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Asia

Supply route blockade hurts Pakistani traders

Pakistani activists in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have blocked a key NATO supply route to Afghanistan to protest against US drone strikes. Traders say it is causing them huge financial losses.

The activists and workers belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) party have blocked one of the key NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, thus taking the law into their own hands. The party supporters continue to block a road in the northwestern Peshawar city, which is used to ferry goods to and from Afghanistan. Pakistani police said on November 25 that followers of PTI chairman and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan had been harassing truckers and turning back vehicles carrying NATO goods.

The blockade was imposed over the weekend after Khan reacted angrily to a US drone strike in the Hangu district of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is ruled by his party. Khan has persistently opposed the strikes in the restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The US considers drones to be an effective weapon against the Taliban and al Qaeda militants who it believes use Pakistan as a base to launch attacks on international troops in Afghanistan.

Significance of the route

DW's Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan says the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa route is still important for NATO troops, despite the fact that much of their supplies are being transported through the alternate route in southwestern Balochistan province.

Imran Khan (Photo: REUTERS/Athar Hussain)

Imran Khan wants Islamabad to review its alliance with Washington

Land routes to Afghanistan via Pakistan are the cheapest way for NATO to provide much-needed supplies to its soldiers who are fighting a decade-long war against militants in Afghanistan. Security experts say these routes are even more important for NATO-led troops as they prepare to withdraw from the war-torn nation next year.

It is not the first time Pakistan has closed a NATO supply route. Islamabad had taken similiar action in 2011 in retaliation to a NATO airstrike in Salala near the Afghan border that resulted in the death of 24 of its soldiers.

Economic loss

US drone strikes are hugely unpopular in Pakistan. Many in the country support Imran Khan's decision to block NATO supply routes until the US halts its controversial strikes. They also demand that PM Sharif's central government in Islamabad supports Khan's protest. So far, Sharif's government has shown pragmatism over the issue and has said that the blockade would hurt Pakistan's already fragile economy.

Pakistani traders agree. They say the blockade is causing them huge financial losses. According to them, the PTI activists have not only taken into custody the trucks carrying NATO supplies, but also those which are used for trading other goods with Afghanistan. The traders claim the belligerent PTI workers stopped 40 trucks on November 25, out of which only one was delivering NATO goods.

"There are over 350 people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and around 1600 in the southern port city of Karachi associated with the Pakistani-Afghan transit trade. These people employ a staff of up to thirty people each. The blockade has caused financial loss to all these people," Zia-ul-Haq, president of the Pakistani-Afghan transit trade, told DW. "You can't put pressure on the US by not allowing the trucks to go into Afghanistan. It will only damage our own economy," he added.

Faiz Muhammad, a trucker, told the news agency AFP that the PTI workers' act was "illegal."

"They broke the seal of my truck and checked the items forcefully," Muhammad said.

Pakistani police authorities confirmed the vigilante action but said they could not act against the activists as they belonged to the province's ruling party.

Controversial strikes

Liberal groups - mainly the Awami National Party and the Pakistan People's Party – have voiced their opposition to the blockade. Khan's supporters, however, say they will not budge.

Supporters of Pakistan Defense Council, a coalition of Islamic parties, burn a representation of a US flag at rally to condemn the reopening of the NATO supply line to neighboring Afghanistan, in Quetta, Pakistan(Photo: Arshad Butt/AP/dapd)

US drone strikes have fuelled anti-American sentiment in Pakistan

"We think that all political parties in Pakistan should join us in protest against US strikes," provincial minister Shahram Khan told DW. "There won't be peace in Pakistan until these strikes are stopped."

But some Pakistani analysts are of the opinion that drones have been quite successful in destroying militants' hideouts in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas.

Ali K. Chishti, a security expert in Karachi, told DW that the "drone strategy against al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban has worked, forcing militants to restrict their movements."

Shamim Shahid, another political analyst, agrees: "Until Islamabad expels foreign militants from its soil, the drone strikes won't cease." Shahid told DW that Pakistan should tell the world clearly about its policy on terrorists who have sanctuaries within the country.