- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Pakistani government’s decision to shut a key supply route for coalition convoys in Afghanistan also has cut off a source of income for Taliban militants and a trucking racket that reap big profits from a cross-border “protection.”

A subsequent spike in attacks on NATO fuel tankers is seen by some analysts as an attempt by this predominantly Pashtun trucking racket to collect more protection money for the convoys.

Pakistan closed the northern supply point along the border with Afghanistan last week after a NATO helicopter crossed into its territory and killed three of its soldiers.

The Torkham Gate crossing remained closed Wednesday, resulting in a miles-long backlog of trucks loaded with essential nonlethal supplies, including military vehicles, spare parts, clothing and fuel.

Taliban militants have attacked the trucks in recent days, and dozens of fuel tankers have been set on fire. Drivers have been killed in some instances.

In the latest incident, gunmen set fire to more than two dozen tankers and killed a driver on the outskirts of Quetta on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson apologized to Pakistan for the NATO incursion and the deaths of the Pakistani Frontier Corps soldiers. She described the incident as a “terrible accident.”

The trucking racket makes money from the NATO transit route in Pakistan along which the security of the convoys is guaranteed, not by the state, but by private contractors and tribes.

“The way this has been dealt with is rather absurd. Deals have cut [by NATO] and some appeasement money paid to local contractors and tribes to allow safe passage for these trucks,” said Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

As a consequence of the deals, the cost of transporting supplies to Afghanistan has multiplied.

According to unofficial estimates, the trucking racket earns billions of dollars annually.

In 1998, the World Bank calculated the total illicit trade in legal goods across the Afghan border to be worth $2.5 billion.

Gretchen Peters, author of “Seeds of Terror,” which examines the role the opium trade has played in three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, said the real figure is probably much higher, “especially now as many of these same trucking firms carry billions of dollars worth of supplies for the NATO coalition.”

The trucking racket has played a key role in shipping illicit weapons into Afghanistan and transporting out narcotics. It also controls much of the traffic in commodities that traverse Pakistan tax-free as part of the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement, Ms. Peters said.

This trucking racket also has known links to the Taliban.

“Powerful trucking families and traders were some of the first to back the Taliban financially, and to this day continue to pay the insurgents to protect commerce,” Ms. Peters said.

C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, said the enormous profits this racket makes is the reason why the convoys have not been attacked in the past.

“The mafia has a huge incentive to make sure that their trucks go through unmolested from Karachi up to Torkham,” said Ms. Fair. “Everyone is paid off along the way.”

She said the trucking mafia will not tolerate a prolonged closure of the Torkham Gate crossing.

“The Taliban are losing lots of money. … Everyone is losing money,” Ms. Fair said. “At some point, the organized criminals and the militants are going to get really upset about losing revenue.”

Pentagon officials say the closure of Torkham Gate so far has not had much impact on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“There has been minimal impact to NATO operations and supplies as a result of the Torkham Gate closure,” said Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

U.S. officials privately continue to urge the Pakistanis to reopen the crossing.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed the issue in a recent phone conversation with Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

Frederick Jones, Mr. Kerry’s committee spokesman, said the senator “has every confidence that the border will be reopened in a matter of days.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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