WASHINGTON - Amid escalating protests of the people angered by the drone strikes, Washington has suspended ground shipments of Nato military equipment out of Afghanistan through Pakistan to ensure safety of the truck drivers, officials said.

“We have voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo through the Pakistan Ground Line of Communication from Torkham Gate through Karachi,” said Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright in a statement issued on Tuesday evening.

The affected route has been crucial for the United States as it winds down its combat mission in landlocked Afghanistan and moves equipment out of the country.

The move came after the activists – mainly belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf – whose protests are centred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah blocked and forcibly searched trucks for Nato supplies, handing them a victory of sorts.

Trucks have been told to wait in holding areas in Afghanistan, the official said. “We anticipate that we’ll be able to resume our shipments through this route in the near future,” Wright said.

The US decision to temporarily suspend its use of the route is another headache for military planners just as Afghan President Hamid Karzai throws into doubt American plans to keep some forces in Afghanistan after Nato’s combat mission ends next year.

Karzai has so far refused to sign a bilateral security pact with the United States, and Nato supplies are crucial for some international forces to stay to advise and assist Afghans.

Wright said the US military expected it could resume its retrograde shipments through the Pakistani route in the near future. He also pointed out that the United States has other options to move equipment out of the country.

Still, other options are far more costly, including the shipments via the so-called Northern Distribution Network, a complex web of transit routes through Russia and Central Asia. That route is a key in bringing supplies into Afghanistan.

The United States also flies equipment out of Afghanistan in jets, including munitions and weapons. The US military had to rely on those alternatives, however, when Islamabad closed down the routes to protest a Nato cross-border killing of Pakistani soldiers in 2011.

On Wednesday, the United States expressed the hope that the suspended retrograde movement of its military equipment out of Afghanistan through their favoured land route across Pakistan would resume soon and that the current situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa would not have a long-term impact.

“We favour shipping cargo via Pakistan because of the cost. And hopefully I don’t anticipate that there will be any long-term impact to our retrograde movement because of the current situation,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said at the daily briefing.

She was responding to a question about the viability of Pakistani ground lines for communication (GLOCs) for US shipment of equipment.

Right now, she said, the US is not able to make shipments via Torkham, one of the GLOCs, because it does not think that it is safe for drivers to perform their work.

She explained in reply to a question that the US has been working to bring flexibility and redundancy into its overall system for use of air, sea and ground transports because sometime there are things happening and it cannot use a certain transport route.

AFP adds: A defence official said Washington believed the Islamabad government fully supported the use of the route and that it would soon restore security to the area.

“The companies that we contract with were getting nervous. And it’s getting a little too dangerous for the truck drivers,” the defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

The United States has alternative routes available to the north through Central Asia, though those options take longer and are more expensive.

“While we favour shipping cargo via Pakistan because of cost, we have built flexibility and redundancy into our overall system of air, sea and ground routes to transport cargo into and out of Afghanistan,” Wright said.

The US and Pakistani governments recently issued a joint statement saying the road route through Pakistan was considered important to both Washington and Islamabad, as well as the NATO alliance, he added.

About half of US cargo is being taken out through the Pakistan route via the Torkham crossing, with the remainder being removed by aircraft or a combination of planes and then ships at regional ports.