Posted : Wednesday Oct 6, 2010
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In this town along the road to the Afghan border, you can buy U.S. Army gear, computers and manuals instructing soldiers how to avoid roadside bombs. Traders are coy about where their stock comes from, but much is stolen from trucks carrying military supplies into Afghanistan.
Not only does the trade include materials of potential value to insurgents, it also illustrates the challenges of securing supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan, a task underscored in recent days by the closure of the main route through Pakistan and subsequent fiery attacks on convoys.
Islamabad stopped NATO and U.S. convoys from crossing the Torkham border along the famed Khyber Pass last week in protest after a NATO helicopter killed three Pakistani troops.
Seven days later, more than 100 oil tankers were lined up along the road into Peshawar, the main city in the northwest. Their drivers and assistants have been sleeping beneath them, and frustrations are mounting. They wait in fear of the insurgents, who appear to have stepped up their attacks since the closure in a bid to further expose the vulnerability of the mission in Afghanistan.
At one container terminal, frozen chickens from the United States, eggs from Canada and meat from India are piling up, unable to journey on to Afghanistan. The manager of the complex says the goods are not intended for foreign forces and he fears they will be ruined if the closure continues much longer.
On Wednesday, more than two dozen tankers were attacked, this time close to the other border crossing in the southwest, officials said. The attack on the outskirts of Quetta town left one driver dead and was the sixth since the closure.
The Sitara Market, on the outskirts of Peshawar, is some 100 yards from the border that separates the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan from the rest of the country. Across the frontier, there are no courts or regular police. Hashish and heroin, smuggled goods and firearms are big business, and al-Qaida and other Islamist militants have long found haven there.
The market's proximity to the crossing is no coincidence. For more than 25 years, scores like it have sprung up, dealing in Western goods such as diapers, food and electronics either smuggled from, or headed into, Afghanistan.
In 2002, several small shops in the two-story, rundown complex began selling looted goods from the several hundred containers that rumble across the border each day. The boots, torches, tools, medical equipment, office supplies, food and military uniforms are in demand because they are of better quality and cheaper than similar goods for sale in northwest Pakistan.
"American goods are No. 1," said one shopkeeper who gave his name only as Muhammad. "Everything is the best."
Earlier this month, Pakistan's Frontier Corps raided warehouses in the tribal regions and recovered helicopter spare parts, medical instruments, flak jackets and photos sent by the family members of U.S. soldiers. The head of the Pakistani Taliban was filmed last year driving a U.S. Humvee seized from one container.
Gangs, sometimes working with militants who are in control of parts of the region, are behind most of the raids.
One trader said some of the material came from Afghanistan, where there are also markets in Kabul that sell similar goods. He suggested that some NATO soldiers or contractors might sell off unwanted supplies there.
NATO officials in Afghanistan say militant attacks and looting have no effect on operations there.
The vast majority of goods that arrive in the seaport of Karachi and make the five-day trip to Kabul through Peshawar and the Khyber Pass to Torkam or through Chaman in the southwest arrive safely. Weapons, ammunition and other sensitive materials are flown into Afghanistan.
A rummage through some of the roughly dozen stalls at the market in Peshawar unearthed several documents that would be of potential use to militants, perhaps most alarmingly a booklet showing in words and pictures how "jammers" on military vehicles can stop remote-controlled bombs.
The 171-page manual is marked "for official use only" and urges the information in the book not to be talked about in an open area and destroyed rather than thrown away.
The owner of the market, Hanif Afridi, pointed out a shop, closed during a recent visit, that sold army computers and other electronic equipment he said were "so heavy you need a truck" to lift them.
Traders said it was possible to order most goods, including bulletproof glass and fortified vehicle chassis.
Rumor has it that firearms, even American-issue ones, are also for sale. While an Associated Press reporter had no luck finding any, occasional bursts of gunfire could be heard in the distance.
"That is people trying before buying" at stalls just across the frontier, explained one man who asked not to be named.
U.S. Navy Capt. Gary Kirchner, a spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, declined to comment on specific items for sale.
The market has no problems with the police, but Taliban militants visited last year demanding store owners with signs reading "American Goods" paint over them, which they did, Afridi said.
Afridi, who once traded tea from Africa to Pakistan, said he also took down a sign outside the market advertising the fact that U.S. goods were available for the same reason.
Traders said business was not as good as it used to be, which most people put down to the precarious security situation in Peshawar. The same lawlessness that saw many of the goods reach the market is now scaring customers away.
Pakistan's closing of the Torkham border to NATO convoys was a sign of the anger in the Pakistani military establishment at the NATO helicopter strike and other recent incursions into Pakistani airspace.
It was also bad news for Anwar Saeed, the manger of a logistics company that on a normal month transports 500 containers of refrigerated food from Karachi to Afghanistan. He has containers stuck at the border and about 100 piled up at his terminal.
He said his food is for regular Afghans, part of an import business that has been running since 1965, but authorities mistakenly branded his containers as NATO ones.
Authorities have not said much about the blockade and few local officials are willing to give details on exactly what is being held up. Saeed and Shakir Khan Afridi, president of the Khyber Transport Association, said non-NATO goods were being allowed to cross the border.
This isn't the first hit to Saeed's business. In July the border was closed for two weeks because of a truckers strike. Then the worst floods in Pakistan's history washed away a bridge on the route, causing further delays. He now has angry Afghan businessmen waiting for orders that are costing him thousand of dollars to keep frozen at his terminal.
"We are losing customers — not just us, but the whole country. The Afghans will start looking to Iran," Saeed said. "How can we make money with the border closed?"
Back along the road to Peshawar, stranded drivers anxiously wait for word of the border reopening.
Zulfikar Ali said truck stop owners no longer let he and other drivers stay there because of the risk of attack. He said there were poisonous snakes in the forests by the side of the road where they forage for fire wood, and he and others were running out of money.
"I don't know what the trouble at the top is, but it's dangerous here," he said.
Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt in Afghanistan contributed to this report.