Stranded Pakistani truck drivers carrying fuel and other supplies to US-led troops in Afghanistan said today that they were exposed to attacks by Islamist militants, after Islamabad closed the country's border crossings in retaliation for coalition airstrikes that allegedly killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Suspected militants destroyed around 150 trucks and injured drivers and police a year ago after Pakistan closed one of its Afghan border crossings to Nato supplies for about 10 days in retaliation for a US helicopter attack that accidentally killed two Pakistani soldiers.
The situation could be more dire this time because Pakistan, outraged at the alleged Nato attack before dawn yesterday, has closed both its crossings. Nearly 300 trucks carrying coalition supplies are now backed up at Torkham in the northwest Khyber tribal area and Chaman in southwestern Baluchistan province. Last year, Pakistan only closed Torkham.
"We are worried," said driver Saeed Khan. He spoke by telephone from the border terminal in Torkham. "This area is always vulnerable to attacks. Sometimes rockets are lobbed at us. Sometimes we are targeted by bombs."
Khan and hundreds of other drivers and their assistants barely slept last night because they were worried about potential attacks, he said.
Some drivers said Pakistan had sent paramilitary troops to protect their convoys since the closures, but others were left without any additional protection. Even those who did receive troops did not feel safe.
"If there is an attack, what can five or six troops do? Nothing," said Niamatullah Khan, a fuel truck driver who was parked with 35 other vehicles at a restaurant about 125 miles from Chaman. "It is just a matter of some bullets or a bomb, and that's it."
Nato ships nearly 50 per cent of its non-lethal supplies to its troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan. The trucks are periodically targeted by suspected militants as they travel through the country, and their occupants are sometimes killed. Nato has said these attacks do not significantly impact its ability to keep its troops supplied.
A prolonged closure of the border would, however. Nato has reduced the amount of supplies it ships through Pakistan from a high of around 80 per cent of its total non-lethal supplies by using routes through Central Asia, but they are costly and less efficient. It would likely be difficult to increase significantly the amount of supplies shipped on these alternative routes in a short timeframe if Pakistan's borders remain closed.
Some critical supplies, including ammunition, are airlifted directly to Afghan air bases.
The decision to close the borders highlights the leverage Pakistan has over the US and other Nato forces, but there is a potential cost to Islamabad as well. Pakistan relies on billions of dollars in American military and civilian aid, and that could be jeopardized if Islamabad blocks Nato supplies for long.
Pakistan eventually relented and reopened Torkham last year after the US apologised. But the number of alleged casualties is much higher this time. The relationship between the two countries has also severely deteriorated over the past year, especially following the covert US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town in May. Pakistan was outraged because it wasn't told about the operation beforehand.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today that the alleged Nato attack negated all progress in improving the tattered alliance between the two countries.
The US has constantly been frustrated by Pakistan as an ally, because of its unwillingness to target Taliban militants on its territory staging attacks against American troops in Afghanistan. But Washington still needs the country's help to try to push those same militants to the negotiating table.
Khar told Clinton in a phone call that the alleged Nato attack was unacceptable, showed complete disregard for human life and sparked rage within Pakistan, according a press release issued by the Pakistani prime minister's office.
In addition to closing its border crossings, Pakistan also responded by giving the US 15 days to vacate an air base in Baluchistan used by American drones. The US uses Shamsi Air Base to service drones that target al-Qa'ida and Taliban militants in Pakistan's tribal region when they cannot return to their bases inside Afghanistan because of weather conditions or mechanical difficulty, said US and Pakistani officials.
The Pakistani army said yesterday that Nato helicopters and fighter jets carried out an "unprovoked" attack on two of its border posts in the Mohmand tribal area before dawn, killing 24 soldiers and wounding 13 others.
Pakistan held funerals for the soldiers today at the army's headquarters in Peshawar, the most important city in the country's northwest. Mourners, including Pakistan army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said prayers in front of caskets wrapped in green and white Pakistani flags.
A spokesman for Nato forces, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, said yesterday that Afghan and coalition troops were operating in the border area of eastern Afghanistan when "a tactical situation" prompted them to call in close air support. It was "highly likely" that the airstrikes caused Pakistani casualties, but an investigation is being conducted to determine the details, he told BBC television.
US officials have expressed their sympathies over the incident and have promised to work closely with Pakistan as Nato carries out its investigation.
In the meantime, truckers in Pakistan are wondering how long they will be stranded and whether they will make it through the ordeal with being attacked.
"Who knows what is going to happen," said Manzoor Agha, an oil tank driver stuck at the Chaman crossing. "We don't have any special security protection."