Peace Time: Low Finance In High Places

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September 10, 2021: With Americans and their billions of dollars in annual aid, gone from Afghanistan, so is a major source of income for corrupt Pakistani border officials and local gangs that specialize in attacking trucks headed for the border, especially those transporting cargo in sealed shipping containers. These were usually full of military equipment for NATO and Afghan troops. Attacking and looting these trucks could only be done in cooperation with tribes in the area that received protection money from the trucking companies to protect the trucks and their cargo. This loot from these containers, especially the military stuff, was sold to black-market military stores in Pakistan. Those supplies of modern military gear, as well as uniforms and other gear, were preferred by the local customers who crowded these outlets whenever a new shipment came in.

For centuries tribes along the roads into landlocked areas (like all of Afghanistan), especially those going through key mountain passes, got rich by demanding a bribe from travelers. This money was for “protection” from the tribe in question and, in theory, from any other tribesmen or stray bandits along the route. The tribes making the most money were the ones that could keep others from attacking the travelers that had paid for protection. Those that refused to pay were killed and all their possessions seized by the tribesmen.

These days the trade routes are usually paved roads and the travelers are trucks operated by Pakistani and Afghan transportation companies. These companies pay governments and powerful tribes to ensure that their trucks are unmolested. That doesn’t always work, especially when there’s a lot more traffic. That has been the case since 2002, when the Taliban were out of power in Afghanistan and Western troops, and foreign aid money, was flooding in. This meant a lot more traffic because the Afghan economy was revived and those rich foreigners needed a lot of imported stuff. The demands for bribes just kept increasing. The trucking companies raised their rates and the foreigners sought alternate, and cheaper routes to get those containers in or out.

For a while the United States overcame obstacles (mainly diplomatic) by shifting some of its Afghanistan supply lines from the Pakistani port of Karachi to rail lines running through Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. NATO and the U.S. negotiated with Russia to allow supplies to move to Afghanistan via Russian rail lines and those of Central Asian nations. These rails only go as far as the Afghan border. There are no railroads in Afghanistan. Thus, from the Uzbek border, the freight containers were trucked south to where most of the U.S. and NATO troops were stationed. By 2011 about 40 percent of supplies arrived via the "Northern Distribution Network." The U.S. wanted to eventually move all truck cargo via the northern route but the roads going north, especially the one through the Salang tunnel, were not able to handle it. Another problem was that the Russians and other nations controlling parts of the rail network got greedy and kept demanding higher transit fees.

Nevertheless, the Northern Distribution Network amounted to a large loss of business for Pakistani transportation firms. For a long time, Pakistan used that income as an incentive to protect the traffic going through the Khyber Pass. The Pakistanis always had a hard time controlling all the bandits and tribal gangs who frequently plundered the truck traffic from Pakistan to Afghanistan or demanded a share of the protection (bribes) money. Tribal leaders received gifts and promises of more if things remained peaceful and threats if their men were found to be attacking trucks. That did not always work either. This is an unpredictable part of the world.

The Taliban long threatened (and failed) to cut the U.S./NATO supply line from Pakistan to Afghanistan. To do this they had to halt the truck traffic going through the Khyber Pass, which is the main road from Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan. At one time, some 90 percent of the supplies for foreign troops came via this road (and another one via southwest Pakistan). The rest were flown in. Typically the truck traffic was attacked several times a year, with vehicles destroyed, stolen, or looted. These attacks could halt traffic for as long as a week. This didn’t hurt U.S. or NATO troops, who, as is the military custom, maintained reserves of all supplies. The Taliban took responsibility for some of the attacks but most of it was just greedy tribesmen and bandits out to make more money before the Western traffic disappeared.

Moving goods across the border is vital to the economy of Afghanistan as well. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan responded to the threat against the truck traffic by moving more troops and police in to guard the routes. Local tribes have also sent more armed men along the route, as they have long done, to go after anyone who threatened the vital trade and the money they got out of it. Most of the interruptions to Khyber Pass traffic were more about money than about the Taliban. NATO and the U.S. were seen as rich foreigners, who could pay more than the Afghan and Pakistani merchants who previously owned most of the goods going up the road into Afghanistan. Squeezing some extra cash out of rich foreigners is an ancient and honored custom in this part of the world. But the Pakistani government was rightly worried that the U.S. and NATO would take their trucking business elsewhere if the interruptions persisted. With the NATO supply line moving to Central Asia, the Port of Karachi and the trucking companies stood to lose over $100 million worth of business a year.

In 2013 even Afghan customs officials tried to get in on the extortion bonanza via a bold attempt to scam the U.S. government out of over $70 million. This was carried out by Afghan customs officials when American equipment (vehicles and cargo containers) leaving the country was halted at the Afghan border by demands for a document proving the equipment had entered Afghanistan. If this document was not available, and it never was, payment of a $1,000 fine (per violation) would allow the item to pass. This in itself was absurd because a 2002 agreement between Afghanistan and the United States exempted American military equipment from anything of this nature. Senior customs officials replied that the 2002 agreement was unfair and no longer applied. At this point the situation was becoming surreal and negotiations continued as U.S. officials climbed the Afghan government chain of command, finding that the original scammers had, as is usually the case, promised all their superiors a piece of the action and all were doing their best to make the extortion plan work. The U.S. solved the problem by telling the Afghan government that these fines could be paid but that the amount would be deducted from foreign aid, plus large processing fees and fines. Sensing the game was up, the scam collapsed.

The tribal militias in Pakistan are a lot harder to negotiate with and they are one aspect of the local culture that Western logistics officials will not miss at all. For all the Pakistanis who profited from this additional income, especially the black-market merchants who lost access to modern Western military equipment and consumer goods for their Pakistani and Afghan customers, the Western presence in Afghanistan will be remembered as a golden age. Russia and China are likely to replace a lot of the trade with Afghanistan, but it won’t include much military equipment or expensive consumer goods, and nearly all of it will be coming in via the revived Northern Distribution Network. This might not work either because those northern routes are threatened by the same northern Afghans that were never defeated by the Taliban in the 1990s and ended up dominating many aspects of the Afghan government in the two decades they were out of power. Once more the northerners oppose the latest Taliban takeover and that resistance is spreading in the north. As in 2001, the Taliban will deny that and claim they are simply dealing with bandits and rogue tribal militias. As long as the Taliban control Kabul they believe they can still get away with that. Difficult to do twenty years later because if the Internet and cellphones. Previous efforts to ban both have failed.

 


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