From Pakistan to Afghanistan, U.S. Finds Convoy of Chaos

The route from Karachi to Kabul was the best way to get supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the main artery for a Pashtun trucking empire—until Pakistan shut it down

Like a broker tracking the dips and spikes of a volatile but lucrative stock, Mohammad Shakir Afridi has kept a close eye on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan since the first Americans landed in the country 10 years ago. As president of the Khyber Transport Assn., one of the largest associations of truck owners in Pakistan, Afridi’s biggest contract involves moving military equipment for American and coalition forces through Pakistan to military bases in Afghanistan. The slightest policy shift in Washington can carry major consequences for Afridi and his business.

Sitting on a rooftop in a leafy residential block in Peshawar, the largest city in northwest Pakistan, Afridi slaps the morning paper on the floor beside his mat. “Twenty-four of our boys in one go,” he spits out. A front page photograph shows a field full of coffins draped in Pakistani flags. The soldiers were killed on Nov. 26 when U.S. helicopters and jet fighters from Afghanistan fired on military outposts on the Pakistani side of the border. The relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., which has been rocky for years, hit a new low. While the U.S. military promised to investigate and the NATO chief regretted the “tragic, unintended” incident, the Pakistani Prime Minister said there would be “no more business as usual” with the U.S. Pakistan demanded the U.S. vacate an airbase it was using in the South and choked off all U.S. and coalition military supplies traveling through the country.

Afridi learned of the American attack before the Pakistan military or government had issued any statement; one of his truck drivers called to tell him the border was closed. Afridi was later given orders from the military to halt trucks near the border, and to direct all others to the southern port city of Karachi. He quickly obliged. “It’s serious this time,” Afridi says. “They’ll make the Americans sweat.”

U.S. and Allied forces in Afghanistan get the bulk of their supplies in two ways. The first is the Northern Distribution Network, a web through Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia that crosses through at least 16 countries, using a combination of roads, railway, air, and water to move supplies in from the north. The chain can be complex and circuitous. One path through the network, for example, might involve military cargo that arrives by sea in Istanbul. From there it travels the width of Turkey on truck and crosses the northern border into Poti, Georgia. In Georgia the equipment goes by rail to Baku in Azerbaijan, where it’s loaded onto a ship bound for the Kazakh Port of Aktau, across the Caspian Sea. Then it’s put on trucks for the 1,000-mile ride through Kazakhstan, then a train through Kyrgyzstan and, finally, into Afghanistan.

The second passage to Afghanistan, known as Pakistani Lines of Communication, begins at the port of Karachi and continues on one of two land routes, north toward the logistical hub at Bagram Airfield or west toward Kandahar. It has always been the primary option for American forces: It’s the shortest and cheapest, requires only one border crossing, and minimal time on the road inside Afghanistan. Nearly 60,000 trucks drive more than 1,200 miles through the length of Pakistan every year carrying supplies and fuel. According to varying figures provided by U.S. and NATO forces, 40 percent to 60 percent of all military supplies used by coalition forces in Afghanistan come through Pakistan.

Afridi doesn’t cut the figure of a man playing a key role in the U.S.’s long war in Afghanistan. The 46-year-old Pashtun is from the Khyber Agency, one of the seven Pakistani tribal sectors along the border with Afghanistan. He has a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard and prefers to drape his rotund figure in a plain white shalwar kameez and a black vest. When he’s not too preoccupied, he wears a disarming smile. The only thing that makes him stand out from the legions of similarly dressed men on the streets of Peshawar are his dark tinted glasses and a cell phone that never stops ringing.

Even Afridi wouldn’t have dreamed of such a life a decade ago. His grandfather started the family transport business in the 1960s, buying a few trucks to move melons, grapes, and wheat from the fertile lands of the Punjab in Pakistan to largely arid Afghanistan. Afridi inherited the business in the 1980s. In 1996 he added a few tanker trucks to his fleet after signing a contract with Pakistan State Oil to transport fuel from refineries in Karachi. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and coalition forces moved in to occupy the landlocked country, Afridi’s business took off. He says he orchestrates a fleet of nearly 4,000 flatbeds and more than 3,000 fuel tankers that haul military supplies into Afghanistan.

On a November morning, two days after the U.S. attack, Afridi rides around in a brand new black Toyota Hilux Vigo pickup. He’s just returned from the haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a prohibitively expensive ritual Muslims are required to do at least once in a lifetime—if they are able to afford it. Afridi says this year was his second haj. His first was in 2010.

Despite the prosperity, there are times he wishes he had never become involved with the Americans. After all, he is bringing fuel and supplies to forces fighting Pashtuns like himself in a neighboring country. In Peshawar, where his business is based—and where the Pashtuns are a majority—he’s a man on the run, constantly looking over his shoulder. As Pakistanis increasingly see the U.S. as the real enemy in the conflict in South Central Asia, Afridi feels like a target for doing business with them. “Can you believe it? They won’t even let my guards carry their guns here anymore,” Afridi gestures to the two unamused looking men, with no obviously displayed firearms, who have hung near him like a shadow ever since they jumped out of the cargo bed of the pickup.

The fallout from the Nov. 26 friendly fire incident means Afridi’s business is at a standstill, indefinitely. Still, he thinks the Pakistanis have done the right thing. He says he hates the sight of the American flag, and stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Pakistan’s army. “Your homeland is like your mother,” he says, pausing to turn off a ringing phone. “You can screw people here and there, that’s just business.” He peers over his dark glasses. “But you never, ever screw your mother.”

Of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan has the longest border and has historically wielded the most influence. It also provides the nearest seaport to Kabul. To leverage Pakistan’s strategic position, the U.S. has poured more than $20 billion into the country over the past decade. The money is not simply to strengthen Pakistan’s democracy against the threat from militants, as diplomats sometimes suggest. It has also been a way to buy Pakistan’s loyalty, aimed specifically at luring Pakistan away from the Taliban. Most important, the money is also for the continued use of Pakistan’s highway network. “If we want to be successful in Afghanistan,” as General James L. Jones Jr., former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama, said in recent congressional testimony, “the roads to that success have a lot to do with Pakistan.”

The U.S. has worked hard to find an alternative. The Northern Distribution Network, running through Europe and Central Asia, was developed only in 2009. That was after the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan had begun the previous year. Besides easing congestion on Pakistani ports and border crossings, it was also an opportunity to decrease dependence on Pakistan, which the U.S. increasingly suspected was collaborating with the Taliban inside Afghanistan and providing their fighters and leaders sanctuary in Pakistan. Today around half of U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan come in from the north, but the northern network comes with its own set of challenges. (About 10 percent to 20 percent of supplies are flown in.) Besides being very long and costing three times as much to use as the Pakistani route, it’s vulnerable to attack. Only days before the closure of the Pakistani Lines of Communication, a Russian news agency reported an explosion along the northern supply route in Uzbekistan.

Russia’s sphere of influence spreads across much of the northern route, which can cause complications. In 2009, for example, after Kyrgyzstan threatened to eject the U.S. from the Manas Air Base, a key node in the supply chain, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Russia was “working against us.” Two days after the Pakistanis closed the supply route in November, and the U.S. was left with only the northern route, Russia’s NATO envoy made loosely veiled threats at closing off the northern supply line as well if NATO didn’t begin to rethink its European missile defense shield.

Many countries along the northern route still don’t allow the passage of foreign military gear, so Pakistan was the only way for the U.S. to move nearly all of its combat equipment. At a congressional hearing in May, Lieutenant General Mitchell H. Stevenson, the U.S. Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, was asked what the “long term impact” would be if the supply route through Pakistan was “suddenly shut down.” After explaining that the Army kept a 45-day supply of reserve fuel on the ground in Afghanistan, the general said they could only “last several weeks” without any significant impact.

This is what Pakistan’s calculation appears to have been from Day One. According to Abdul Sattar, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister from 1999 to 2002, the evening after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, General Pervez Musharraf, who then ruled Pakistan as an unelected Chief Executive, called a meeting at the military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. He wanted to discuss his country’s response to the inevitable U.S. call for cooperation.

Abdul Sattar, one of only two people at that meeting not affiliated with the military, says that by midnight the group had decided on the broad outlines of Pakistan’s official response to the U.S. in case of a war in Afghanistan. Sattar suggested a “Yes, but…” approach to Musharraf, meaning Pakistan should agree in principle to whatever reasonable demands the U.S. would make, then secure strategic advantages while negotiating the fine details.

Sattar was soon sidelined though, as were many others, and decision-making shifted into an insulated and small circle of generals closest to the dictator. “I would not hear much after that, a memo here or there, months after the fact,” says Sattar, now retired and living in a quiet corner of Islamabad. The agreements the U.S. reached with Musharraf were never fully revealed, but information trickled out over the years.

The most important part of Pakistan’s role in America’s war was impossible to conceal: The country’s highway network would be the route along which the U.S. military’s supply chain would run. On this issue, Pakistan had taken the “Yes, but…” path. The country did not allow American military vessels on its waters. The U.S. Transport Command handed out massive contracts to international shipping lines such as Singapore’s APL, the Danish company Maersk, and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd. Since the beginning of the war, APL has received more than $700 million in defense-related contracts and has moved more than 300,000 shipping containers for the U.S. military. Maersk has won nearly $2 billion in contracts. The goods transported through Pakistan include everything from blankets and microwave dinners to armored Humvees and Kevlar vests, and even shipping containers full of frozen food.

Getting all the overseas crude oil and other supplies to the port city of Karachi has proven to be the easy part. Once the cargo is unloaded in Karachi, however, the international shipping lines subcontract the job of getting it to Afghanistan to local agencies. Those agencies in turn hire local truckers like Shakir Afridi. And so the lifeline for one of the largest deployments of U.S. forces in American history falls into the hands of a loose association of truck drivers and owners from the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The nerve center of the transport business in Karachi is in Shireen Jinnah Colony, a smoggy and rusty seaside neighborhood with an apocalyptic landscape. Flatbed trucks are assembled from scratch on the side of the road. These “jingle trucks” are painted in every color of the spectrum and decorated with hundreds of intricate metal, wooden, plastic, and glass trinkets. In the background, monstrous oil refineries pump thick smoke into the air. From a small room in an office block abutting the Port of Karachi, Muntazir Afridi, Shakir’s younger brother, deals with the southern end of the Afridi family business.

The trucking industry in Karachi, which is as far away as you can get in the country from Afghanistan, is in the hands of the city’s large minority Pashtun population. Mostly immigrants from Peshawar and the tribal areas on the Afghan frontier, the Pashtuns arrived in the 1950s and ’60s in flocks, looking for jobs. Largely uneducated and unskilled, 1,000 miles from home, they slowly acquired transport contracts to supply Pakistan’s north. Their deep cultural ties to Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun population also made them favorites for transport jobs for Afghan trade. In a city where ethnic groups battle and bloody the streets over slices of the local economy, two tribes in particular have an unshakable grip on the trucking business: the Shinwaris and the Afridis.

Muntazir Afridi’s office is sparse. Taped to the wall are photos of the holy mosque in Mecca and the prophet’s mosque in Medina. A desk sits in a corner, and on a rickety coffee table is an overflowing ashtray. “In Bombay they have their film industry,” Muntazir proclaims with a smile, while sipping his morning green tea on a stained couch. “In Karachi we have the trucking industry.”

With NATO transport shut down, the office block, which houses logistics companies, trucking companies, insurers, and customs clearing agents, is quiet. In an adjacent room, a group of men, mostly truck drivers, lie on soft rugs watching a Pashto film on television. The smell of Afghan hash hangs thick in the air. Other men, clearly stranded, shuttle between offices in the block with fists of crumpled papers, asking for loans, food, and lodging.

Muntazir is in his mid-20s and dressed, like his brother, in a plain white shalwar kameez. His beard is long and neat. He points outside at the sheer scale of the enterprise. Stretching for miles, from the walls of the office block below all the way to where the large cranes of Karachi’s port are visible through the smog, is a patchwork of hundreds of oil tankers and flatbed trucks in yellow and red and green. “On a regular day they would all be on the move like ants,” Muntazir says, but instead the trucks are parked, overflowing from the terminal lots. Lines of jingle trucks are parked, sometimes double parked, for miles along the roads of Karachi. The entire southern quarter of the city looks like it’s been invaded by trucks.

The Afridi family is only one of hundreds that have enjoyed the boom from the steady flow of American military supplies through Pakistan after 2001. The real gold rush started with the troop surge in Afghanistan that began soon after Obama won the election in 2008. When he took office there were just over 30,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. By January 2010, the number had more than doubled to nearly 70,000. In May of this year, troop levels peaked at nearly 100,000.

More troops naturally meant more supplies. Figures issued by the Pakistan Federal Tax Ombudsman illustrate the spike in traffic at Karachi’s port. U.S. military equipment received at the port rose from nearly 16,000 shipping containers in 2005 to more than 54,000 in 2009. Halfway through 2010 the U.S. military had already shipped nearly 30,000 containers to Karachi.

In Pakistan the demand for trucks skyrocketed. “Everyone who had nothing to lose took out a loan and bought a truck,” Muntazir says. He invited many of his extended relatives from the tribal areas to come to Karachi and start driving. The local “third party vendor” transport companies, to whom the international shipping lines subcontracted, were so desperate for drivers that Muntazir says they began lending money to people they had just met, so they would buy a truck and get supplies moving. “There was just no way the companies would be able to deal with truckers,” Muntazir says. “They couldn’t keep track of a thing.” Entire truckloads started going missing. Drivers would take the wheel of a brand new truck and simply drive off, never to return. The supply chain was coming undone.

This is where Shakir, the elder brother, began to do work he describes as “brokering,” placing himself between truck owners and the local transport companies. He takes responsibility for the cargo and ensures it gets to U.S. and other ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Acting as a guarantor, Afridi receives a cut from the logistics companies when the cargo is picked up and again when it’s dropped off. The work has proved so profitable that Afridi has sold his entire fleet.

In November 2008, Hakimullah Mehsud, a commander of the newly formed Taliban Movement of Pakistan, invited the news media to Orakzai, a tribal agency in Pakistan, for his first press conference. Mehsud arrived riding in a brand new armored U.S. military Humvee. As he posed for photographs, he told reporters he had captured a few American vehicles after attacking and looting a military convoy traveling through Pakistan. He boasted he would increase these attacks.

Such attacks started at the same time as the U.S. troop surge in late 2008. Fuel tankers began getting torched regularly and shipping containers were ripped open, looted, and left empty along highways. In the local press, Pakistani military officials told of groups in the tribal areas stealing helicopter parts. Militants who couldn’t get to the trucks took to bombing bridges and roads along the route, at times shutting the supply route for days.

The supply line was not just vulnerable to militants. In the past several years, the Pakistani and American visions for Afghanistan’s future have diverged so far that the relationship has turned hostile. Pakistan first cut off NATO’s supplies in September 2008, in response to the first-ever reported incursion of U.S. troops into Pakistan. Two months later, after a drone aircraft targeted Pakistan’s “settled,” nontribal lands for the first and only time, 160 NATO trucks were burned in a nightlong rampage in Peshawar. Many believed the event was staged by the Pakistani military and meant to send a clear signal. Vice Admiral Mark D. Harnitchek, deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, said in a 2009 speech that 12 percent of the freight bound for Bagram in December 2008 had disappeared.

The supply line has been under consistent fire ever since. In 2009 there were 25 attacks on NATO supply lines in Pakistan, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, an online database tracking terror incidents in the region. In 2011, before the supply line was closed in November, there had already been a total of 111 reported incidents, destroying hundreds of supply vehicles. Even in times of relative calm, the Pakistani military has had its hand on the valve, as it alone decides how many trucks carrying U.S. military equipment to let through on any given day.

The spike in attacks is partly because drivers and truck owners have jumped into the action. Drivers in particular, discouraged by the high risks involved, have taken to selling their loads of fuel on the black market, then setting fire to the tankers and collecting insurance money. They can earn a nice profit, even after paying off local collaborators. Though the scam is a pain for the brokers, Muntazir says he feels for the truckers. “These guys risk their lives, and they get what? Thirty thousand, maybe forty thousand rupees for a trip?” That’s about four hundred dollars. Peanuts, says Muntazir. “Anyway, you can’t blame them trying to make their little bit,” he adds. “The real money is being made by those guys dealing in dollars”—meaning Pakistani transport companies, the Americans, and others higher up the food chain.

In June 2010, after an unsourced news report on Pakistani TV claimed that nearly 11,000 Afghanistan-bound shipping containers that had arrived in Karachi had gone missing, the Supreme Court of Pakistan asked another agency, the Federal Tax Ombudsman’s office, to investigate. The case landed on the desk of Shoaib Suddle. A career police officer, Suddle was Karachi’s police chief at the height of a war between several ethnic groups in the mid-1990s. He has a doctorate in white-collar criminology from the University of Wales and has also served as the chief of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau.

When Suddle first began his investigation, he received little encouragement from his colleagues. It’s made-up news, people would say. How can thousands of shipping containers go missing without anyone noticing? Then he had a breakthrough. The Pakistani ports and customs authorities were not keeping track, but he found that private container terminals in Karachi were keeping detailed records of the exact time containers would depart and return. Some trucks would never check back in. But thousands of mostly empty trucks were coming back too soon, sometimes a few hours after departing for Afghanistan.

“We found the mother of all scams,” Suddle said. In a report published by his office earlier this year, he described complex transnational networks bribing local customs agents and using crooked bureaucrats in Pakistan to forge documents and create fake companies. The intent of that corruption was to get goods labeled as Afghanistan-bound into the country, and then divert them for resale on the black market.

In total, Suddle estimated that at least 7,992 shipping containers had never reached Afghanistan. The report called this “the tip of the iceberg.” A follow-up investigation, also ordered by the Pakistani Supreme Court, revealed that close to 29,000 cargo loads have gone missing in the country. There is no way of knowing precisely what disappeared. While many of these containers were loaded with commercial cargo destined for Afghanistan, military equipment for coalition forces accounts for nearly 40 percent of all trade to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Pakistan’s Federal Board of Revenue estimates that 3,300 shipping containers full of military equipment were among those missing.

According to an agreement between the Pakistani and British ministries of defense, signed in June 2002 and made public only recently, Pakistan allows ISAF military equipment to arrive in Pakistan without inspection. The U.S. military is not even required to file a customs declaration form describing contents inside shipping containers. Much of the lost military gear finds its way into the Pakistani black market. Some of it might even make it across the border into Afghanistan—but into the wrong hands.

In the Khyber Agency, not far from Peshawar, the hemorrhaging U.S. supply line stocks a long bazaar the locals call Karkhano Market. Among the haphazard corrugated-iron storefronts and randomly arranged merchandise, middle-aged women are shopping for “USA” branded oil and soap bars with the American flag printed on them. Crisply clothed young men in dark glasses who walk in and out of back doors make hushed deals with suppliers. Scruffy fighters drop in from Afghanistan to sample the latest in the military technology available on roadside tables.

Alongside old British rifles and Soviet AK-47s, American military gear like Kevlar vests, boots, camouflage suits, night-vision goggles, and knives hang from hooks. Tall stacks of large boxes carrying ammunition and weapons parts will not be opened without a good reference. In the bargain bins, thrown in with used fleece socks and shrink-wrapped copies of The Book of Mormon, are U.S. military operation manuals that restrict distribution to “DoD and DoD contractors only,” and carry instructions to destroy “by any method that must prevent disclosure of contents or reconstruction of documents.” A large sign for a shop on the second floor reads, “Haji M. Ikhlas USA traders,” with crude paintings of a U.S. military helmet and army boots. In 2009 a U.S. military laptop that the U.S. Army’s 864th Engineer Combat Battalion used for diagnostics and maintenance of military weapons systems and vehicles was found in this same market. It contained restricted U.S. military information, as well as software for military platforms, the identities of numerous military personnel, and information about vulnerabilities in American military vehicles used in Afghanistan. All that for $650.

Shopkeepers say that much of their stock comes from Afghanistan or is brought in from elsewhere in Pakistan—they don’t differentiate. From whatever direction, it’s clear that the stuff is stolen from the U.S. military supply chain, and here in the open black market it fetches a good price.

This is an enterprise that none of the subcontractors in the U.S. military supply chain—the international shipping lines, the local logistics agencies, the truck owners and drivers, and brokers like Shakir Afridi—lose much sleep over. After all, it doesn’t affect their bottom line.

Back inside the city limits of Peshawar, Shakir Afridi is attending a lunch at the house of a truck owner he represents. There are more than a dozen guests, some of whom introduce themselves as truck owners, others as drivers. There are local officials from towns along the supply route who might help out with paperwork in case of an accident, and reps from the transporters’ union, too.

Afridi sits at the head of a decadent spread of goat meat and Kabuli pulao rice. “When I was in Mecca last month, I prayed and begged Allah to finish this war,” he says, sinking his teeth into a leg of goat, coated in dripping salty fat. A truck owner sitting next to him pours himself a glass of Pepsi and passes Afridi his phone. He wants to share a photograph of one of his drivers, whose eyes had been gouged out, he explains, by Taliban who attacked his truck as he drove along the western route to Kandahar. “This is a dirty, dirty business,” says Afridi shaking his head sadly.

Afridi says he’s not worried about revenue should the war end. He’s confident other contracts will come through. After all, he’s been cooperating with Pakistan’s military for years now, “standing shoulder to shoulder.” He talks about the Central Asian “stans”—all landlocked, growing, and looking to trade. He thinks Pakistan will start moving goods into Central and East Asia. Most important, he is convinced that “Allah, not America, is the one who provides sustenance to man.”

As Pakistan and the U.S. drift apart, Afridi’s prayers for an end to the war may soon be answered. As of Dec. 13, the supply route remains closed. President Obama has ordered a military investigation into the events of Nov. 26. In the meantime the blame game continues. While Obama has called President Asif Ali Zardari to offer condolences, the U.S. has yet to apologize. To the contrary, some U.S. officials are saying Pakistan was warned of the operation in advance. On Dec. 8, 32 oil tankers and 10 shipping containers full of NATO military supplies parked at a poorly protected terminal in Quetta were burned and destroyed. A day later the Pakistani Senate heard testimony about how the country had incurred nearly half a billion dollars in road damage over a decade because of NATO supply trucks. Pakistan’s government pulled out of the Bonn conference held to plan the last stages of the conflict in Afghanistan. Pakistan, it seems, wanted to make the point that while it is consistently asked to do more to help in the war in Afghanistan, it can do less, too.

“America has been trying to get out of this for years now,” says Afridi as he pushes away his empty plate and sticks a toothpick in his mouth. Dessert and green tea are served. “We have them so badly hemmed in that they can’t go anywhere,” he chuckles. By helping supply the U.S. with enough to keep busy in Afghanistan, but not enough to win, Afridi believes he is killing two birds with one stone. He is turning a profit and bleeding the country he hates most in the world. “They want out, but we’re still not done with them yet,” he says as he dips a spoon into a bowl of custard. “There’s still a little more to go.”

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