US set to expand its Afghanistan supply routes

Militants often target strategic Khyber Pass

By Thom Shanker and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
New York Times / December 31, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The United States and NATO are planning to open and expand supply lines through Central Asia to deliver fuel, food, and other goods to a military mission in Afghanistan that is expected to grow by tens of thousands of troops in the months ahead, according to American and alliance diplomats and military officials.

The plan to open new paths through Central Asia reflects an American-led effort to seek out a more reliable alternative to the route from Pakistan through the strategic Khyber Pass, which was closed by Pakistani security forces yesterday as they launched an offensive against militants in the region.

The militants have shown that they can threaten shipments through the pass into Afghanistan, burning cargo trucks and Humvees over recent weeks. More than 80 percent of the supplies for American and allied forces in Afghanistan now flow through Pakistan.

But the new arrangements could leave the United States more reliant on cooperation from authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have poor records on democracy and human rights.

The officials said delicate negotiations were underway not only with the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan, but also with Russia, to work out the details of new supply routes. The talks show the continued importance of American and NATO cooperation with the Kremlin, despite lingering tension over the war between Russia and Georgia in August.

American officials said they were trying to allay Central Asian concerns by promising that the supplies would be hauled only by commercial shipping companies and would not include weapons or munitions. Officials also say that no additional American bases will be required on their territory.

Some of Afghanistan's neighbors, in particular Kyrgyzstan, already serve as staging areas for American supplies, and officials involved in the talks said these countries appeared eager to increase their role, both to help bring stability to the region, and to benefit commercially from the arrangement.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan share Afghanistan's northern border and have road routes into Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan, farther to the north, allows American military cargo planes access to its airfields, in a deal that has become more important since 2005, when the government of Uzbekistan ordered the United States to leave a base there in a dispute over human rights issues.

American and NATO officials say concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record are less important to the current negotiations because any new arrangements would not require increased military-to-military cooperation, no new bases are under discussion, and any increased supply shipments would be handled by commercial trucking companies.

NATO officials say the attacks in Pakistan do not yet present a strategic threat to the American supply lines. But the closing of the supply line through Pakistan yesterday underscored the vulnerability of the route on which American and NATO forces depend.

That route now runs more than 700 miles from the southern Pakistani port of Karachi to Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, and then through the Khyber Pass, the ancient gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Khyber and the narrow highway that winds through it were once relatively safe, guarded by tribes paid by the Pakistani government that were subject to collective punishment for crimes against travelers, no matter who committed them.

But this year militants have largely taken over the area as the Taliban have encroached on Peshawar, a frontier hub of 3 million people.

The militants now routinely attack convoys on the route, firing rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. Many truck drivers have stopped making the trip because it so deadly.

Yesterday, troops from the Pakistani Frontier Corps finally shut down the route.

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