Citing protests that posed a risk to truck drivers, the U.S. military on Tuesday suspended shipments of equipment out of Afghanistan through Pakistan.
“We have voluntarily halted U.S. shipments of retrograde cargo through the Pakistan Ground Lines of Communication from Torkham Gate through Karachi,” said Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright in a statement, referring to the main overland route used by the U.S. and NATO to withdraw military hardware from Afghanistan as part of a troop pullout set to wrap by end-2014. “We anticipate that we will be able to resume our shipments through this route in the near future,” he added. For now, the trucks are in holding areas in Afghanistan.
The United States has alternative routes available to the north through Central Asia, though those options take longer and are more expensive. “While we favor shipping cargo via Pakistan because of cost, we have built flexibility and redundancy into our overall system of air, sea, and ground routes to transport cargo into and out of Afghanistan,” said Wright.
The announcement came after club-wielding activists of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which leads the provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, forcibly searched trucks for NATO supplies in recent days. PTI protesters have demanded the Pakistani government halt all NATO shipments through the country until the U.S. suspends its drone program.
A U.S. defense official said Washington believed that Islamabad fully supported the use of the route and that it would soon restore security to the area. “The companies that we contract with were getting nervous. And it’s getting a little too dangerous for the truck drivers,” said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. and Pakistani governments recently issued a joint statement saying that the road route through Pakistan was important to Washington, Islamabad, and to the NATO. About half of U.S. cargo is being taken out through the Pakistan route via the Torkham crossing, with the remainder being removed by aircraft and then ships at regional ports.
This isn’t the first time that NATO cargo shipments traveling through Pakistan have been disrupted. Last year, Islamabad shut its border to coalition trucks for more than seven months after a U.S. helicopter accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops. The border reopened to supply trucks in July 2012 after Washington issued an apology.
As of September, the Pentagon said it had to send home 24,000 vehicles and 20,000 shipping containers of equipment after more than 12 years of war. The Pentagon flies out weapons and other sensitive gear. The whole withdrawal will cost an estimated $7 billion, according to Pentagon officials.