Pakistan blocks NATO convoys, but for Taliban it’s free passage

By Dion Nissenbaum

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

TORKHAM, Afghanistan – For more than a week since a U.S. helicopter strike killed two Pakistan paramilitary soldiers, Pakistan has blocked scores of Western supply convoys on the vital route that supports the U.S-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Yet every day, say taxi drivers, security officials and border shop owners, Taliban insurgents cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan without a second glance from border officials.

“Every day, 40,000 to 70,000 people pass through the border. We can’t handle it,” said Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police stationed at Torkham gate.

“For us it’s very difficult, and it’s not possible to ask every single person where they are going and if they have a passport.” “If they want to come to Afghanistan, none out of a hundred will be arrested,” said Sediqullah, an Afghan taxi driver, as he waited for Torkham-bound passengers outside Kabul.

Among the thousands of men he’s picked up at the border, Sediqullah, who like many Afghans has only one name, suspects that he’s unwittingly driven plenty of inconspicuous Taliban insurgents heading to fight U.S.-led military forces across Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s willingness to allow sanctuary for Afghan insurgents long has strained ties with the United States, and its closing of one of NATO’s critical supply routes to Afghanistan added to tension. However, Afghanistan shares the blame for not guarding its own front door.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote high-altitude mountain trails that Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

“More and more we’ve realized that they are not coming through the passes, they’re just coming through the . . . gate,” said a U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

The U.S.-led coalition is setting up a special task force in eastern Afghanistan to deal with the insurgents who are coming into the country through the front door. Torkham is one of America’s busiest military lifelines into Afghanistan.

About half of the U.S.-led military coalition’s supplies come through Torkham, which is on the western edge of the fabled Khyber Pass, and the southern crossing at Spin Boldak, Afghanistan. Not only have convoys headed for Torkham been idled, but Taliban officials in Pakistan also have claimed credit for a series of attacks on fuel trucks along the country’s second supply route bound for NATO bases in Afghanistan.

Less dramatic, but just as troubling, is the suspected flow of insurgents using the porous crossing to dispatch new fighters, coordinate attacks and return to relative safety on the Pakistan side of the border. No one can say how many foreign fighters pass through Torkham.

Mamozai said he suspects that more insurgents use clandestine routes, but Torkham now has the attention of U.S. military officials.