U.S. Supply Lines at Risk along Pakistan Border

The U.S. supply line for the Afghan war remains as vulnerable as ever.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Nov. 10, 2008 — -- An American Humvee races across a desert, a flag waving from the side, a gunman in the turret taking sight.

But there is something wrong with this picture. The flag is not American, and the gunman is not wearing a U.S. uniform.

The Humvee had just been stolen by the Taliban movement in Pakistan, which is led by one of the most wanted men in Pakistan: Baitullah Mehsud. His men were taking a joy ride, Mehsud's flag waving from the side of the Humvee, a masked, armed man sitting on top waving at a camera.

Today in Pakistan's Khyber Agency, which borders eastern Afghanistan, Mehsud's Taliban fighters hijacked 13 trucks filled with U.S. and NATO supplies destined for Afghanistan. It is the latest sign that the U.S. supply line for the Afghan war -- 80 percent of which goes through Pakistan -- is as vulnerable as ever.

"About 60 masked gunmen popped up on the road and took away the trucks with their drivers," Bakhtiar Mohmand, a local government administrator, told Reuters. "Not a single shot was fired anywhere."

Earlier this year dozens of trucks were burned to a crisp in the same area. Over the summer, a truckful of Humvees was destroyed by a mob in Karachi.

Truck operators told Reuters today that about two dozen trucks and oil tankers have been attacked in the past month near the Afghan border.

"The government is a silent spectator. [Militants] attack our trucks, loot them and kill our drivers in broad daylight, even near security checkposts, but [the government] can't do anything," Eshtiar Mohmand, who owns a trucking company, told Reuters.

Every day hundreds of trucks make the 1,100-mile journey from Karachi to Kabul, rumbling along some of the least-hospitable territory in the world. These "jingle trucks," as they're known here, may not look like much, but they contain the lifeblood of the American army in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Everything we want to use to eat, drink and to shoot has to come in from outside," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA agent and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "The Taliban and al Qaeda recognize completely this is a vulnerability and a place where it's easier for them to operate inside Pakistan than it is for us, and the way to really turn the screws on the NATO forces in Afghanistan is to go after the logistics pipeline."

Taliban Targets U.S.Supplies in Khyber Agency

The Pakistani military launched an operation in the Khyber Agency in June and declared the area free of militants. But the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda continue to use the tribal areas along the border as a safe haven and training space. It is those militants who have virtually free rein to do what they want when they want.

If the attacks cripple the supply line, Riedel said, U.S. troops are "not going to have the equipment they need, they're not going to have the food they need, and you're going to have an American and NATO force which is literally cut off and dependent on whatever can be brought in by air, which is incredibly expensive and very, very difficult."

The threat to the supply line is also political.

The Pakistani government and military, which received some $13 billion from the United States since 9/11, have mostly helped the supply line since the war in Afghanistan began.

But in September, immediately after the United States acknowledged that American special forces conducted a raid inside Pakistani territory, government officials began threatening to end their support of the supply line. The United States was becoming so unpopular in Paksitan that, they warned, they could no longer guarantee the supply trucks' safety.

"The majority public sentiment must be behind Pakistan's participation on war on terror. That cannot be compromised. If the people turn against it, it will be very difficult for the government to ensure this [supply] line," Owais Ahmed Ghani, the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province, told ABC News in Peshawar. "Because it has to come all the way through the entire Pakistan, from the sea to this place."

Laj Akbar knows all too well how vulnerable the supply line is. He sits gingerly on a day bed near the Afghan border, leaning against his cane. His leg is wrapped in white gauze, and when he lifts his shirt, he reveals a deep scar that runs from his back around his side and finishes near his stomach.

Akbar, a Pakistani truck driver, was shot by members of the Taliban in Afghanistan as he drove a NATO fuel truck toward Kabul.

U.S. Supplies End Up in Pakistani Market

"They came after us. They were in a white station wagon," he said in Pashto, his face resigned. "The Taliban came out from the side. They started firing at us. One bullet came through the door and hit me."

Long before many of the trucks get even close to the border with Afghanistan, they get looted. The booty ends up in Sitara Market in Peshawar, the largest city in northwest Pakistan.

There, for a few dozen dollars, you can buy poker sets, knives, even family photos that have been stolen from supply trucks and sold to the highest bidder. Also available: American weapons, whose prices have shot up sevenfold in the last year, locals said.

On a recent day, an ABC News camera filmed locals looking through high-tech binoculars destined for the American military. A young boy played with something he didn't quite understand, shaking a baseball glove and, after it made no sound, finally putting his hand inside.

"This is the only road that goes to Afghanistan, there is no other road. So definitely there are some incidents," said the owner of Sitara Market. Boxes of Gatorade are sold for $5-$10. American-made chocolate muffins go for $3 a basket. American army uniforms are sold for close to $100.

Despite the evidence, NATO officials in Kabul insisted that the vast majority of gear is still arriving safely into Afghanistan.

"There are always difficulties, there are always challenges, but so far, our supply line have been well established," Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, NATO's chief spokesman in Kabul, told ABC News. "That's their bread and butter," he said of the contractors who oversee the supply line. "That's what they do to support our mission, and so far, it has worked, and [we] certainly hope it will continue like this."

There is no doubt that the majority of supplies destined for Afghanistan makes it all the way from Karachi to Kabul. But the image of a Talib driving an American Humvee with a Baitullah Mehsud flag waving in the air will give the most sanguine American military leader pause.

American Military Aware of Vulnerability

"The American military and NATO military officials are well aware of their vulnerability here and have been looking for long time for alternatives to develop so we don't have to rely on Pakistan," Riedel said. "But the problem is the geography doesn't change. There is no other way to bring in supplies."