With border closed and attacks on NATO convoys spiking, market in Pakistan sells spoils of war

By Chris Brummitt, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Spoils of war for sale in Pakistan border town

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — In a rundown market here along the road to Afghanistan, you can buy U.S. Army gear stamped with soldiers’ names, booklets marked “for official use only,” even a manual that illustrates how “jammers” can stop remote-controlled bombs.

The traders are coy about where their stock comes from, but it’s clear much of it is stolen from trucks carrying military supplies over the border. Recent raids on warehouses where the looted goods are stockpiled have even turned up photos mailed to U.S. soldiers from loved ones back home.

Not only is there merchandise here that could aid 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.

Last week, Pakistan protested the killing of two Pakistani troops by a NATO helicopter by stopping supply convoys from crossing the border at Torkham, along the famed Khyber Pass.

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, waiting in fear of insurgents, who appear to have stepped up their attacks in a bid to further expose the vulnerability of the mission in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, the U.S. apologized for the helicopter strike that killed the soldiers, raising hopes that the border could soon reopen. Still attacks on the stalled trucks continued, with more than two dozen tankers torched near a different border crossing in the southwest, leaving one driver dead.

The Sitara Market, on the outskirts of Peshawar, is some 100 yards (100 meters) 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 container trucks that rumble across the border each day. The boots, flashlights, 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.”

A rummage through some of the roughly dozen market stalls unearthed several documents that would be of potential use to militants, perhaps most alarmingly the booklet on jammers for military vehicles. The 171-page manual is marked “for official use only” and urges the information not be openly discussed and that it should be destroyed rather than thrown away.

The owner of the market, Hanif Afridi, pointed out one 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. Other traders said it was possible to order most goods, including bulletproof glass and fortified vehicle chassis.

And rumor has it that firearms, even American-issued ones, are also for sale. While an Associated Press reporter did not find 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.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Frontier Corps raided warehouses in the tribal regions and recovered helicopter spare parts, medical instruments, flak jackets and family photos of U.S. soldiers. The head of the Pakistani Taliban was filmed last year driving a U.S. Humvee seized from one container.

NATO officials in Afghanistan say the border blockade, militant attacks and looting have no effect on military 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, or through Chaman in the southwest, arrive safely. Weapons, ammunition and other sensitive materials are flown into Afghanistan.

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 merchandise came from Afghanistan, where markets in Kabul sell similar goods. He suggested that some NATO soldiers or contractors might sell off unwanted supplies there.

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 that store owners paint over signs reading “American Goods,” which they did, said Afridi, who once traded tea from Africa to Pakistan. He also took down a sign outside the market advertising U.S. goods.

Traders said business was not as good as it used to be, which most blamed on the precarious security situation in Peshawar. The same lawlessness that brought many of the goods to the market now scares customers away.

Pakistan’s closing of the Torkham border crossing 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, who runs an import business that in a normal month send 500 containers of refrigerated food from Karachi to Afghanistan. He now has containers stuck at the border, and 100 more piled up at his terminal.

Frozen chickens from the United States, eggs from Canada and meat from India are all in danger of spoiling if the closure continues much longer, he says.

He says his food is for regular Afghans and should have been allowed to cross the border, but authorities mistakenly branded his containers as intended for foreign forces. This follows a two-week border closing in July because of a truckers strike, then the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, which washed away a bridge on the route, causing further delays.

He now has angry Afghan clients 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 truck drivers like him stay there because of the risk of attack. There were poisonous snakes in the roadside forests where they forage for fire wood, and they are running out of money.

“I don’t know what the trouble at the top is,” he said, “but it’s dangerous here.”


Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt in Afghanistan contributed to this report.

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