U.S.-Pakistan Flareup Threatens Troops' Supply Route

May 9, 2011

Quil Lawrence

In the aftermath of the raid in a Pakistani garrison town that killed Osama bin Laden, Congress' anger toward Pakistan is growing. Some lawmakers want to suspend U.S. aid to Pakistan.

But American military commanders are concerned about the potential impact on the war in Afghanistan. Most of the supplies for U.S. forces in that land-locked country are shipped in by truck through Pakistan.

A Tough Border To Cross

The Torkham border, near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, bustles with travelers, some of them crossing the frontier on foot, others driving big Bedford cargo trucks decorated with jingling chains and colorful paintings.

Though Afghanistan borders five other countries, Pakistan is its main road to the sea — and the primary route keeping about 140,000 NATO troops supplied with everything from bullets to Gatorade. It's a long and treacherous road through the ancient Khyber Pass, but the deepest pitfalls along the way are political.

Pakistani truckers run the gantlet of Pakistani-American relations with every trip from the ocean to NATO and U.S. bases in Afghanistan.

Whenever there is a problem with international relations, Pakistan closes the border and won't let the drivers cross, says one trucker. And it's not easy even with the border open, the driver says.

There are Taliban on the road, the drivers say, and once they get into the Pashtun tribal areas, people throw insults or even stones at the trucks they think are taking supplies to American bases in Afghanistan. Restaurants and hotels along the way refuse to serve them, and the local police can be just as troublesome as the local outlaws, they say.

Every worry that a Pakistani trucker has translates into a concern for U.S. military planners.

"It's always important for logisticians when they're supporting a war-fighting commander to not put all their eggs in one basket," says Brig. Gen. Ed Dorman.

He says he is constantly assessing how to keep NATO forces inside Afghanistan supplied, not only through Pakistan, but also from Central Asia and into Afghanistan from the north. But Pakistan is the cheapest route by far, and that means Dorman keeps a close eye on current events, like the U.S. raid into Pakistan that killed bin Laden last week.

"You can't just focus on the beans and the bullets in the logistics lane, you have to be aware of what's going on — what kind of operations are occurring — so you can sustain the fight," he says.

Bumpy relations with Pakistan are nothing new, and Dorman says U.S. military officials have been working strenuously over the past year to open or expand other routes to keep the supplies coming.

'Our Relationship With Pakistan Is Vital'

Still, the preferred option is to have an open, cooperative relationship with Pakistan. That's according to American officials, but even more important for Afghan officials, who will always have Pakistan as a neighbor, says Jaweed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister.

"No one knows that better than we do," Ludin says. "Of course they're important. We realize that our relationship with Pakistan is going to remain a vital element in terms of restoring stability and peace to Afghanistan."

At the same time, Ludin says, now that the fact of bin Laden's sanctuary in Pakistan is undeniable, he's hoping for a more honest discussion.

"The one thing from our point of view that has to be addressed is the fact that there are safe sanctuaries that terrorists and Taliban enjoy outside Afghanistan, and until these sanctuaries are removed, there is no way you can even imagine victory," he says.

Ludin says elements inside Pakistan are probably just as surprised and angry about the apparent support for bin Laden. He hopes those elements will now be empowered.

In any event, Ludin says, Afghanistan has no interest in breaking off relations with Pakistan, and he hopes the U.S. Congress won't either. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.