How the Taliban Hopes to Choke the US Afghanistan Mission

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Mohammad Iqbal / AP

A man looks at Afghanistan-bound vehicles gutted by alleged militants on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 8

Perhaps the Taliban are observing the old military axiom that amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics. In a pair of attacks over the weekend in northwest Pakistan, militants destroyed more than 150 Humvees and other vehicles bound for U.S. troops and allies fighting in Afghanistan — the third attack on NATO supply lines inside a month. Those attacks have highlighted an ongoing vulnerability along the overland routes through mountain passes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier that are used to transport more than 75% of the supplies sent by the U.S. to its 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. So, as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to send more troops to join the fight in Afghanistan, Pentagon planners are scrambling to figure out how to keep those already there — and the anticipated reinforcements — supplied with food, fuel, bullets and everything else a modern army needs.

"Without adequate sustainment, the operational deployment cannot maintain constant pressure on the enemy," Lieutenant Christopher Manganaro, a young U.S. officer in Afghanistan, has written in the professional journal Army Logistics. And the Pentagon can't do it all with airplanes. "Few airfields in Afghanistan can support aircraft larger than a C-130," Manganaro added, "limiting the number of high-value items that U.S. Army units can transport by air." (See pictures of NATO troops in Afghanistan.)

There is no sharper contrast between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than their supply routes. In Iraq, the U.S. military basically owns the skies and roads that run from Kuwait into Iraq, through which nearly all supplies flow. But that's hardly the case in Pakistan, where most goods arrive at the Indian Ocean port of Karachi and then are shipped over land, often to Peshawar. Then they're funneled through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, 40 miles away. Pakistan is plagued with hit-and-run militancy even in some of its major cities, and everything west of Peshawar is pretty much enemy territory.

Militants hijacked a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles nearly a month ago, and last week 22 trucks were destroyed by fire at a truck stop. U.S. military officials downplay the impact of recent attacks, noting that about 350 supply vehicles travel the route every day. Still, they're nervous enough to have begun looking for alternatives.

That's because the choke point in the Khyber Pass is an attractive target for the enemy. Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was asked in September how much trouble his forces in Afghanistan would be in if Islamabad shut down supply lines through Pakistan. "It would be challenging to sustain our presence," he answered. "It is very difficult then to get to this landlocked nation in a way that would provide the quantity of resources that we need, particularly as we see ourselves growing." Bearing in mind projected future deployments, the U.S. will need to deliver up to 70,000 shipping containers (15% of them refrigerated) a year to its troops in Afghanistan. (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable northwest passage.)

The U.S. has recently tested alternate supply lines, and "we're working our way through to understand rail, pipelines, customs, what would it take, are they there in a sufficient scale to allow us to do this? And so we're working this one pretty hard," Cartwright added. The impact of a shutdown triggered by Taliban attacks would have the same result.

And the logistical needs that will accompany the doubling of the U.S. troop contingent over the next year or so makes securing supply lines even more urgent. "The larger the force, the greater the need" for security, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a congressional panel Sept. 23. But the challenge of Afghanistan's rugged terrain has long been a key weapon for locals eager to keep foreigners at bay. The Afghans drove the British out through the Khyber Pass more than a century ago, killing more than 16,000. And they forced out the Soviet Union in 1989, following a 10-year occupation that cost the Red Army 15,000 men.

"The [latest] strike is going to embolden those who see the loss of 150 vehicles as a pretty big blow," says Anthony Zinni, a former Marine general who once headed U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan. "It's going to inspire more bad people."

Stephen Biddle, a military expert with the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from Afghanistan, believes the militants' goal is to slowly bleed U.S. troops. But a complete shutdown of the Pakistani routes by the insurgents would force the Pakistan military to act more forcefully than it has until now.

"[The Pakistan-based militants] don't want to do anything that would bring the government down on them like a ton of bricks," Biddle surmises. "But it's entirely plausible they could ramp the violence up slowly in an attempt to squeeze the U.S. in Afghanistan."

The alternative supply routes being investigated by the U.S. military run through the Caucasus and the former Soviet "stans" of Central Asia. "The route studies exist for alternative supply lines through the Caucasus, but they're wildly expensive," says a retired military officer now serving on Obama's Pentagon transition team. The U.S. Transportation Command issued a notice to transport companies in September, saying "strikes, border delays, accidents and pilferage" in Pakistan and "attacks and armed hijackings" in Afghanistan make the current route dangerous.

The Pentagon wants to require that 90% of the goods shipped over alternate routes be delivered by deadlines ranging from 30 to 45 days. It's also demanding a "cargo loss rate" of less than 1% due to "pilferage, accident, spoilage, attacks and acts of God." No doubt the Taliban will love that last category.

See pictures of U.S. troops' 5 years in Iraq.

See pictures of art from war-torn Afghanistan.