Pakistan’s blockade of the vital US supply line into Afghanistan entered a third week yesterday, its longest closure of the 10-year war, with no imminent sign of the border reopening.
Pakistan’s fragile alliance with the US crashed to new lows on Nov. 26 when NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in what the Pakistan military called a deliberate attack.
US President Barack Obama telephoned Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to offer his condolences, but Washington has stopped short of apologizing pending the results of a military investigation into what happened, expected on Dec. 23.
Although Pakistani and US officials dispute the precise sequence of events in the killings, Pakistan closed its two crossings to US and NATO supplies and gave US personnel until today to leave an air base reportedly used by CIA drones.
Officials in the northwest, where the main Torkham crossing into Afghanistan is situated, told reporters there were no plans to reopen.
“There is strong public resentment. People are angry about this incident and we cannot take a decision in haste,” one senior security official said. “Pakistan will reopen the border when public anger cools down and the route is protected.”
Two nights ago, gunmen destroyed at least 34 trucks in a gun and rocket attack on a NATO trucking terminal in Baluchistan Province. About 44 oil tankers and goods trucks were parked at the temporary terminal, one of three set up in and around Quetta for stranded vehicles.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Taliban have carried out similar strikes to disrupt supplies in the past.
The 140,000 foreign troops in landlocked Afghanistan rely on fuel, food and equipment brought in from outside — nearly half of which is routed through Pakistan, the quickest and cheapest supply line.
Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said the blockade was not affecting troops on the ground, but he declined to comment on what might happen if the border remained closed.
“Fifty-two percent of our supplies come from the northern route and we still have plenty of air assets,” he said. “We have the technology and the assets to support all our troops ... on the ground. Right now, we don’t see any problems. I don’t want to speculate for the future.”
ISAF and the US have been building up alternative supply routes through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from the north of Afghanistan as relations between Washington and Islamabad have deteriorated this year.
Publicly, the coalition has insisted its fight against the Taliban will not be affected by the blockade. British newspaper the Guardian said stockpiles mean there would be no impact on NATO operations for several months.
Pakistani-US relations, yet to recover from a secret US raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2, are considered to be at their lowest ebb.
The partnership is often described as an unhappy marriage of convenience in which Pakistan depends on billions of dollars of US aid and the US depends on Pakistani logistical support for the war effort in Afghanistan.