Hundreds of trucks and buses leave the main highway in northwest Pakistan each evening at sunset to wait out the overnight closure of a strategic tunnel. Taliban attacks there are raising the cost of supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan and hurting the local economy.
As darkness falls, the drivers smoke, chat or doze on the dusty earth of a roadside camp 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the border. Since 2002, militants in Pakistan have killed about 120 local drivers hauling war supplies from the country’s main seaport, Karachi, to bases in Afghanistan.
“I have seen my colleagues’ trucks burned,” said Bakhta Gul Jan as he drove his flatbed truck from the Kohat Tunnel toward the main border crossing at northwestern Pakistan’s Khyber Pass. “Six months ago I received a flyer printed by militants warning us to stop driving supplies for NATO because they are the enemy of Islam.”
Jan declined to name his hometown for fear of being identified by the Taliban, who have attacked the tunnel and blown up bridges on the 1,250-kilometer Indus Highway, the main artery linking southern and northwestern Pakistan.
The militants’ war on supply convoys for U.S.-led NATO forces has raised the military’s shipping costs, partly by forcing the use of alternate routes through Central Asia at what the U.S. military’s Transportation Command says is 2½ times the cost of shipping through Pakistan.
War and Power
The violence and road closures -- which also affect commercial shipments -- are the latest blow to a local economy wracked by war and a national power shortage.
Almost 80 percent of factories in the ethnic Pashtun northwest -- mostly stone processing plants and flour or textile mills -- have closed during the eight-year war, said Riaz Arshad, president of the Sarhad Chamber of Commerce in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunwha province.
While the U.S. government has committed $750 million in aid to boost development in the northwest and undermine the Taliban, “our industrial units are closing and moving,” Arshad said by phone. “Two-thirds of our population is less than 24 years old, which is normally a positive. But with no jobs here, it is as dangerous for us as a nuclear bomb.”
The two-lane highway, which for most of the Afghan war carried 75 percent of U.S. troops’ food, uniforms and vehicles, was designed in the 1980s to pull investment and trade into a region where isolation and poverty fuel extremist growth.
Drivers say rising violence and fuel costs since 2006 have forced them to double the rates they charge for the run to Afghanistan. That increase, plus the new Central Asian supply lines and other logistical challenges, bring the war’s cost to almost $1.2 million annually per soldier, 73 percent more than the $685,000 cost of a soldier in Iraq, according to a June 29 analysis by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
As the U.S. sends 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year, military supply shipments have increased by 13 percent over early 2009, according to figures e-mailed by Transportation Command spokeswoman Cynthia Bauer at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Largely by using local Pashtun truckers, who dominate Pakistan’s transport industry and come from the same ethnic group as the Taliban, the U.S. military has kept its losses on Pakistani roads to less than 1 percent of cargo, Bauer said. Still, markets outside Peshawar offer U.S. Army uniforms, binoculars and cots. In 2008, Taliban hijacked a U.S. convoy that contained Army Humvees and paraded in the infantry vehicles for Pakistani television.
‘Lethal and Sensitive’
The Transportation Command flies 20 percent of war supplies, including “all lethal and sensitive cargo,” directly to Afghanistan, Bauer said. And it sends the equivalent of 28,000 standard shipping containers monthly, enough to fill two of the world’s largest container ships, by sea and land.
Half of all war supplies to Afghanistan pass through Pakistan, the Transportation Command says, at a rate of 580 truckloads per day, its figures show.
Truckers have raised their rates to $2,470 from $1,100 four years ago for the 1,750-kilometer drive to Bagram air base north of Kabul from Pakistan’s port of Karachi, said Himayat Shah, general secretary of the All-Pakistan Combined Trucks and Trailers Welfare Association.
Since the Pakistan supply route opened in 2002, militants have killed between 120 and 150 truckers for hauling U.S. military supplies, Shah said in an interview at his office in Karachi, the Arabian Sea port to which the Defense Department ships goods to be trucked to its Afghan bases.
“We have lost anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 trucks and oil tankers,” he said.
To avoid attacks, many drivers now detour hundreds of kilometers around the Taliban-dominated Pashtun lands, driving northeast through Punjab province instead. Last month, the militants hit that route, too, killing eight people and destroying at least 50 trucks with U.S. military shipping containers that were stopped for the night at a depot outside Islamabad, the capital.
Despite such dangers, Jan, the truck driver, says northwest Pakistan’s unemployment keeps him hauling U.S. supplies.
“I have seven children, and this is the only good business I can get to make the money to take care of them,” he said.