Pakistan Closes Key U.S. Supply Line

Pakistan cuts a key U.S. supply line in move to tackle militancy in the N.W.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 30, 2008 — -- People living in Peshawar, the largest city in Pakistan's northwest, have taken to saying that they are surrounded on three sides.

The Pakistani military launched an operation today to try and clear one of those sides, and in so doing suspend the supply line that delivers three-quarters of the NATO and American material for the war in Afghanistan.

Using tanks, artillery and helicopters, Pakistani army soldiers and frontier corpsmen attacked villages known as strongholds for the Taliban and criminal gangs, local intelligence and political officers told ABC News.

Armored Personnel Carriers are being sent into the villages, which are located west of Peshawar in Jamrud, across the border in the Khyber Agency. Shops and businesses have been asked to shut down.

But the local administration announced that the operation would be taking place beforehand, so it's not clear how effective it will be at eliminating the militants who have put Peshawar under siege.

Kidnappings for ransom increased in Peshawar almost threefold during 2008, according to police statistics released today -- despite numerous kidnappings that went unreported.

As many as 116 people were kidnapped for ransom in Peshawar in 2008. That number was 34 in 2007, according to official statistics.

It's also not clear for how long the supply line will be disrupted. The operation is taking place near the road where trucks travel from Peshawar toward the Afghanistan border.

On that road in recent months militants have launched their most successful attacks on the supply line since the beginning of the war. For three straight days in early December, more than 300 trucks full of NATO and American supplies destined for Afghanistan were burned inside Peshawar's city limits.

A group led by the cousin of the Taliban in Pakistan's leader, as well as one named the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, have been responsible for the supply line attacks. The groups have been invited to the area by criminal gangs wishing to reinforce their own positions, a local intelligence agent told ABC News. The groups in return get easy access to the supply lines.

But the groups are extremely unpopular among the local population. Across the tribal areas residents say they are under attack from the Taliban -- or criminals parading as the Taliban -- and so they welcome the military operations.

"I don't mind flattening my house," one resident told a soldier as the military moved into his village. "As long as you make sure they don't come again."

The military says it will punish anyone who's caught harboring militants. It has also warned residents of Landi Kotal, north of Jamrud, that it will target criminals there next. The warnings help prevent civilian casualties but also limit the military's ability to capture or kill criminals, who generally escape before the military arrives.

In the last few months those criminals have made Peshawar more dangerous than it has been in recent memory.

An Iranian diplomat, the Afghan ambassador designate and the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan have all been kidnapped in Peshawar in the last few months.

The U.S. consul general in Peshawar survived an assassination attempt in August, as did two journalists driving back from Khyber in August.

In the same neighborhood in October, an aid worker who was leading the U.S. effort to provide aid to the tribal areas was gunned down between his home and office.

"Peshawar is now under threat," said retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, the former secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. "The pressure on the local government is that Peshawar must be made safe, and so this is a shallow operation to at least protect the suburbs."

The supply line has been closed twice in recent months: in mid-November after a series of attacks on the supply line, including one in which militants took a joy ride in a Humvee for cameras; and in early September, as a protest over the one acknowledged U.S. ground incursion into Pakistan.

The materials burned in the most recent attacks on the supply line included Humvees destined for the Afghan army, but mostly they were materials such as cement destined to build new American barracks, according to people briefed by the U.S. military.

The U.S. military says it intends to almost double its presence in Afghanistan next year, from 32,000 troops to about 60,000 troops.

Troops will fight a resurgent Taliban and its affiliated groups.

Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told reporters today that roadside bombs had doubled from 2007 to 2008.

In addition to a troop surge, Wood said the United States would soon begin training Afghan tribal members to help defend their villages.

"What we're trying to do, not arm them or disarm them in this regard, but strengthen the community in such a way that it is more self-reliant and it can resist the infiltration and the intimidation ... and the beheadings, and the beatings and the threats against schoolchildren that the Taliban seems to be relying on," Wood said, according to The Associated Press.