Standing guard over a section of the Khyber Pass. Times Online photo.
NATO’s vital supply link through the Northwest Frontier Province has been shut down as the Pakistani military launched an operation to clear the Taliban from the area.
“Supplies to NATO forces have temporarily been suspended,” Tariq Hayat Khan, the Khyber agency’s political agent, told reporters. The main road between Peshawar and the border town of Torkham has been closed as the military launched attacks using “artillery, tanks and, helicopter gunships,” Geo News reported. It is unclear if the operation is being led by the Army or the paramilitary Frontier Corps.
The operation began in the Jamrud region just west of Peshawar. A month ago, the Taliban overran the Jamrud region. “The government has to take action or we shall see Iraq-like situation in the area in the coming few months,” a Pakistani official told Daily Times on Dec. 3.
The move comes as Taliban attacks have increasingly targeted NATO columns and shipping terminals in Khyber and Peshawar. More than 300 NATO vehicles and containers have been destroyed in a series of attacks on shipping terminals in Peshawar as well as attacks on convoys moving through the region.
More than 160 NATO military vehicles and containers were destroyed in two attacks on Dec. 7. Just yesterday, four NATO fuel trucks at the Torkham crossing point were set ablaze after the Taliban fired rockets on the trucks as they were parked.
The Pakistani government has shut down the vital Khyber Pass crossing two other times this year. In September, the government closed the crossing for one day to protest US airstrikes against Taliban and al Qaeda operatives sheltering in the tribal areas. The second closing was in November, in response to the poor security situation in Peshawar and Khyber.
After the major attacks on the terminals, the Pakistani government said NATO convoys would be accompanied and protected by Pakistani military units. But Pakistani units failed to intervene in successive attacks on terminals and supply columns in December.
NATO and the US military in Afghanistan downplayed the attacks on the terminals, describing the effects on the NATO operation in Afghanistan as “militarily insignificant.” But the US is currently looking to open alternative supply routes through the former Soviet republics.
The NATO logistical chain through Pakistan stretches from the port city of Karachi to Peshawar, through the Khyber Pass to Kabul. More than 70 percent of NATO supplies move through Peshawar.
The Pakistani military launched an operation in November with the intent of clearing the Taliban from the Peshawar district. In a press conference, a Pakistan Frontier Corps general touted the success of the operation, noting 25 Taliban fighters were killed and 40 captured. The operation, designed to relieve pressure on the provincial capital, was the second military offensive in Peshawar since the summer.
The offensive failed to drive the Taliban from Peshawar, however, as the multiple attacks on NATO convoys and the string of bombings and attacks on foreigners inside the city demonstrate.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in the Northwest Frontier Province, the Army has decided to pull at least two divisions from the region to bolster the Indian frontier. The 14th Division began withdrawing last week, and it is thought the 23rd Division is also redeploying to the east.