Ablaze in Bara

October 25, 2020

Government officials admitted that the attack on NATO trucks in Bara caught them by surprise. It was an intelligence failure

Photo courtesy: AFP

The recent burning of four NATO military vehicles loaded on two trailers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Khyber district by suspected militants came as a surprise as no such incident had happened in Pakistan for more than a year.

Even in the last such attack in July 2019, no vehicle was burnt as the attackers managed only to cause injuries to the driver of the container truck carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan when they fired at it before fleeing. That assault had also taken place in Khyber, a newly merged district of the erstwhile-FATA bordering Afghanistan.

For centuries, the Khyber Pass linking Afghanistan with Pakistan has been a major transit route between Central Asia and South Asia. For the US-led NATO forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan since October 2001, it has served as the main supply route with support from Pakistan. The NATO supply convoys passing through Pakistan have faced most attacks by militants while driving through the largely mountainous Khyber Pass.

The four US-manufactured armoured vehicles, called Humvees, mounted on the two trailers were torched by three gunmen riding motorcycles after intercepting the convoy and forcing the drivers to disembark. They sprinkled petrol to put the military trucks on fire near Jallandhar village on the Frontier Road in Khyber’s Bara tehsil before making good their escape.

Government officials admitted that the attack had caught them by surprise as no threat by the militants had been reported. This was the reason they were clueless about the identity of the attackers. It was a fairly easy target for the motorcyclists as the trailers had to drive slow on the road meandering through the mountains. The police, lacking in manpower and resources and struggling to establish its presence in the merged districts following FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, registered a case against the unknown gunmen at the Bara police station. No arrests have been made though search operations were carried out in the area. The security and law-enforcement agencies would henceforth have to be alert as NATO supply convoys are again under attack. The convoys may be temporarily halted or security upgraded to avoid more attacks.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Past such attacks were frequently claimed by the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or its splinter groups. The hand of the Afghan Taliban was also suspected in such attacks directly or through their Pakistani allies as they were going to be the target in Afghanistan once the supplies of weapons, food and fuel reached there from Pakistan.

The Humvees that were burned down in the recent Khyber attack were being brought from Afghanistan to Pakistan via Torkham on their way to Peshawar and onward to Karachi by the Indus Highway as part of the US forces’ withdrawal resulting from the February 29 Doha peace agreement with Afghan Taliban. The Americans are taking back high-cost military equipment and weapons while destroying the rest or supplying these to the Afghan forces. Some of the military installations used by the US during the war have been dismantled.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. In the past such attacks were frequently claimed by the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or its splinter groups.

As a sturdy military vehicle, the Humvee has been critical to the US/NATO war effort in Afghanistan. The Taliban have always sought to destroy or capture the Humvees. Over time they have developed powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to blow up these multi-purpose vehicles. Many Humvees that the Taliban seized from the foreign or Afghan forces were later used by them to carry out vehicle-borne suicide bombings targeting military installations in Afghanistan.

One Humvee captured by Pakistani Taliban was a prized possession for the TTP’s second head Hakimullah Mehsud, who replaced the founder Baitullah Mehsud after the latter was killed in a US drone strike in his village in South Waziristan in August 2009. He had proudly displayed and driven the Humvee during a visit by local journalists to the Orakzai Agency, now a district after merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan has been extraordinarily cooperative and generous in allowing NATO supply convoys to use its land routes all the way from the Karachi seaport to Torkham and also Chaman, the border town in Balochistan adjacent to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Only once during the past nearly two decades has it completely banned the NATO supply convoys and ordered the Americans to evacuate its Shamsi airfield in Balochistan used by the drones in reaction to the November 26, 2011 airstrikes by the US forces on two Pakistani border checkpoints at Salala in Mohmand district. The deadly airstrikes carried out by two Apache helicopters, one AC-130 gunship and two F-15E Eagles had resulted in the martyrdom of 24 Pakistani soldiers including two officers and causing injuries to another 13.

The relations had deteriorated as the ban continued for seven months. It was lifted after the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton offered an apology to Pakistan. The US had realised that it takes longer and costs more to deliver supplies to its forces in Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network passing through Russia and the Central Asian republics. Other Pakistani demands including an end to drone attacks and an increase in the transit fee were not accepted. There was no word if the US/NATO had stopped transporting weapons and ammunition in the convoys as demanded by Pakistan.

The attacks on NATO supply convoys continued for years. There frequency increased when militancy peaked between 2008 and 2012. The convoys passing through Balochistan also started coming under attack as the vehicles drove via Quetta to Chaman and onwards to the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. However, the militants’ favourite target remained Peshawar, where the Ring Road housed dozens of truck terminals that presented an easy target at night, and Khyber due to its strategic location. The attackers, sometimes wearing police uniforms, used to overpower the few private security guards who thought it prudent not to offer stiff resistance before torching the parked vehicles. In one major attack about 100 trucks were burned down. Many loaded trucks also went missing on their way from Karachi to Peshawar and Quetta, but it is unclear if anyone was made accountable or who got his hands on the goods being transported.

Influential Pakistanis, including transporters, with the right contacts won contracts to provide supplies to the Afghanistan-based NATO forces. Some belonging to Khyber faced attacks and threats from the militants, but of them most continued the lucrative business despite being told by pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaeda clerics not to assist the “infidels” who had invaded Afghanistan and killed scores of Muslims.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Ablaze in Bara: Govt officials admit that attack on NATO trucks in Bara caught them by surprise