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Pentagon halts ground shipments via Pakistan

05 December, 2013

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WASHINGTON: The US military has halted ground shipments of cargo leaving Afghanistan via its key Pakistan supply route to ensure the safety of drivers following protests in Pakistan over American drone strikes, a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday.

The affected route, which runs from Torkham Gate at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Karachi, has been crucial for the United States as it winds down its combat mission in landlocked Afghanistan and moves equipment out of the country. The route accounts for the vast majority of ground traffic of US military cargo through Pakistan and has been targeted by protesters in Pakistan angered by US drone strikes.

"We are aware protests have affected one of the primary commercial transit routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told Reuters. "We have voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo ... to ensure the safety of the drivers contracted to move our equipment," he added, referring to shipments going out of Afghanistan. The US decision to temporary suspend its use of the route is another headache for military planners just as Afghan President Hamid Karzai throws into doubt American plans to keep some forces in Afghanistan after NATO's combat mission ends next year.

Karzai has so far refused to sign a bilateral security pact the United States and NATO say are crucial for some international forces to stay to advise and assist Afghans. Wright said the US military expected it could resume its retrograde shipments through the Pakistani route in the near future.

He also pointed out that the United States has other options to move equipment out of the country. Still, other options are far more costly, including the shipments via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a complex web of transit routes through Russia and Central Asia. That route is key in bringing supplies into Afghanistan.

The United States also flies equipment out of Afghanistan in jets, including munitions and weapons. The US military had to rely on those alternatives, however, when Pakistan closed down the routes to protest a NATO cross-border killing of Pakistani soldiers in 2011. Although there is another ground supply route through Pakistan, closure of the main route essentially shuts off retrograde shipments, one US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf claimed a "tactical success" Wednesday after the US military suspended shipments of equipment out of Afghanistan via a key Pakistani route.

Activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some armed with clubs, have been forcibly searching trucks in an effort to halt NATO supplies in protest over US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt. The unofficial checkpoints began on November 24 after a call to blockade NATO supplies by PTI chief Imran Khan. PTI spokeswoman Shireen Mazari hailed the Pentagon's move as a "tactical success" and said the protests would continue.

"The US decision to halt NATO supplies through Torkham doesn't affect our protest and we will continue our protest until drone strikes are stopped," she told AFP.

Imran demanded the government block NATO supplies after a US drone strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud but Islamabad has shown no appetite for such a move. US officials said trucks have been told to wait for now in holding areas in Afghanistan, with Washington expecting the route to resume operating soon.


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