambush," said Safiullah, who like Stanekzai and many other Afghans uses one name. "There are huge gunbattles between private security forces and the Taliban. We face these threats every day, and every day the threat increases."

Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence company, said in a report Tuesday that the U.S. search for alternate supply routes has accelerated, but that Pakistan remains "by far the quickest and most efficient overland route to the open ocean."

The U.S. and NATO fly in ammunition, weapons and other sensitive supplies, but it would be too costly to ship everything that way.

Pay worth the risk?
Another dangerous stretch for drivers is the Khyber Pass. Bakhtiar Khan, a local official in the Khyber tribal region, said Tuesday that truck convoys are passing through with increased security measures, including escorts by the paramilitary troops of Pakistan's Frontier Corps.

Mohammad Aslam, a Pakistani who drives a fuel tanker, said he fears for his life.

"Only one bullet and my whole truck catches fire," he said. "I'm a father of two children and I don't want my children to be orphans. I want to quit this job. It's better for me to beg on the street than to be a driver of a fuel tanker on these roads."

The earnings are hard for drivers to give up, though.

Stanekzai, whose truck was sprayed with bullets Monday, said he earns about $900 a month, a considerable sum in a country where junior police officers and army soldiers are paid only $100 monthly.

"But this money we are making is not worth it," he said after pointing out the bullet holes in his truck. "Not considering the threat we face."