An Assault On Supplies

The Taliban may have discovered a worrisome new target: the main supply conduit for food, fuel and military equipment to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While Pakistan rethinks its support for the war against Al Qaeda's allies in the region, the militants are focusing their raids on the highway that winds through the strategic Khyber Pass—and Taliban sources say they're getting ready to squeeze even harder. The most spectacular strike so far was on the night of March 23, when saboteurs blew up a convoy of some 40 loaded fuel tankers at a Pakistani border post. Then, last week, militants seized a busload of civilians on the way into Afghanistan. Abductions have also become common since January, when Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan vanished without a trace. The Khyber Pass continues to be plagued by "old-fashioned banditry," says a British military source, asking not to be named on intelligence matters. Still, he adds, the fuel-convoy attack may be the start of something new.

Taliban sources say the attacks have largely been the work of insurgents returning to Afghanistan after sheltering in Pakistan for the winter, but some militants seem to be digging in to stay. The sources say the buildup's coordinator is Ustad Yasir, a Taliban commander who was released from an Afghan jail a year ago in exchange for an Italian journalist who was held hostage. Yasir's lieutenants include Anwar ul-Haq Mujahid, whose guerrillas call themselves the Tora Bora Revenge Group. Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani tribal leader who has been blamed for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, has also sent an armed detachment of fighters into the area. According to Taliban sources, Mehsud's men are equipped with 65 sets of night-vision goggles from an undisclosed supplier.

Islamabad won't let U.S. forces guard the pass, but Pakistan's own troops are taking a very low profile. Travelers are apt to see few Pakistani military patrols, especially compared with the heavy traffic of pickups full of fighters from Lashkar Islami (Islamic Army), a militant group not linked to the Taliban but sharing similar views. South of the pass, in tribal Waziristan, Taliban subcommander Abdul Hakim says Pakistani troops are honoring an effective ceasefire. As thousands of Taliban fighters in the area are heading back to Afghanistan for their spring offensive, Hakim says Pakistani military vehicles are flying white flags to show they aren't looking for a fight. That's OK with the Taliban.