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US: Insurgents breached base during Afghan battle

To supply nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its Western allies rely on road convoys with dozens of trucks to carry in everything from jet fuel to frozen pizza. But increasingly these convoys are coming under savage attack by the Taliban. And experts say that if the ambushes get worse, it could impair NATO’s efforts to keep a supply lifeline running to its troops in forts and camps scattered across the mountainous country.

Often, the death of a private security contractor in Afghanistan goes unheralded; after all, they risk their lives for money, not country. Yet the drivers and guards who ride shotgun on the long convoys snaking over the mountains also suffer heavy casualties. Many have died heroically. Figures released to TIME by NATO showed that from June to September, more than 145 truck drivers and guards were killed in attacks on convoys and 123 vehicles were destroyed.

In previous years, the Taliban would scale down their attacks because of winter blizzards, but a NATO logistics officer says the militants now have the capacity to launch ambushes on supply routes year round. The Taliban are also widening the scope of their attacks so that convoys rumbling across two-thirds of the country are now prey to attack, usually by roadside bombs or a well-laid ambush in which rocket-propelled grenades are fired at the lead vehicle, forcing the convoy to a deadly standstill.

Last month, Taliban fighters in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, hijacked two NATO fuel tankers. The robbery escalated into an international incident because NATO aircraft, following a German request, bombed the two stranded tankers while civilians were siphoning free fuel. The death toll – more than 125 Afghans perished, nearly half of them civilians – overshadowed the gruesome fact that the Taliban had beheaded one of the tanker drivers. Beheadings and killings of NATO supply drivers are a common occurrence, according to several private security contractors. (See pictures of the U.S. military’s cat-and-mouse game with the Taliban.)

The main supply arteries into Afghanistan are through mountain passes along the Pakistan border, through the fabled Khyber Pass, near Peshawar, and Spin Boldak in the south. The Khyber Pass was closed down by the Taliban seven times this year, and convoys were unable to get through, according to NATO. Currently, the Pakistani army, under pressure from Washington, is mounting a military operation to sweep Taliban fighters out of the Khyber Pass. On Aug. 30, near Spin Boldak, the Taliban attacked a major NATO convoy and destroyed 25 trucks and military vehicles. Contractors say that Taliban attacks have made vital supplies of fuel and food scarce at some NATO bases. In trying to explain the worsening security situation on the roads, a British contractor recounts a joke that Afghans love to tell about themselves. It goes something like this: Alexander the Great was marching across the Hindu Kush mountains on his way to India over 2,000 years ago.