Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani says his country's blockade of North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply lines into Afghanistan - ordered in
retaliation for a deadly NATO helicopter attack in Pakistan - is likely to stay
in place for weeks.
In a December 11 interview with the BBC, Gilani admitted Pakistan was using the
blockades on the supply routes as a bargaining chip to get Washington to write
new "rules of engagement" for NATO attacks in Pakistan's border region.
Gilani said Pakistan could take further retaliatory action, including the
possibility of closing its airspace to the United States - a move that would
further complicate the supply of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Gilani also told the BBC that neither Pakistan nor the United
States trusted each other in the fight against Islamic militancy, and that
Islamabad would keep its blockades in place at border crossings into
Afghanistan until new rules of engagement were written.
"Yes, there is a credibility gap [between Pakistan and the United States]. We
are working together and still we don't trust each other," Gilani said. "I
think we have to improve our relationship so that, for better results, we
should have more confidence in each other."
Disputed border attack
Pakistan's already fragile relations with the United States were shaken further
in May when US forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani
military academy without first notifying Islamabad or Pakistani military
But relations fell to a new low on November 26, when two NATO helicopter
strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in what Pakistan's military has called a
Washington has expressed regret about the strikes on the two Pakistani border
posts, but says there will be no apology until an investigation determines
exactly what the Pakistani soldiers were doing when the air strikes were called
in by nearby NATO ground troops in Afghanistan.
Within hours of the helicopter attacks, Pakistan cut the two main routes in its
territory for transporting NATO supplies into Afghanistan - the Khyber Pass
that goes from the border town of Torkham to Kabul and a route through
Pakistan's Balochistan province that passes from the border town of Chaman on
Those two routes account for about one-third of all cargo that the NATO-led
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ships into Afghanistan.
Northern route gains importance
Another one-third of NATO's supplies are flown directly into Afghanistan, while
the remaining cargo goes overland along the so-called "northern distribution
network", which passes through Central Asia from the Caucasus or Russia.
With some supplies for Afghanistan's fledgling security forces also passing
through Pakistan, a sustained blockade by Islamabad could threaten efforts by
the United States and its allies to build up the Afghan armed forces ahead of
the planned 2014 withdrawal of international forces from the country.
Gilani's threat to keep the blockade in place on NATO deliveries through
Pakistan also raises the importance of the alternative route through Central
That could lead to further negotiations between NATO and Central Asian states,
as well as Russia and Caucasus transit countries like Azerbaijan, that would
allow greater amounts of cargo or the inclusion of weapons and ammunition along
the northern distribution network.
Seeking end to Pakistan reliance
Before 2009, most supplies for the 140,000 International Security Assistance
Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan were shipped to the port of Karachi in
Pakistan and then transported by truck into Afghanistan.
But after a series of ambushes against its supply trucks in Pakistan in 2009,
NATO began to negotiate transit rights with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Those
negotiations took almost a year to complete.
Germany and the United States have been allowed to use the northern route
through Central Asia to receive non-lethal supplies. But that route had been
closed to NATO forces as a whole, as well as for delivering weapons,
ammunition, or other combat supplies to Afghanistan.
Even before Islamabad imposed its blockade, ISAF forces and the US military had
decided to push supply networks away from their reliance on Pakistan. In July,
more than half of all ground-transported supplies arrived in Afghanistan
through Khyber or Chaman.
Since then, the United States has been trying to reduce its supply transit
through Pakistan to about 25 percent of overland cargo.
ISAF said the move was aimed at "reducing reliance on any single line of
communication to avoid any unnecessary vulnerabilities should that network
Pakistan has briefly closed supply routes through its territory on two earlier
occasions - once after crossborder NATO air strikes in the autumn of 2010 that
killed three Pakistani soldiers and again in April when thousands of Pakistanis
demonstrated against NATO drone strikes by rallying on a key highway.
The routes through Pakistan are also vulnerable to attacks by insurgents. Since
the blockade was imposed, militants have carried out several attacks on NATO
supply trucks that have been backed up in Pakistan near the border. The latest
such attack, which killed one driver and destroyed several NATO supply trucks,
happened early on December 12.
Afghanistan also has a border with Turkmenistan to the northwest and Tajikistan
to the north, as well as a small remote border with China in mountainous
territory in the far northeast. But the border with China is too remote and
high-altitude to create a major transit route.
A convenient and relatively cheap link through Iran's port of Chabahar into
western Afghanistan is ruled out because of hostile relations between Tehran
United States forces early on December 12 completed their withdrawal from the
remote Shamsi Air Field in southern Pakistan. The withdrawal from that air
field, used mostly as a maintenance and refueling base for unmanned US drone
aircraft, began on December 5 after talks by telephone between Gilani and US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But that withdrawal is expected to have little impact on the drone campaign
because most drone attacks in the Afghan-Pakistani border region originate from
air fields in Afghanistan.