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Taliban Attack Highlights Weakness In Afghanistan

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The famous Khyber Pass is a vital supply corridor for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. It crosses through Pakistan's tribal belt. Over the past week or so, Pakistani forces have been deployed in the area to stop attacks on truck convoys by Taliban militants. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, trucking in the area has become an increasingly dangerous business.

PHILIP REEVES: Shah Iran Khan(ph) has one of the world's more miserable jobs. He's sitting outside, clutching a Kalashnikov, trying to keep out the cold by swaddling himself in a blanket. Khan is a guard at the entrance to a big, muddy truck depot just outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar. It's for trucks that haul fuel, food, and other supplies through the Khyber Pass just a few miles away to American and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. Yet, if you walk down into the depot, you wonder why Khan's there. There are dozens of wrecked vehicles. Those vehicles were among several hundred destroyed in a recent wave of attacks by the local Taliban. The militants torched dump trucks, Humvees, containers. Khan says they swarmed in, cordoned off the area, and systematically set fire to practically everything. The neighborhood's terrified.

Mr. SHAH IRAN KHAN (Pakistani Guard): (Through Translator) The local people who live around these terminals, they are not happy. They are angry. They want these terminals to be removed because there is always danger that the Taliban could also, you know, when they start our day here, houses would also be damaged.

REEVES: NATO and the U.S. military use two routes through Pakistan to carry supplies to their troops in landlocked Afghanistan. One road's a long way south of Peshawar and runs through the town of Chaman. That presents security problems. It means trucking supplies for long distances through southern Afghanistan, Taliban territory. So, most of the supplies go through the Khyber Pass. Khyber is in Pakistan's tribal belt. Its people have a long record of disrupting foreign forces. Way back in the 19th century, mountain tribesmen wiped out a retreating British Army. They're still causing havoc. Yet defense analyst, Talik Masud(ph) a retired Pakistani general, says there are few land routes available to the U.S. and NATO.

General TALIK MASUD (Retired Pakistani General): This is the most vital route, and there are few substitutes, and they are very expensive, and they may not be politically viable, either. The other routes would be that, you know, the Uzbekistan and the Tajikistan, Central Asia. And that's very expensive and also a very difficult route. And, of course, the Iranian route is not feasible because of the relations between the U.S.

Mr. SHAKIR ULAJAN AFRIDI (President, Khyber Transport Association): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: That's Shakir Ulajan Afridi(ph), head of the Khyber Transport Association.

Mr. AFRIDI: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Sixty of our drivers have been killed over the past seven years, he says. He says his organization provides more than half the trucks that have been hauling supplies through the Khyber Pass. Afridi says his association's decided to stop sending trucks to Afghanistan for now. He thinks as long as American drones keep firing missiles at suspected militant targets in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Taliban will keep on attacking the supply line. The U.S. military hopes the problem of recruiting truckers will be resolved once the Pakistani military's got rid of the militants and assorted criminals who've been attacking and looting trucks.

Just before New Year's, the Pakistanis closed the road through the Khyber Pass and sent in tanks and combat helicopters to root out militants. That offensive is now winding down. The road's reopened, though only in daylight. The U.S. and international forces say supplies aren't impacted and that the Pakistani army seems to be making headway. They hope the Khyber Pass will soon become and remain secure, though they are looking at alternatives. Others question whether Pakistan's offensive will make much long-term difference. They include Pakistani security analyst Aisha Sadhika(ph).

Ms. AISHA SADHIKA (Pakistani Security Analyst): We've had a war in the tribal areas so very long. There have been no results. I don't think it's going to bring about any more results than we have seen in the past.

REEVES: Sadhika says when the heat's on, the Taliban can simply melt away and later return. After all, isn't that what they did when American forces arrived in Afghanistan? Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.