ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Frustrated by NATO air strikes targeting suspected Taliban militants on its side of the border, Pakistan blocked a key supply route used by foreign militaries fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials said today.
“We have been ordered by higher authorities not to allow any NATO container to enter Afghanistan via Torkhum border until further notice,” a senior border security officer told GlobalPost.
Long queues of oil tankers and containers were stranded along the Torkhum border this evening as the border guards refused to allow them entrance to Afghanistan — an apparent attempt by Pakistan’s government to pressure NATO into halting air strikes and drone attacks within its territory.
The Torkhum border crossing is one of two main supply routes used by NATO to move non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan. More than 80 percent of all NATO supplies move through Pakistan.
Hundreds of oil tankers and containers have now been forced back to Peshawar, where they are parked on the roads, causing panic among resident who worry the trucks could draw Taliban attention and attacks.
Thursday’s decision to close the border was triggered by consecutive air strikes on Saturday and Monday in restive North Waziristan and Kurram, which border war-wracked Afghanistan. Those attacks killed 56 suspected militants, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
Today, however, two NATO Apache helicopters crossed 200 meters into Pakistani territory and fired missiles on a security checkpoint manned by Pakistani paramilitary soldiers. NATO said its helicopters were defending themselves after the soldiers fired at them with rifles. Three paramilitary troops were killed and four wounded in the missile attacks.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Ather Abbas confirmed the killings, however refused to comment on the blockade of NATO supplies. “The foreign office will issue the official statement,” he only said.
Today’s events coincided with a visit to Pakistan by CIA Director Leon Panetta, who dashed to Islamabad in an effort to try to persuade his Pakistani counterparts to resolve the crisis.
This week’s air strikes, which are viewed here as the beginning of a new, more aggressive strategy employed by Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, followed an unprecedented increase in drone attacks in the troubled Waziristan region. Some 22 drone attacks have been carried out on record in September, killing hundreds of people, mostly civilians and some Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
Security analysts said the drone attacks were mainly the result of a refusal by the Pakistani government to open a new front in North Waziristan in order to subdue the powerful Haqqani network, which is made up of an estimated 4,000 trained guerrillas and is blamed for attacks on NATO forces inside Afghanistan.
“Americans are understandably frustrated by Pakistan’s refusal,” said Hamid Mir, an Islamabad-based security analyst.
Although Pakistan has long expressed its disapproval of the U.S. drone strikes, blocking supply routes has been the Pakistani government’s strongest response yet, a possible reaction to growing anger among the country’s military leaders and its common citizens.
Thousands of armed tribes gathered at Miramshah, the capital of North Waziristan and warned that if the Pakistani government and the army could not protect them, they would appeal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to use his influence to protect their lives.
“If you (Pakistan) cannot protect us then declare the tribal areas as autonomous region. We know how to defend ourselves,” Malik Iqbal Khan, a local tribal leader, shouted while addressing a crowd.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik had earlier hinted that the government would take concrete action if drone attacks continue, telling reporters following the most recent strikes that “we will act practically this time.”
“Enough is enough,” Malik said. “NATO has to decide whether we are enemies or friends.”