The US military on Wednesday suspended the shipment of equipment out of Afghanistan via the Torkham border, citing growing security concerns following a blockade organised by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
“We are aware protests have affected one of the primary commercial transit routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright in a statement.
“We have voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo through the Pakistan Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) from Torkham Gate through Karachi… to ensure the safety of the drivers contracted to move our equipment,” he added.
The affected route has been crucial for the United States as it winds down its combat mission in landlocked Afghanistan and moves equipment out of the country. It accounts for the vast majority of ground traffic of US military cargo through Pakistan.
Protesters, some armed with clubs, have been forcibly searching trucks near the Torkham border in an effort to halt Nato supplies in protest over US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt. The unofficial checkpoints began on November 24 after a call to blockade Nato supplies by PTI chief Imran Khan.
US officials said trucks have been told to wait for now in holding areas in Afghanistan, with Washington expecting the route to resume operating soon. A US defence official said Washington believed the Islamabad government fully supported the use of the route and that it would soon restore security to the area.
Other sources in the federal government, meanwhile, sought to downplay Pentagon’s move to halt the movement of equipment via Torkham.
Although no one in the government was willing to officially comment on the development, a senior official told The Express Tribune that Washington had not yet formally communicated its decision to Islamabad. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he insisted that Pakistan was still committed to the agreement with US-led Nato forces for facilitating their ‘safe exit’ from Afghanistan.
However, another official expressed concern over the row between the federal and provincial authorities on the issue.
“It is certainly counter-productive and sends a wrong message,” the official added.
Islamabad signed a deal with the US in July last year allowing Nato convoys to transit Pakistan until the end of 2015, but a spokesman for the interior ministry said they were unable to intervene.
“Maintaining law and order is a provincial subject and the provincial government is responsible for security of Nato trucks, we can’t direct them in this regard,” Omer Hameed Khan said.
But while protesters enjoy support from the PTI-led government in K-P, highways come under the authority of the federal government leading some to argue there is no legal basis for the blockade.
The Pentagon spokesperson, meanwhile, anticipated that the situation at the Torkham border would be resolved soon.
“We anticipate that we will be able to resume our shipments through this [the Torkham to Karachi] route in the near future,” Wright said in his statement.
A defence official said Washington believed the Islamabad government fully supported the use of the route and that it would soon restore security to the area.
“The companies that we contract with were getting nervous. And it’s getting a little too dangerous for the truck drivers,” said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The US has alternative routes available as well.
The Chaman border crossing is not subject to the PTI-led protests and convoys there are understood to be unaffected by the suspension. As many as 20 Nato containers entered Pakistan via the Chaman border on Wednesday.
Routes through Central Asia are also available to the US, although those options take longer and are more expensive.
“While we favour shipping cargo via Pakistan because of cost, we have built flexibility and redundancy into our overall system of air, sea and ground routes to transport cargo into and out of Afghanistan,” Wright said.
Some analysts suggested the controversy could undermine bilateral relations between Pakistan and the US.
“(The Americans) are giving a clear message that ‘we are not dependent on you’. If the Pakistan government cannot ensure the smooth flow of Nato supplies, they will look for alternatives,” said defence analyst Lt Gen (retd) Talat Masood. “If this situation persists, the US will think the federal government is ineffective and cannot be relied upon,” he added.
Others disagreed, however.
“There is no threat to US-Pakistan relations here. The protests and blockades of the Nato supplies have been organised and carried out by PTI and other factions separate from the central government. The Nawaz-led government doesn’t want Nato supplies blocked, and Washington knows this,” said South Asia expert Michael Kugelman.
PTI, meanwhile, hailed the Pentagon’s move as a ‘tactical success’ and said the protests would continue.
“The US decision to halt Nato supplies through Torkham doesn’t affect our protest and we will continue our protest until drone strikes are stopped,” PTI spokeswoman Shireen Mazari said.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2013.
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