reflections

Washington's Logistical Need for Pakistan

4 MINS READOct 5, 2010 | 11:26 GMT
Tankers carrying fuel and trucks hauling vehicles and supplies bound for Afghanistan were regularly attacked over the weekend and Monday in Pakistan as militants took advantage of logjams of trucks caused by the closing of the Torkham border crossing at the Khyber Pass. The pass was closed in protest Sept. 30 after the deaths of three paramilitary Frontier Corps troops by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) attack helicopters in what the Pakistanis considered to be the fourth cross-border incursion in less than a week's time. The southern crossing at Chaman remains open. The Frontier Corps deaths simply served as the culminating offense in a long series of increasing American brazenness and disregard of Pakistani sovereignty (the offending forces were almost certainly American, and in any event, the aggressive cross-border operational agenda is being pushed by Washington, largely in pursuit of Haqqani militants). There is no shortage of outraged Pakistani militant groups seeking to hit back, and their targets — dozens of tankers laden with gasoline and parked in close proximity — require little operational expertise or technical complexity to strike. Indeed, few of the attacks have evinced much sophistication. Even on a good day, the line of supply from the port of Karachi to Torkham has never been particularly secure, and as such, the ISAF holds stockpiles in Afghanistan to make temporary disruptions manageable. Thus, the key issue is not about short-term losses; it is whether the closure of Torkham is indeed temporary. So far, this appears to be the case: The Pakistani ambassador to the United States on Sunday insisted that the border would reopen soon, and a STRATFOR source in Pakistan has reiterated this claim. However, this is not the usual spat between Washington and Islamabad. It is unlikely that the United States and ISAF could support nearly 150,000 troops in Afghanistan and sustain combat operations at the current tempo — or, it is worth noting, easily withdraw its forces in the years ahead — without Pakistani acquiescence allowing the transit of supplies. CIA unmanned aerial vehicle strikes in Pakistan in September totaled as many as the previous four months combined and were roughly double the previous one-month high at the beginning of the year. Other forms of fire support, close air support and cross-border incursions also appear to be on the rise as the U.S. struggles to put meaningful pressure on the Taliban to force a negotiated settlement that will facilitate the beginnings of an American exit from the country. Pakistan, angered at these blatant operational escalations, has exercised one of its key levers against its ally: reminding Washington of its reliance on Pakistani territory (and Pakistani refineries) to wage the war in Afghanistan. War requires logistics — even the Taliban has logistical vulnerabilities. But sustained, multidivisional expeditionary warfare conducted with modern, combined arms is unspeakably resource intensive. The withdrawal of American vehicles, equipment and materiel from Iraq in 2010 has been characterized as more massive and complex than the "Red Ball Express" that sustained the Allied offensive in Europe in World War II — and this for a country with flat, unimpeded access to Kuwaiti ports. It is unlikely that the United States and ISAF could support nearly 150,000 troops in Afghanistan and sustain combat operations at the current tempo — or, it is worth noting, easily withdraw its forces in the years ahead — without Pakistani acquiescence allowing the transit of supplies. In recent years, alternate northern routes have been opened and expanded. But these have served to complement, not replace, the Pakistani routes, which are by far the shortest, most direct and most established. Ultimately, as we have noted, the United States is demanding and needs contradictory things from Pakistan. But of all the things the Americans want from the Pakistanis — intelligence sharing, permission for (or at least tolerance of) cross-border operations, Pakistani operations to complement those efforts or replace them where possible — Islamabad's acquiescence on the unimpeded flow of supplies is a need dictated by the logistical realities of war.

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