By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jan 12, 2012 (IPS) – From a distance, the neatly stacked red, blue and orange containers suggest that business is good at Karachi’s Kemari port.
But these goods are not moving. The port official says the cargo belongs to the U.S. military and is meant for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). These goods “in transit to Afghanistan” have been grounded at the port since Nov. 27 after Pakistan severed the supply line.
So far the issue is at a standstill. Any resumption would now have to come with a price tag and a formal apology.
The U.S. has refused to apologise for the attack. A Pentagon investigation blamed communications failures by both camps. The findings have been rejected by Pakistan, which is reviewing its “terms of engagement” with the U.S. and whether the supply line should be opened.
Pakistan cut off the supply line in protest against the deadly air raid on two Pakistani checkposts on Nov. 26 that killed 24 soldiers. According to ports and shipping sources, around 2,000 containers are stacked at Port Qasim in Karachi and 1,700 containers and as many U.S. military vehicles at Kemari.
And, after five weeks stuck at border control points at Chaman town bordering Afghanistan, hundreds of trucks laden with precious NATO cargo, and tankers with fuel are heading back to Karachi. They have not been allowed to unload or to head onwards to the Pak-Afghan border. Pakistan seems in no hurry to reopen the route.
U.S. and NATO officials in Afghanistan seem to be getting desperate. While the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) via Russia is an option, any blockage there could mean a significant alteration to NATO operations. It could also mean a possibility of isolation of U.S. forces.
Defence analyst Ikram Sehgal says the U.S. and NATO “will fight their way through Pakistan.” He believes “it is a matter of days before the routes open.”
Defence minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar has hinted that the government is considering opening of the supply line and taxing the trucks. “If the supplies are resumed, it will not be for free,” he told media. He said such transportation would come at a price because roads are damaged by 3,000 containers that pass over them everyday. “We will charge them (NATO) and repair our roads from these taxes.”
Pakistan has so far not been taking any transit fee from NATO. Now is a good time, Mukhtar said.
Meantime, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) comprising legislators from the ruling party, the opposition as well religious political parties has finalised a list of recommendations for the “new terms of engagement.” It is due soon to give its draft to the prime minister who will then call a joint session where these will be approved.
“We have taken input from various institutions like the ministries of finance, defence and foreign affairs,” sHaider Abbas Rizvi, a committee member belonging to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party told IPS. “We had also asked the army and its intelligence agencies to help us with the recommendations.
“The focus of our brainstorming sessions in the last one month has been to put an end to the abuse and misuse of Pakistan’s sovereignty. We will not tolerate unilateral attacks on Pakistan from outside and even from within.”
But the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council), an alliance of about 40 religious-political parties, has threatened to oppose any government attempts to reopen supplies for NATO under cover of the recommendations of the PCNS because it would be tantamount to inviting “attacks and terrorism against Pakistan.”
At a meeting last week in the eastern city Lahore in the Punjab province, it urged the government to quit the “war on terror” and threatened a countrywide movement against “U.S. terrorism in Pakistan.”
Describing the blockade as a step in the right direction, Maulana Atta-ur-Rehman from the Jamat-e-Islami told IPS: “It’s better if the NATO supplies continue to remain closed.” He said the sensibilities of the masses have been deeply hurt and they will not support any re-opening. “They will come out on the streets.”
Religious leaders argue that terrorism on Pakistani soil stopped after Pakistan disassociated itself from the U.S. and NATO.
The alliance advised the government instead to boost ties with China and the Muslim world.
At the port itself, disputes have arisen about the capacity to hold on to the stranded cargo.
Talking to IPS on condition of anonymity, a port official dismissed news reports that the stranded U.S. cargo was eating up precious port space. “The situation is not as alarming as is made out to be. We have enough space to accommodate 200 million containers at our ports and NATO/ISAF consignments take up just five percent of that container space. Such a small percentage cannot congest our ports.” But, he said, if the cargo remains grounded there for the next six months, and new consignments keep coming, space will have to be found outside the port.
Before 2009, almost 70 percent of the supplies to 140,000 ISAF troops were shipped to Karachi and routed through the Khyber Pass to Kandahar. After attacks on NATO trucks increased in 2009, it opened up the northern route. Now, says the head of a shipping line in Karachi, “only 25 to 30 percent of the goods go through Pakistan.”
The Karachi Port Trust, which charges 1,400 Pakistani rupees (15 dollars) per day per container for the space seems in no hurry to let go of the grounded cargo.
The blockade has been the longest since the start of the Afghan war in 2001.
Pakistan had partially closed the supply routes before, notably for 11 days after cross-border NATO air strikes in September 2010 killed three Pakistani soldiers and again in April 2011 when thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated against NATO drone strikes.