On September 30, 2010, U.S. helicopter gunships left their base in Afghanistan and crossed into neighboring Pakistan.[1] Once in Pakistani territory, the helicopters killed two Pakistani frontier guards after mistaking them for Taliban insurgents. The deaths of the Pakistani soldiers came in the context of a drastic increase in U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks on militant strongholds in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) during the month of September.[2] The UAV attacks are largely unpopular in Pakistan, and the government in Islamabad only acquiesces to them privately. Yet the direct attack on Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopters caused Islamabad to close the Torkham border crossing in FATA’s Khyber Agency in apparent retaliation. The Torkham border crossing is critical for the international mission in Afghanistan because at least 25% of non-lethal NATO supplies arrive into Afghanistan through this post.[3]

In the subsequent 10-day blockade of Torkham, more than 150 NATO supply trucks were destroyed in Pakistan.[4] Although attacks on NATO supply trucks in Pakistan are not unusual, this latest campaign of sabotage and assault marked the first time that NATO supplies were targeted in such quick succession and in all four provinces of the country.[5]

This article provides an overview of the importance of Pakistan as a NATO supply route, while also detailing the recent series of attacks and identifying the various parties that may be responsible.

The Importance of Pakistan as a NATO Supply Route

NATO supplies arrive on the South Asian continent through Pakistan’s southern port of Karachi, and then travel through two border crossings into neighboring landlocked Afghanistan.[6] Fuel from Pakistani refineries is also transported into Afghanistan along these same routes. Although NATO has attempted to diversify its Afghanistan supply routes during the last two years, it remains heavily dependent on Pakistani territory.

Placing the importance of Pakistani supply routes in context, approximately 1,000 container lorries and tankers pass through Torkham on their way to Kabul daily, while another 150 lorries and tankers pass through the southern supply route of Chaman to Kandahar.[7] Approximately 150 NATO supply trucks were stranded at the Torkham border crossing one week after the post was closed, and an estimated 6,500 NATO supply vehicles were backed up across Pakistan along the 930-mile route from the port of Karachi to Torkham.[8] Although the Chaman border crossing remained open, the backed-up supply trucks could not be adequately diverted. The Chaman crossing is not as cost effective because the main U.S. bases in Afghanistan, such as Bagram, are located closer to the Torkham route. Moreover, the Chaman route is not as safe due to the territory it crosses in Pakistan, as well as the territory it must pass through in Afghanistan.[9]

In recent years, alternate northern supply routes have been opened and expanded in the former Soviet states of Central Asia, yet these paths have served to complement, not replace, the Pakistani routes. These latter routes are by far the shortest, most direct and well established. It costs more than twice as much to move supplies through the northern routes, and hijackings and gun battles have become common on them.[10] The northern routes are also influenced by Russia and the former Soviet states, which adds geopolitical variables to the equation.

The October Attacks

The first of the series of recent attacks on NATO supply convoys occurred on October 1, one day after the Torkham border crossing was closed. Approximately 20 militants armed with rocket launchers and assault rifles torched and destroyed at least 27 NATO supply trucks at Shikarpur in interior Sindh Province.[11] On that same day, a vehicle that was transporting supplies for NATO forces from Karachi to Kandahar, via the Chaman route, was attacked near Baghbana Tehsil in Khuzdar, Baluchistan Province; the trailer was completely destroyed while the driver and his assistant were burned alive.[12]

On October 3, six people were killed and dozens injured after a group of seven to eight assailants on motorbikes sprayed bullets at 28 NATO oil tankers near the Defense Housing Authority Phase 2 in Islamabad, causing the tankers to catch fire.[13] The following day, armed men attacked a NATO container truck traveling through a town in Wadh Tehsil of Khuzdar district, while two NATO oil tankers were destroyed in the Mangochar area of Kalat district in Baluchistan Province.[14] All three vehicles were carrying NATO supplies through the Chaman Pass.

On October 6, in one of the largest attacks, 77 NATO supply tankers parked near a hotel on Grand Trunk Road at Khairabad in Nowshera District were attacked by multiple assailants armed with explosives.[15] The militants first warned the drivers, their assistants and guests at the hotel to stay away from the oil tankers before they attacked the vehicles. Fifty-four tankers were completely destroyed, while the ensuing fire took 16 hours to bring under control.[16] The same day, armed men in two vehicles and on motorbikes attacked a NATO truck terminal at Akhtar Abad on the Western Bypass of Quetta where more than 30 oil tankers were parked.[17] One driver was killed, while 20 oil tankers were completely destroyed.[18] Finally, on October 9, approximately 30 armed men attacked NATO supply tankers in the Mithri area of Bolan district in Baluchistan Province.[19] Twenty-nine tankers were destroyed in the attack.[20]

Who is Behind the Attacks?

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attacks, and it said that they were all carried out by its newly formed Siyara Group.[21] Some Pakistani and NATO officials said the same.[22] Pakistan’s foreign office, however, associated the October attacks with public outrage emanating from NATO’s incursion into Pakistani territory.[23] Despite the TTP’s claims of responsibility, the identities of the assailants are not clear.

Reports suggest that other parties may have played a role in the recent string of attacks. For example, the most surprising attack was the incident at Shikarpur in interior Sindh Province. Shikarpur and neighboring areas of Sindh have not experienced this type of militant activity, suggesting an expansion of militancy to previously peaceful areas. Yet the Shikarpur area is also a stronghold of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sindhi nationalist parties, and Taliban operatives are not known to operate in the area.[24] Sindh civil society leaders rejected the claims of Pakistani officials that the Taliban were behind the destruction of the NATO vehicles in Sindh, saying that there was no support for the Taliban in the area.[25] Jeay Sindh Tehreek, a Sindhi nationalist group, organized a demonstration in favor of NATO supplies and against the attacks in different towns of Sindh, as reported in the Sindhi-language newspapers Halchal and Sach.

Instead, local Sindhi politicians and media are calling the Shikarpur attack a conspiracy hatched by the Pakistani security establishment to make Sindh Province appear unstable. According to this logic, if instability enters Sindh Province, then the Pakistani military will have a justification to create garrisons or cantonments in the province—further increasing its control over Pakistani politics. One analyst, writing in the Daily Times, encapsulated this theory:

First, it [Pakistani security establishment] has ratcheted up the brinkmanship by stopping the NATO supply line and then allowing orchestrated attacks on the idling trucks. This is reminiscent of the November 1979 burning down of the U.S. Embassy, while General Ziaul Haq went on with his gingerly bicycle ride in Rawalpindi. The mobs torched the embassy and killed diplomats in the heart of Islamabad, while the security agencies stood by. The idea was to teach the Yanks a lesson so they would do business with the general on his terms.[26]

Another columnist added, “If Pakistan feels it is being nudged beyond the band of cooperation it has deemed acceptable, Pakistan will push back. Supply routes will be closed, attacks on convoys will mysteriously step up and cooperation in other areas will slow.”[27]

Yet another security analyst added that Pakistan’s intelligence and security apparatus may be encouraging the attacks by “looking the other way” or may be themselves behind some of the operations. The security analyst added, “The fact that government ministers are calling the attack an expression of public anger shows that some may just be payback.”[28] Another columnist, who is himself a former Pakistan Army officer, wrote, “Militants’ torched NATO supplies in Shikarpur and (DHA Phase-II) Islamabad two nights apart? Tell me another [joke]. Who in heaven are we trying to fool?”[29]

This is not the first time that Pakistan’s security establishment has been accused of supply convoy attacks. After the daring attacks near Islamabad in June 2010 that left dozens of NATO supply tankers destroyed, Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst, said that there could be a nexus between the Taliban and some low-level intelligence officials because the militants seemed fully informed about the logistical importance and movement of that particular convoy.[30]

Additionally, several trucking companies have expressed suspicion that other truck contractors themselves are complicit in the attacks.[31] They claim that some trucking companies hired by NATO sell off the bulk of the oil in the tankers, and then destroy the tankers to conceal the theft. NATO then reportedly compensates the companies for the loss of their vehicles, or provides new equipment.[32]

Finally, there are allegations that the “trucking mafia” may be responsible for some of the attacks. The so-called trucking mafia has emerged around the protection of the supply convoys traveling through both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it consists of security officials, insurgents, smugglers and tribal leaders. The drivers and their companies have to cut deals with Pakistani security officials (the police and the Khasadars), local contractors and tribes to allow the safe passage of their trucks.[33] The goods smuggled and stolen from the convoys often end up in Sitara market on the outskirts of Peshawar.[34] They, too, could have played a role in the latest incidents.


The recent border closure and almost daily attacks on NATO supply convoys may be the harbinger of developments to come. The spike in UAV attacks since September—and NATO’s readiness to attack targets directly on the border or inside Pakistani territory—could be a sign that the United States wants to expand the conflict into Pakistan to place meaningful pressure on the Taliban and force a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan’s sensitivity to NATO incursions and its reaction against it may lead to more border closures, more intense and frequent militant attacks on NATO convoys, and more tensions in U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relations. Clearly, many different groups have an interest in sabotaging NATO’s supply convoys.

Neither the United States nor Pakistan can afford such developments. NATO has failed to diversify the bulk of its supply routes, and any prolonged blockade would hamper the war effort. Pakistan relies on U.S. financial assistance and the many jobs provided by the NATO supply convoys. Both countries need to prevent such disagreements from escalating into a more serious fracturing of the bilateral relationship.

Tayyab Ali Shah is a freelance political and security analyst specializing in the Taliban and other Islamic extremists. He is a Pakistani Pashtun and has a post-graduate education in Political Science, Business Administration and Public Policy. He has extensive experience in community development, policy advocacy and political education with both Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns. He moderates the Pakhtunkhwa Peace Forum and has written for The Jamestown Foundation, Pakistan’s Frontier Post and the Daily Times.

[1] Hussain Afzal and Deb Riechmann, “Pakistan Blocks War Supply Route to Afghanistan After NATO Allegedly Kills 3 Border Guards,” Associated Press, September 30, 2010.

[2] In September, the CIA launched 21 attacks with UAVs, the most ever during a single month, and more than twice the number in a typical month. For details, see Abdul Sattar, “25 NATO Fuel Tankers Attacked in Pakistan,” Associated Press, October 6, 2010; Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung, “NATO Fuel Tankers Are Torched in Pakistan,” Washington Post, October 1, 2010; Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “C.I.A. Steps Up Drone Attacks on Taliban in Pakistan,” New York Times, September 27, 2010.

[3] Karin Brulliard, “Pakistan Ends Blockade, Reopens Border to NATO Supply Trucks,” Washington Post, October 10, 2010. Other sources place this number higher. See Jane Perlez and Helene Cooper, “Signaling Tensions, Pakistan Shuts NATO Route,” New York Times, September 30, 2010; “Nato Supply Lorry in Pakistan Hit by Blast,” BBC, October 5, 2010.

[4] David Rising, “Pakistan Afghan Border Crossing Reopens for NATO,” Associated Press, October 10, 2010.

[5] Although Islamabad is technically part of the Islamabad Capital Territory, it is within the territory of Punjab Province.

[6] Brulliard, “Pakistan Ends Blockade, Reopens Border to NATO Supply Trucks.”

[7] “Nato Supply Lorry in Pakistan Hit by Blast.”

[8] Charles Recknagel, “How Secure is NATO’s Supply Line in Pakistan?” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, October 8, 2010.

[9] Imtiaz Ali, “NATO’s Khyber Lifeline,” Terrorism Monitor 7:1 (2009).

[10] Jason Motlagh, “Pakistan-U.S. Border Spat: Crippling the Afghanistan Campaign?” Time Magazine, October 4, 2010.

[11] “Pakistan Supply Truck Ambush Kills 2,” Associated Press, October 15, 2010; “Militants Attack Nato Tankers in Shikarpur,” Dawn, October 1, 2010; “Terrorists Attack Nato Oil Tankers in Shikarpur,” The News International, October 2, 2010.

[12] “Two Killed as Dozens of NATO Tankers Torched,” Daily Times, October 2, 2010; “Militants Attack NATO Oil Tankers in Pak, 5 Killed,” Times of India, October 2, 2010.

[13] “Six Killed as 28 Nato Oil Tankers Set Ablaze in Islamabad,” The News International, October 4, 2010.

[14] “Three Nato Oil Tankers Set Ablaze in Khuzdar, Kalat,” The News International, October 5, 2010.

[15] “54 Nato Oil Tankers Gutted in Nowshera,” The News International, October 8, 2010.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “57 Nato Tankers Set Ablaze in Fresh Assaults,” Daily Times, October 7, 2010; “46 Nato Tankers Torched in Quetta, Nowshera,” The News International, October 7, 2010.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “29 NATO Oil-Tankers Destroyed in Fresh Attack,” Deccan Herald, October 9, 2010; “29 Tankers Torched in New Quetta Attack,” The News International, October 10, 2010.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Siyara is an Urdu and Pashtu word meaning mobility, as in a mobile assault group. It is not clear whether the TTP truly created this group, or if it is just propaganda. See “Militants Claim Torching Nato Oil-Tankers in Sindh,” The News International, October 3, 2010; “Taliban Claim Attack on Oil Tankers,” BBC Urdu, October 2, 2010.

[22] “How Secure is NATO’s Supply Line in Pakistan?”

[23] “Torching Nato Supply Trucks was Expression of Public Anger,” BBC Urdu, October 2, 2010.

[24] The PPP and Sindhi nationalist parties are considered anti-establishment.

[25] This information is based on e-mail discussions with Karachi-based journalist and analyst Zia-ur-Rehman, in addition to another anonymous analyst.

[26] Muhammad Taqi, “Smokescreen of Sovereignty,” Daily Times, October 7, 2010.

[27] Cyril Almeida, “Strategic Stasis,” Dawn, October 8, 2010.

[28] Riaz Sohail, “Nato Contractors ‘Attacking Own Vehicles’ in Pakistan,” BBC, October 6, 2010.

[29] Kamran Shafi, “An Inauspicious Beginning,” Dawn, October 5, 2010.

[30] Aamir Latif, “NATO Convoys a Soft Target in Pakistan,” Global Post, June 18, 2010.

[31] “Contractors Behind Attacks on NATO Supplies in Pakistan?” ANI, October 10, 2010; “Who is Behind Attacks on NATO Supplies in Pakistan?” Xinhua, October 9, 2010. Karachi-based Pakistani journalist and analyst Zia-ur-Rehman corroborated these claims, while another journalist, on condition of anonymity, dismissed it as propaganda popularized by the security establishment.

[32] This is not a new allegation, as the Daily Afghanistan reported on December 14, 2008 that local contractors set fire to their trucks to collect insurance provided by foreign companies.

[33] “Pakistan Roadblock Cuts Off Taliban Funds,” Washington Post, October 6, 2010.

[34] “Looted Goods from Nato Trucks End Up in Peshawar Market,” Daily Times, June 25, 2010.

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