KHYBER AGENCY, Pakistan - Thieves, feuding tribesmen, and Taliban militants are creating chaos along the main Pakistan-Afghanistan highway, threatening a vital supply line for US 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.
US and NATO officials play down their losses in these arid mountains of northwestern Pakistan - even though the local arms bazaar offers US-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 in the region, which 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 US 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.
Fuel tankers, in particular, have become a target for militants seeking to disrupt supplies to NATO and the US-led coalition in Afghanistan.
Last month, a bomb strapped to a truck carrying 11,440 gallons of fuel exploded near a customs post in Torkham. In March, a bomb attack destroyed about 40 tankers in a parking lot. Dozens of people were injured by the raging fires.
Most supplies for foreign troops in Afghanistan arrive by ship at the Pakistani port of Karachi in unmarked shipping containers and are loaded on South Asia's colorfully decorated "jingle" trucks to be driven to such destinations as Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
NATO and US 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, Lieutenant Colonel 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.
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."