Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud is behind the attacks on NATO convoys in Khyber and Peshawar. Photo provided to The Long War Journal by Bill Longley.
NATO’s main supply route through the Khyber Pass in the northwest has been severed after the Taliban destroyed a vital bridge. NATO confirmed the route has been closed but said its forces were not in danger of running out of supplies.
The Taliban detonated explosives on the bridge, which is located in the Jamrud region in the Khyber tribal agency. The bombing has made the bridge impassable to vehicles and pedestrians, Geo News reported.
The route may not be closed for long, according to officials from Pakistan’s National Highway Authority, who told Geo News that an alternate route will be completed by Feb. 4. Repairs on the bridge will begin shortly but there is no estimate on when it will be completed.
NATO’s major supply chain for its forces in Afghanistan stretches from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to Peshawar, then through the Khyber Pass to Kabul. More than 70 percent of NATO supplies and 40 percent of its fuel moves through Peshawar. Today’s attack marks the sixth time the Khyber Pass has been closed to NATO traffic since September.
The Jamrud region has been a Taliban hotspot for several months. In the beginning of December, officials from the provincial government called for the military to launch an operation to clear the Taliban from Jamrud. “The government has to take action or we shall see Iraq-like situation in the area in the coming few months,” an official told Daily Times.
The military closed the Khyber pass on Dec. 30 and launched an operation in an attempt to clear the Taliban from Jamrud. The operation ended after less than a week, after the military said the operation was successful in uprooting the Taliban. The military claimed 28 al Qaeda and Taliban facilitators were captured, and more than 200 Taliban fighters have since been reported captured.
But locals in Khyber claimed the security operation failed to root out the Taliban, who have chosen to fight another day. “There was no resistance at all from the Taliban side as they seem to have gone underground,” a local Pakistani told Daily Times on Jan. 4.
Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud has been leading operations against NATO’s supply lines in Khyber and Peshawar. Hakeemullah is a senior lieutenant of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and the cousin of Qari Hussain, the notorious Taliban commander who trains child suicide bombers in South Waziristan.
Hakeemullah is a rising star in the Pakistani Taliban. He also commands the Taliban in Kurram and Arakzai tribal agencies. He declared sharia, or Islamic law, in Arakzai late last month. In Khyber, Hakeemullah has rivaled the Lashkar-e-Islam for control.
Hakeemullah made his mark in Arakzai in the beginning of 2008 after his forces battled security forces in the city of Darra Adam Khel and in neighboring Kohat. The Taliban took control of the Indus Highway and the Kohat Tunnel, the north-south artery that connects Peshawar with the southern part of the province. The military was able to reopen the tunnel and the highway after the Taliban held it for almost a month. Scores of soldiers were killed or captured, and at least 70 were executed. In August, the Taliban again again closed the Kohat Tunnel down for more than a month. Hakeemullah was also behind a series of bombings and attacks that shattered the nascent tribal resistance groups in Arakzai.
During the latter part of 2008, the Taliban, led by Hakeemullah, stepped up its attacks on 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.
NATO has sought alternative supply routes into Pakistan as the Taliban has increased attacks on NATO convoys. NATO has secured an agreement with Russia to allow supplies to pass through the Central Asian republics, and just yesterday NATO officials said its members could use Iranian routes to resupply its forces.