Taliban fighters have been trying to strangle NATO's mission in Afghanistan by stepping up attacks on convoys in the Khyber Pass, and yesterday forced Pakistan to suspend all traffic along the route.
More than 350 trucks and oil tankers use the pass each day, carrying necessary supplies for NATO forces that have been shipped to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. But government officials in Islamabad said last night the suspension of this important land route had become inevitable because of intensified militant activity in the Khyber Tribal Agency.
Any long-term closure of this supply route would make the problem of resupplying coalition troops in Afghanistan very difficult. About 70 per cent of the fuel, clothes and food needed by the NATO forces is transported in civilian Pakistani trucks through the Khyber Pass, a vulnerable point in the long route from Karachi to Kabul.
The route is now too risky to transport weapons, and many supplies travel on the southern route from Quetta to Helmand.
The number of attacks on supply convoys is a military secret, but reports claimed they were occurring almost daily. Earlier this year, 42 oil tankers were destroyed in one attack.
The suspension of traffic along the highway came as the main Taliban commander in the area, Mustafa Kamran Hijrat, said he was determined to sever the coalition supply lines. The Taliban's tactics are similar to those used by mujaheddin guerillas in the 1980s, who crippled the Soviet army by attacking its supply convoys.
Commanders of the US-led NATO force in Afghanistan were stunned last week when Commander Hijrat's men captured a convoy of coalition supply trucks, and grabbed food supplies and several US Humvee armoured vehicles that were being carried in containers. The militants were later seen driving around the Khyber Agency in the US Humvees. Attempts by Pakistan forces in the tribal belt to recover the armoured cars - or even to bomb them from the air and put them out of action - proved fruitless.
NATO commanders are looking at alternative land routes to bring in supplies through central Asia, using Kazakhstan as a base. But the land route through Pakistan is preferred, because of the ability to ship military supplies into Karachi. However, the use of the port is becoming more tenuous, with widespread fears about the extent to which the Taliban and al-Qa'ida have been building up their forces in the city.
In the past few days, an oil tanker bound for Afghanistan was attacked close to Karachi.
There are reports the UN is pulling its workers out of the Pakistani provincial capital of Peshawar, next to the Khyber Agency, because of fears about the worsening situation. The UN workers were pulling back to Islamabad, a 90-minute drive from Peshawar. Other government and non-government aid agencies were also pulling back from Peshawar, which was described by Pakistan's leading newspaper The News yesterday as "the kidnapping capital of the world" and a "city under siege".
The newspaper said that in the past 10 months, 78 people had been kidnapped in Peshawar, including Afghanistan's ambassador-designate to Islamabad and an Iranian diplomat.