ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 3, 2009 — -- The main supply route to U.S. troops in Afghanistan was cut for the third time in six months today when militants blew up a small but crucial bridge in Pakistan's Khyber Agency.
The bridge, originally built when the British ruled the area, allowed some 300 trucks carrying NATO and U.S. equipment to cross a dry riverbed every day. While Pakistani officials said the supply line would reopen tomorrow, the attack underscores why U.S. officials have been pushing to find alternative means to bring supplies into landlocked Afghanistan.
"We are putting up a temporary bridge in the next 48 hours," the top political official in the Khyber Agency, Tariq Hayat, told ABC News. He said an alternative, temporary road was being created so trucks could continue crossing the border.
Today's attack is thelatest high profile targeting of the supply route, which ferries more than three-quarters of the material used in Afghanistan. But it is the first time militants have attacked a bridge.
Since the fall, militants in Khyber Agency and on the edge of Peshawar, the largest city in Pakistan's northwest, have burned or destroyed hundreds of supply trucks. Most of those trucks have been carrying building materials such as cement to prepare for additional troops -- as many as 35,000 -- the United States is sending to Afghanistan this year.
"This chain cannot be interrupted for any significant amount of time," Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the spokesman for international forces in Afghanistan, told ABC News. But he, like all U.S. officials, argued that the attacks on the supply line have not affected the war effort.
The supply line "is something that is just too big for them to make too big a dent into," he said.
Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. forces from the border of Libya to the border of India, recently told reporters in Islamabad that the United States had made deals with countries on Afghanistan's northern border. He did not elaborate. Those countries include Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and any deal to allow supplies into and out of those countries would also involve Russia.
"We want to have more reliance on other routes," Blanchette said, not only for the war but also for Afghanistan's future. "This will make a difference for the country when we pack up and go."
The Pakistani military recently conducted a major operation in the Khyber Agency trying to clear the area of militants. Last year, the city of Peshawar and its suburbs suffered from intense security problems, including a 90 percent increase in the number of kidnappings for ransom.
Hayat said the operation had worked and that the bridge explosion was evidence of the militants' desperation.
"We flushed them out," he said. "Now they are resort[ing] to hit-and-run tactics."
Asked who was responsible for the attack, he responded: "Who else but TTP?" using the acronym for the Pakistani Taliban.
Peace in the Khyber Agency had historically been ensured by local tribes, who worked with political agents installed by the British. Though that system was severely eroded under President Pervez Musharraf, the political agent remains the top government official in the district.
But in recent months, bands of criminals had been inviting Taliban militants into Khyber from the more volatile tribal areas of South and North Waziristan. Crime was peaking in Khyber and in Peshawar, and groups were looking to supplement their ability to operate.
In Washington, the Defense Department today is expected to release the specific orders for which units will be deploying to Afghanistan. A Marine expeditionary brigade, a Stryker brigade, an Army brigade and a brigade of trainers are expected to be on the list. Already, the 10th Mountain division is arriving in Logar and Wardack provinces, on the edges of Kabul, to try and contain a security situation that deteriorated significantly in the past year.
In total, the Untied States could announce plans to more than double its current presence of 32,000 troops there.
"The Taliban has regrouped after its fall from power and has coalesced into a resilient and evolving insurgency," according to a U.S. government report about Afghanistan released Monday. "Building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at minimum, decades."