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Afghan Convoys Risk Taliban Attacks
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Afghan Convoys Risk Taliban Attacks


Afghan Convoys Risk Taliban Attacks
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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Iran. I'm Renee Montagne. And in Afghanistan, getting supplies to U.S. and NATO troops has become a major headache. The country has few airports, so many supplies are trucked in from Pakistan. And militants are ambushing these trucks on isolated roads; 60 were hijacked or destroyed last year. The U.S. military is trying to set up new supply routes, and announced a deal last week with Afghanistan's northern neighbors and Russia. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Kabul, and files this story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: A truck hauling electrical supplies enters the gates of the NATO-led coalition's headquarters in Kabul. A forklift driver is on hand to meet the truck.

(Soundbite of forklift)

NELSON: He removes its cargo box by box, and drives them to a nearby storage shed. The delivery looks quick and easy, but looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to supplying Western military bases in Afghanistan. Just ask U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Wilson. The West Point professor is currently a senior American logistics officer here.

Lieutenant Colonel JEFFREY WILSON (Philosophy, U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Logistics Officer, U.S. Army, Afghanistan): I have a friend who is in charge of the joint logistics command under the 101st Airborne Division, and the phrase he uses is that logisticians in this country move the ball down the field two yards at a time.

NELSON: Wilson says this mountainous country, with more dirt roads than paved ones, poses challenges for even the most seasoned military-supply experts.

Lt. Col. WILSON: Compounding these challenges, of course, is the presence of a human enemy.

NELSON: That enemy is the Taliban. In the past year, its fighters and their allies have increased attacks on all trucks and tankers inching along the roads leading from Pakistan. Officials say militants have also started blowing up bridges and overpasses on other major roads. Still, Western military officials claim the attacks have not noticeably disrupted their supply lines. Jeffrey Wilson, the Army logistician, says more goods were successfully trucked in to U.S. forces last month than during any month in the past four years. Canadian Brigadier General Richard Blanchette, the spokesman for the NATO-led coalition here, likened it to a river.

Brigadier-General RICHARD BLANCHETTE (Deputy Chief, Staff Operations, International Security Assistance Force, NATO): This is a constant flow of good that is coming in, and the insurgents are basically shelling water outside of it. And you know, those that are using the water at the end don't see the difference.

NELSON: Owners of Afghan trucking companies hired to deliver military supplies are far less confident, like Tila Mohammad Otmanzai.

Mr. TILA MOHAMMAD OTMANZAI (Owner, Trucking Company, Afghanistan): (Pashto spoken).

NELSON: He complains the private security guards sent to accompany supply convoys make the trucks more of a target. Some of his drivers have also accused the guards of fleeing during attacks. Otmanzai adds that a few of his drivers refuse to haul military supplies anymore, like Noorgol Otmanzai, who is no relation to him.

Mr. NOORGOL OTMANZAI (Truck Driver, Afghanistan) (Pashto spoken).

NELSON: The 28-year-old says he quit after he and his younger brother were attacked five months ago, while coming from Pakistan. Their tractor-trailer, which he painted with flowers and peacocks to make it look more like a civilian truck, was carrying cooking oil bound for a Kabul market. Otmanzai says the militants attacked them with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire. One bullet struck his brother, Mirwais, tearing through both of his legs. He says they managed to escape, thanks to a U.S. military convoy that turned up. The Americans returned fire and drove the militants off.

(Soundbite of open road)

NELSON: The spot where the brothers were attacked is a notorious pass two hours from Kabul called Tangeeyeh Abrisham.

(Soundbite of open road)

NELSON: It's easy to see why this is a good place for insurgents. They come to the top of the mountains here, where they have a direct vantage point on the trucks, which move very slowly because they are going uphill. You can see tankers and other trucks that have been shot that are just littering the side of the road. Those that have been removed, you can see the black marks that are left behind.

Recent U.S. and Afghan military operations appear to have curbed attacks in the area where the brothers were attacked. But they and most other Afghans interviewed for this story believe that putting more soldiers on the roads is the only way to ensure lasting safety. Colonel Jerry O'Hara, a spokesman for U.S. forces here, says he appreciates the truckers' concerns.

Colonel GERALD O'HARA (Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Army, Afghanistan): And we talked about an initiative where truckers and drivers can - via cell phone - call in directly to our operations center and report an incident, thereby decreasing the time it takes to react to a particular incident.

NELSON: But O'Hara says there aren't enough troops here - foreign or Afghan - to guard all of the country's roads all of the time. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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