KHYBER AGENCY, Pakistan — Thieves, feuding tribesmen and Taliban militants are creating chaos along the main Pakistan-Afghanistan highway, threatening a vital supply line for U.S. and NATO forces.
Abductions and arson attacks on the hundreds of cargo trucks plying the switchback road through the Khyber Pass have become commonplace this year. Many of the trucks carry fuel and other material for foreign troops based in Afghanistan.U.S. and NATO officials play down their losses in these arid mountains of northwestern Pakistan _ even though the local arms bazaar offers U.S.-made assault rifles and Beretta pistols, and the alliance is negotiating to open routes through other countries.
The most high-profile victim of the lawlessness has been Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan. The 56-year-old was snatched from his Mercedes limousine three months ago while driving toward the border. He wasn't freed until Saturday. Pakistan's government denied it was part of a prisoner swap last week with militants.
A senior government official said Azizuddin's kidnapping was carried out by one of dozens of criminal gangs operating in the region, who then sold the ambassador to the Taliban. The official agreed to discuss the case only if not identified, citing the sensitivity of the efforts that led to the envoy's release.
"The security is absolutely becoming precarious and this poses a threat for U.S. and NATO supplies, but it is also a source of concern for Pakistan," said Mehmood Shah, former security chief for the region. "It's a complex mix (of factors), but it is getting more dangerous."
Regular trade is also being disrupted by the raids on trucks traveling what is a vital lifeline for impoverished Afghanistan, but there is disagreement about how serious the problem is.
Ziaul Haq Sarhadi, who heads an association of Pakistani customs agents helping traders move goods through the customs post at Torkham, claimed the average number of trucks has dropped to 250 a day from 500 early this year, before violence escalated.
However, Abdul Ghani, a commander of Afghan border guards, said there had been only a "small drop" in the number of trucks crossing. He had no numbers.
Fuel tankers, in particular, have become a target for militants seeking to disrupt supplies to NATO and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
In April, a bomb strapped to a truck carrying 11,440 gallons of fuel exploded as the vehicle sat near the Torkham customs post waiting to cross from Khyber. In March, a bomb attack destroyed some 40 tankers in a parking lot. Dozens of people were injured by the raging fires.
Most material for foreign troops in Afghanistan arrives by ship at the Pakistani port of Karachi in unmarked shipping containers and is loaded on South Asia's colorfully decorated "jingle" trucks to be driven to destinations like Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
NATO and U.S. officials won't say whether the trucks carry weapons and ammunition in addition to food, fuel and other supplies. They suggest that theft _ not a disruption campaign by militant groups _ is the main problem behind the raids on trucking.
The coalition has "no indication of a pattern by the enemy to attack our supplies," said a coalition spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green.
Yet NATO is seeking to reduce its dependence on the Khyber route by negotiating with Russia and other nations to allow it to truck in "non-lethal" supplies to Afghanistan through Central Asia.
"It's always good to have alternatives," spokesman James Appathurai said at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "One route for supplies is not necessarily the best way forward."
In Khyber, a mountainous enclave that abuts the main northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar, U.S. weapons and other supplies _ boots, camouflage uniforms and rucksacks _ are offered openly for sale.
Saifur Rahman Zalmay, a weapons dealer of 30 years, hawks U.S.-made assault rifles and pistols. For a new Beretta, he demands $10,000. New and used M-16s rifles are a few thousand dollars less _ far more than Western armies pay.
Zalmay claimed some of the second-hand rifles were sold to arms dealers by Mullah Ismail, a Taliban commander killed in April in Pakistan. Ismail led a June 2005 ambush of U.S. commandos in eastern Afghanistan and shot down a Chinook helicopter sent to rescue them. Sixteen American special forces soldiers died on the chopper.
Shah, the former regional security chief, said local tribes are paid a government stipend to secure the route for regular trade as well as military supplies. But the authority of tribal elders in Khyber has been weakening, as it is all along the frontier.
Ikramullah Khan Afridi, a tribal leader, blamed that trend on the proliferation of radical clerics who are sympathetic to the Taliban and have established parallel administrations and their own militias.
"The traditional mechanism of controlling the area through the jirga (council of elders) of the tribal area has been weakened while the mullahs are taking the law into their own hands," Afridi said. "Now they are out of control."
Rivalry between extremists has also spawned violence, such as a May 1 suicide bombing that wounded dozens of people near Bara, one of Khyber's main towns. It targeted the headquarters of an Islamic fundamentalist group calling itself Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The group accused Taliban militants from nearby Waziristan of sending the bomber.
Khyber was once regarded as one of the safest of Pakistan's seven semiautonomous tribal regions on the rugged frontier. It was one of the few that foreigners, including diplomats and aid workers, were allowed to venture into, although only to travel to Afghanistan.
The deteriorating security comes despite a relative lull in violence in other parts of Pakistan's frontier regions in recent months. The Pakistani government that came to power in February elections is using tribal intermediaries to try to forge peace with militants, most notably in South and North Waziristan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida are strongest.
Maulvi Abdul Rahman, a Taliban leader, claimed the militants have strong enough ties with influential clerics in Khyber to scuttle any peace talks.
Washington is skeptical that the government's strategy will work anyway. Taking a longer view, it is planning to spend millions of dollars upgrading Pakistan's Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force of tribesmen that is struggling to provide security in the region, including along the crossborder highway.
"They would be the force that should protect U.S. and NATO supplies to Afghanistan," said Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. The U.S. training program will start in the last half of this year, he said.
But Zalmay, the gun dealer, is skeptical the Frontier Corps can stop either thieves or the Taliban.
"The Frontier Corps does zero," he said.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul and Paul Ames in Brussels contributed to this report.