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Pakistani truckers back Nato supply route blockade

CHAMAN: Sleeping in a freezing cab, running out of money and
worried about militant attacks, Ghulab Jan is one of thousands of truck
drivers stranded as a result of Pakistan’s blockade of the Afghan border
to Nato and US war supplies.

But they and the
businessmen who run what has been a lucrative trade for most of the last
decade say they support the decision to shut the frontier in
retaliation for coalition air strikes almost two weeks ago that killed
24 Pakistani troops in two remote border outposts.
”We risk our
lives and take these supplies to Afghanistan for Nato, and in return
they are killing our soldiers,” said Jan, whose fuel truck is parked in a
terminal in the dusty, dangerous border town of Chaman in southwestern
Baluchistan.
“This is unacceptable, and we unanimously support the government over closing the border.”
Given
the current anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, drivers might not want to
call publicly for the border to reopen. There is broad anger throughout
the country over the attack, and the US faces a challenge in repairing a
relationship critical to its hopes of ending the Afghan war.
”I
hope Allah grants my prayer that this Nato supply ends permanently,”
said Ghaza Gul, a 45-year-old driver who has been in the trucking
profession since was he was 10, when he washed the vehicles and made
tea. ”I would rather die of hunger than carry these shipments,” he said,
sitting on a dirty mat with other drivers at a terminal in Karachi, the
port city where the supplies are unloaded.
Despite such
declarations, the drivers have remained with their vehicles. That
suggests the trucking companies believe the stoppage will be temporary.
The trucks are currently parked at terminals close to the border, some
in large towns in the area.
Pakistan closed its two Afghan
crossings in Chaman and Torkham, in the northwest Khyber tribal area,
almost immediately after Nato aircraft attacked two army posts along the
border on November 26. The supply lines account for 40 per cent of the
fuel, clothes, vehicles and other ”non-lethal” supplies for the Afghan
war.
President Barack Obama and other American officials have
expressed their condolences for the deaths and promised a full
investigation into what they have said was an accident. But this has
done little to assuage anger in Pakistan, where the military has
continued to describe the attack as a deliberate act of aggression.
The
government, needing to show a firm response to placate critics who have
long protested its alliance with Washington, has also retaliated by
demanding that the US vacate an air base used for CIA drones and by
boycotting an international conference aimed at stabilising Afghanistan.
Many
analysts believe Pakistan and the US want to avoid a total rupture of
their difficult relationship because of its mutual strategic importance.
Pakistan needs American aid and cannot afford diplomatic isolation;
Washington wants Islamabad’s help with Afghanistan.For that reason, most
people think the trucks will start rolling again soon, likely within a
few weeks.
”It won’t be much longer,” said Imtiaz Gul, director of
the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. ”They can’t
sustain it indefinitely. It would alienate the whole world,” he said,
referring to the many countries that have troops in the coalition. Nato
officials have said the coalition has built a stockpile of military and
other supplies that could keep operations in Afghanistan running at
their current level for several months even if the route through
Pakistan remains closed.
The coalition has reduced its dependence
on Pakistan over time by developing alternative routes that enter
Afghanistan through Central Asia. Nato could seek to expand those
routes, but that would make the coalition heavily dependent on Russia at
a time when ties with Moscow are increasingly strained.
Last
year, Pakistan kept the Torkham crossing closed for 11 days after US
helicopters accidentally killed two Pakistani troops. It reopened the
route along the fabled Khyber Pass after Washington formally apologised.
Militants
and criminals, some reportedly working with trucking companies engaging
in insurance scams, took advantage of the situation to carry out
near-daily attacks against trucks stacked up in poorly guarded terminals
and roadside rest stops. The attacks killed several people and
destroyed about 150 vehicles.
Authorities have taken stronger
steps to protect the trucks this time around. Many of the vehicles were
ordered to drive south away from the militant-infested border areas in
the northwest, said truck owners and drivers. Those that remained were
prohibited to park along the road, where they were most vulnerable, and
were instead put in terminals that may not be 100 per cent safe but at
least have some security.

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