WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Intensified attacks by militants in Pakistan on convoys that supply NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan are in retaliation for Pakistani army operations and U.S. missile strikes against safe havens, U.S. officials say.
Militants linked to Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, accused in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, have joined recent attacks on Western military supplies near the city of Peshawar, officials said.
The attackers have also begun to include Islamist fighters from safe havens in Pakistan’s Bajaur region, where Pakistan’s army and paramilitary Frontier Corps have been conducting operations since last August.
“The attacks have gotten bigger and that’s a concern,” said one defence official.
“The question people are wrestling with now is whether they’ve adopted this as a new tactic,” the official added. “They’ve attacked convoys before but not with this intensity.”
For this article, Reuters interviewed half a dozen U.S. officials who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the topic involves classified intelligence.
Attacks on Western military convoys have grown in number and size in the past few months along the main overland supply route through Peshawar to the Khyber Pass, which accounts for more than half of the supplies reaching U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials are also concerned about a second overland route to the south between Quetta and Kandahar, which is likely to become more important as the United States begins moving up to 30,000 new troops into Afghanistan next year.
About 300 supply trucks have been destroyed near Peshawar and at least six truck drivers killed. Many truckers have stopped taking supplies on the northern route.
U.S. and NATO officials have publicly tried to shrug off the attacks, saying only a tiny fraction of supplies has been affected.
“But this is potentially very serious. If instability increases in Pakistan, you could have attacks all the way to the seaport,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
One defence official described the convoy attacks as an “effort to apply pressure on the Pakistanis” for the military operation under way to the north in Bajaur, which Islamabad says has killed more than 1,500 militants.
“Another thing is, they’re trying to apply more pressure on the U.S., perhaps in retaliation for some of those attacks that have been coming across the border with the air strikes,” the official added.
The Pentagon is trying to determine whether the convoy attacks are coordinated with increased Taliban attacks against infrastructure in Afghanistan, including roads and bridges, according to a senior defence official.
U.S. officials have long blamed growing coordination between militant groups in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, for an intensifying insurgency across the border in eastern Afghanistan.
Suspected U.S. drones have carried out more than 20 missile attacks on militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas in the past three months, as part of a U.S. effort to disrupt militant safe havens.
Officials said Pakistani military operations in Bajaur may have contributed to the attacks in two ways.
Pakistan’s concentration on Bajaur over the past five months has allowed Mehsud to extend his power from his headquarters in Waziristan.
“He’s been able to project power to a degree outside of his traditional area,” one official said.
Pakistani operations in Bajaur have also driven militants south rather than westward into Afghanistan, partly as a result of a supporting U.S. border security campaign called Operation Lionheart that has cut off some insurgent escape routes, officials said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Robert Birsel in Islamabad; editing by David Alexander and Eric Beech