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Pakistani protests threaten NATO supply lines to Afghanistan

Angered by US drone strikes in Pakistan, politician Imran Khan has attempted to prevent truck drivers from ferrying essential supplies to and from NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Ameena, a Pakistani truck driver, made a return trip from Afghanistan this week, carrying goods for NATO forces in Kabul. His cargo is bound for the port city of Karachi, whence it will be loaded onto ships and sent home. Allied militaries in Afghanistan have used this overland route since 2001 and it will be crucial for the drawdown of US troops next year. 

But for Ameena, this may be his last trip for NATO. Crossing Taliban badlands in Afghanistan is risky enough. Now he faces the risk of his truck being held up at home by Pakistani nationalists angered at US drone strikes.  

“I am tired of the mental stress on the NATO supply route,” says Ameena, while inspecting his truck’s engine for possible repairs. “I work on daily wages, and I am losing money but till the situation normalizes, it is not wise to go through this route,” he adds.

Since Nov 23, Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician has staged an anti-NATO blockade in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in northwest Pakistan, which abuts Afghanistan. Khan says the protests, which have also disrupted border trade for non-NATO goods, will continue until the US promises to stop bombing Pakistan’s tribal belt. Last month a US drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. 

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At entry points of KP province, political activists from Khan’s party, which dominate the provincial administration, and Jamat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest religious party, have asserted control in defiance of federal authorities. On a recent visit to Peshawar, protesters were seen checking the documents of truckers traveling between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

After a week of silence, Pakistan’s government lashed out at Khan’s tactics. Federal Minister for Information and Law Pervaiz Rashid said Sunday that the protests would create problems for Pakistan on an international level. “It is everyone’s right to protest, but blocking the supply line through street power would earn a bad name for the nation,” Mr. Rashid told local media.

In 2011 Pakistan’s government put a stop to NATO’s overland supply route after 24 Pakistani soldiers died in a NATO strike. That standoff lasted for several months and was only resolved after high-level talks between Washington and Islamabad. 

While it’s not clear whether the latest blockade is harming NATO, Pakistan’s business community has reacted with alarm.

“The problem is that these political workers do not know the difference between the NATO supply and the non-NATO supply and because of which they are harassing everyone going through the province to Afghanistan,” says Zubair Motiwala, President of the Pak-Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Karachi.

During the first days of the protest, some drivers carrying non-NATO goods were attacked by the protestors. Police registered a case against some of Khan’s followers, but their action was muted since Khan’s party is in power in the provincial government.

According to Mr. Motiwala, Pakistan risks of losing more than 1.5 billion rupees ($13.9 million) of trade, if the government does not resolve this situation. 

“We are hesitant in sending any goods to Afghanistan. We are all fearful. We feel we can sustain losses beyond our capacity to sustain our businesses…. and the losses will be permanent because the Afghan businessmen are opting for the alternate trade route through Iran already,” he adds.

Pakistan’s government also stands to lose out. According to official statistics, it earns almost $1 million a day for letting NATO use supply routes through the country, a significant amount for a struggling economy.  

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“Imran Khan, in whipping [up] anti-American sentiment through these protests is radicalizing the youth and the religious right wing… and once they are out and doing such acts of ‘vigilante justice,’ it is hard to control them, even if Khan asks them to back down,” says Hassan Belal Zaidi, a columnist and a development specialist.

According to Mr. Zaidi, Pakistan’s economy is already weak and such steps could globally isolate it further. “It is one thing to send a message to the United States and another to hurt one’s own country, and Khan seems been unable to see the difference,” he added.