Rough road for smugglers

Downturn: Airstrikes disrupt the age-old and lucrative illegal trade routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan

War On Terrorism

The World

October 30, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- By now, just about everyone knows that television is banned in Afghanistan. Likewise for music. It's all part of the ruling Taliban's militant drive for Islamic purity.

Please explain, then, how thousands of truckloads of televisions and stereo equipment have managed to roll across Pakistan's border into Afghanistan during the past several years. The answer is as timeless as the caravan routes on which the items travel: smuggling.

The goods, it turns out, were never intended for Afghan buyers. Instead, they are secretly ferried back into Pakistan -- by donkey, pushcart, motorcycle, bicycle and on foot -- as part of an elaborate dodge of the high taxes and duties levied through legal shipping channels.

It is a type of smuggling that has long been a staple here, as blandly acceptable to the tribal culture of the Pakistani border as an Amway distributorship is to the culture of Ohio.

But even smuggling has not been immune to the economic ripples from the events of Sept. 11. In a uniquely Pakistani twist, times have become tougher even for smugglers, as well as for the network of retailers, couriers and transport firms that have come to rely on their business.

"No fresh shipments are coming in," says Gul Aziz, 31, who sells cartons of cigarettes from an 8-by-8-foot stall at the aptly named Smuggler's Market, a bazaar west of town where you can buy items ranging from toilet fixtures to hashish. Tax-free, of course.

"Suppliers say they're worried about the bombing either landing on their couriers or destroying their stock in the warehouses near the border," Aziz says. "It must be a month since anything new has come in, so business is at a standstill." Not that he'd be able to move much new product anyway. Buyers, too, are spooked by the bad times, and his sales are only about a quarter of what they were before Sept. 11.

All that means less business for transport companies, including the ones with the elaborately painted and decorated trucks this part of the world is famous for.

But Atta Ullah, 26, marketing director of the Barki Hataq Goods Forwarding Agency, says that only about half his company's six trucks are on the road. The rest sit on the company's dust-bound lot just off the Grand Trunk Road. "Business has almost crashed since Sept. 11," he says. "Some companies have simply parked their trucks and shut down." Not that Ullah would acknowledge being part of the smuggling trade. He can deny it with a straight face because the trucking and rail industries handle the legitimate side of the pipeline. That's part of the beauty of the system. Few want it to stop because it also generates plenty of legal trade.

Here's how it works: The goods -- televisions, textiles, refrigerators, among other items -- come ashore at Karachi. They remain crated, earmarked for Afghanistan because of a 1950 transit agreement that allows items to proceed duty-free across Pakistan to Afghanistan's landlocked borders.

Rail cars carry much of the stuff to Peshawar, where trucks pick up the loads and haul them the last 30 miles through the rocky crags of the Khyber Pass to the border.

Once they cross, things get interesting.

The items go -- or used to go, before the airstrikes began -- to warehouses in the Afghan town of Jalalabad.

There, smaller vehicles and motorbikes come calling to begin the return journey. "They look for places along the border where there are no security forces or guards," says Gul Aman, whose fabric store in a Peshawar bazaar is supplied by this trade. "Sometimes they lose their lives, maybe skidding down the side of a mountain or into a ravine."

The ones who make it safely soon reach their destination: more warehouses, this time in the Pashtun tribal lands of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

"You'd be surprised at the quantity that they store there," Aman says. "Big warehouses and dumps are near the border."

All of this requires a certain level of cooperation from the authorities.

A ranking customs administrator in Peshawar, lamenting that his agency's border post has a jurisdiction of a mere square kilometer, says, "This could not happen without the collusion of the Tribal Security Forces and the border militia. So obviously they take bribes. They work hand-in-glove with the warehouse owners, the carriers and the big businesses, and with the people who do the crossings."

Some of this attitude is simply a matter of regional outlook. The Pashtun tribesmen who predominate in this section of the border, as well as the Baluchs to the south, have never considered themselves answerable to Pakistani bureaucrats, showing the same defiance in their commerce as they do in their politics.

Whatever the rationale, it is costly to the public till. A government estimate worked out a few years ago figured that about $2.5 billion worth of goods annually return to Pakistan via illegal Afghan transit, meaning lost taxes and duties of about $1 billion.

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