WASHINGTON – NATO military supplies are rolling once again through Pakistan to help the alliance fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, saving an estimated $100 million a month over alternative supply routes. There are questions, however, whether this will lead to better relations between Washington and Islamabad, which had closed down the supply route for seven months after NATO planes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
The so-called southern route, which runs through Pakistan, is the most direct and cost effective way to send supplies to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan with the RAND Corporation, said the southern route is essentially made up of several roads.
“One of the key ones is fuel and other materiel that comes through the port of Karachi, and then comes up various routes, some of it through Quetta and Chaman and across the Afghan border into Kandahar Province,” Jones said. “Others go through Peshawar and up through the Khyber Pass into eastern Afghanistan around Jalalabad and then into Kabul,” he added.
But Stephen Blank, a national security affairs expert at the U.S. Army War College, said the southern route is dangerous.
“The topography is one of the roughest in the world. Basically it’s a single road in many places,” said Blank. “So you are so vulnerable to attacks. It’s a dangerous road.”
Jones said areas “around the [Pakistani] Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the route that goes through the Khyber Pass is controlled by militias.” As an example, he cites Manghal Bagh, leader of the Lashkar-e-Islam militia group that controls that part of the road.
“The United States has to pay off and the truckers have to pay off some of these militias to get items through their territory,” Jones said. “So it is always susceptible to targeting by a range of militias and insurgent groups, both on the Pakistan side as well as the Afghan side of the border.”
Pakistan recently re-opened the southern route after having closed it down for seven months after a U.S.-led coalition air strike that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
Pakistani officials wanted an apology from President Barack Obama, but finally settled for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling the Pakistani foreign minister, Hina Rabani Khar: “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military.”
But Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College explained that there is another reason why the Pakistanis closed down the vital route.
“There is a great deal of anti-Americanism now in Pakistan, a belief that the United States is using Pakistan territory for operations without consent and just treating Pakistan as a pariah,” Blank said.
“The government of Pakistan and the military essentially refuse to accept the fact that they bear a lot of responsibility for support of terrorists and Taliban forces and so on, who are using Pakistan, basically, as a sanctuary in the war in Afghanistan,” said Blank.
“And they get very upset when this is pointed out to them in the United States, and they say well, ‘Okay, we are going to retaliate by using whatever means we have and basically shutting down the supplies to Afghanistan,’” he added.
Route cost effective
But even now that Pakistan is letting NATO supplies move through its territory, experts still question whether the decision to re-open the southern route is a prelude to better relations between Washington and Islamabad.
Even so, they point out that using Pakistan’s southern route will save the alliance an estimated $100 million a month, most of which has been used to ship supplies via the longer northern route that winds its way from the Baltic States, through Russia and Central Asia.
Analysts also point out that both southern and northern routes will be used to move soldiers and equipment out of Afghanistan, as the United States and other NATO countries wind down their military presence in that country. But some experts said that moving NATO’s 130,000 troops - 90,000 of them American - out of Afghanistan will present a huge logistical challenge.