In the 30 minutes I stood observing movements across the Durand Line, the strangest thing I saw was a man rolling an enormous tyre in front of him as he sauntered in from Afghanistan, casually making his way into Pakistan’s border town of Chaman. I asked him what he was doing and he replied simply that he was going home. He was a local labourer who worked in the Waish Mandi across the border as a loader, and sometimes instead of a daily wage he was given goods to smuggle and sell.
Only, the candidness of it all took the sting out of calling it smuggling. I saw the man walk past a Frontier Corps (FC) checkpoint, a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) building, a customs office and the Balochistan Levies, no questions asked.
I returned to my observational cohort, Ameer Jan, a Baloch rental driver who had brought me here from Quetta through the Khojak Pass, on his diesel Toyota Saloon. It was March of this year. Heavy rains had made the mountainous drive treacherous; our car was stuck in mud and then was almost run off a cliff by an oncoming truck.
“What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in Chaman?” I asked him, getting back into the vehicle.
“A camel carrying a truck on its back,” he replied. “On that same mountain,” he pointed back to the way we came. “Pakhtun ingenuity knows no bounds; they say if trucks can carry animals why can’t animals carry trucks? They disassemble the vehicle and put it on two or three camels. They do the same with cars.”
Residents of Chaman don’t need visas to cross the border, only local permits. They maintain properties and businesses on either side, as well as marriages. “They’re all Achakzai here. On both sides. They don’t care about the border,” Jan explained.
When the United States declared war on the Taliban in 2001, many Afghan refugees fled this way using local permits. The Americans contended that there were a large number of Taliban among them.
To fuel and sustain the war, NATO supplies travelled along the same roads where goods and human beings were being smuggled. From Karachi to Quetta and then to Chaman and Kandahar, the allies sent major consignments of fuel down this route, coming under attack on numerous occasions – the last major one in 2014.
“What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen in Chaman?” I asked him [driver]. “A camel carrying a truck on its back,” he replied.
The highway from Quetta to Chaman has a freshly carpeted tarmac courtesy of allied funds to facilitate their wartime transit. We visited the Saleem Hotel in Kuchlak on this highway, where Shahbaz Taseer was recovered just a few days before our journey. There is an intersection close to the restaurant where a path north goes to Waziristan and a path west goes to Afghanistan through Chaman.
The security situation here is tenuous at best.
Last year, a raid by FC personnel on a storehouse in Chaman uncovered rockets, mortar shells and landmines amid a laundry list of destructive arsenal. Four years ago, Levies forces recovered three anti-aircraft guns from an overturned truck ostensibly transporting timber.
A local from Chaman told me he caught his son playing with an RPG-7 shell once.
This is the town where an Afghan customs officer from Spinbuldak was gunned down in 2014, and where a Pakistan customs post was blown up in 2013. In April of this year, two men alleged to be Afghan spies were arrested from the Chaman area in unrelated incidents. In 2011, a US spy drone crashed close to the town. Locals say they sold the parts as scrap.
The path west from Kuchlak is also the major route for the Afghan transit trade. There is no one way to smuggle goods here. It can be sacks in a wheelbarrow with a child sitting on top. Or simply bags strewn over the shoulder. For bigger consignments, the preferred method is to wait till sundown and pay off the night watch at the border gates; an FIA officer tells me this is when the searchlights conspicuously go off.
But the braver ones who want to save money on bribes do it in broad daylight, hiding contraband inside sacks of legitimate goods, like potatoes. There are not a lot of ways to scan consignments. The American-issued cargo scanner at the customs office was not working when I visited. Other options include FC personnel thrusting a spear into the cargo to check for anything harder than grains and powders. A bit old fashioned perhaps but it gets the job done — when required.
The name for the Chaman border gate, Dosti Darwaza, brims with irony. When Pakistan wanted to inaugurate the Friendship Gate in 2003 the Afghan’s ignored their invitation. There were accusations that the FC had encroached upon Afghan territory; some say up to a kilometre inside the Durand Line. Afghanistan was in turmoil after 9/11, and they said Pakistan had shifted the border while no one was looking.
FC officials say the border had been moved once before, a full two kilometres in 1979 when the Soviet Union had made its way to Kandahar— the Friendship Gate was merely an attempt to set the record straight.
Over the years, the Friendship Gate has been sealed and remained closed on countless occasions. When I visited, it was closed again. But the gate’s closure affects little by way of movement; border security personnel on both sides allow people and goods to skirt around it. It would be impossible to stem the flow of thousands every time Kabul and Islamabad have a spat, they say.
Chaman means garden yet the town is anything but. The mud-layered houses open up into uneven, ragged streets, made worse by the tankers and trucks that rumble through, throwing up dust that seems to swirl eternally in the air.
Its people are constantly loading and unloading things. From trucks, buses, trains, cars. Everybody is busy moving, everybody is carrying something. It’s a town where people are in perpetual motion and people joke that if you stand around in one place too long somebody might lift you too.
Before it enters Chaman, a NATO tanker has to negotiate the narrow, winding turns of the Khojak Pass in the Toba Kakar Mountain Range. There is always a risk of tipping over. Locals tell me that when there is news of an oil spill, men, women and children rush to the site, carrying plastic gallon containers, or pots and pans.
FC officials say the border had been moved once before, a full two kilometres in 1979 when the Soviet Union had made its way to Kandahar — the Friendship Gate was merely an attempt to set the record straight.
When we drove down the descent that leads to Chaman from the Khojak Pass, we got a strong whiff of the region’s favourite plant, its resin being burned somewhere close. On the ragged roads that lead up to what were once British frontier outposts, there were lines of imported cars parked and men watching the sunset from the side of the mountain. Willowy wisps of smoke rose above their heads.
“The Pakhtuns come here to relax in the evenings. If you want to relax too, I can take you,” offered Jan. Hashish is also smuggled through Chaman. FC officials claim to have caught 500 kilogrammes of hashish in March of this year. They also regularly seize opium, morphine and heroin, they say, hidden in trucks or loaded on donkeys — the proverbial drug mules.
Long-standing and much revised, the original Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement was to provide Afghanistan with access to Pakistan’s maritime ports – giving it the licence to import duty-free goods – and give Afghan trucks access to Wagah border and Indian markets.
The agreement became a large source of smuggling over the years when Afghan traders started importing all manner of goods from places like China, UAE, Japan, India, Germany and Hong Kong. Traders in Afghanistan who import these goods without having to pay custom duties and tariffs send them back to Pakistan where they sell cheaper than legitimate goods.
Pakistan has had to revise the list of items on the transit trade agreement so many times custom officials say they often lose track. Any item Pakistan places on the duty-free list ends up being smuggled either en route to Afghanistan – ending up in places like Peshawar’s Karkhano Bazaar – or back from Afghanistan; ending up in Torkham and Chaman.
Stereos, telephones, crockery, VCRs, cigarettes, tyres, refrigerators, air conditioners, televisions, soaps and automobile parts are just some of the items customs officers say have had to be taken off the transit agreement list, because of the sheer damage these cheap duty-free imports were doing to domestic products and the government’s revenue collection.
The Waish Mandi across the border is awash with automobile spare parts and electronic goods, including laptops and smart phones, all flooding through the Friendship Gate.
Chaman’s underdevelopment as a town is sometimes a façade that hides the material oasis inside. In large courtyards next to mud-brick houses instead of tied up farm animals, there are cars of every kind and colour. Whole rows of Toyotas; Vitz, Corolla, Premio, Camry, even the new hybrid Prius.
Jan has been in the rental car business for twenty years. According to him, car dealers in Chaman are so rich, they walk around with plane tickets to Dubai in their pockets. They just don’t show their wealth because lavish living would invite official scrutiny.
He confesses his rental car business also gets its transport from the same illegal source. As, he says, does everyone else including local politicians and influentials who are in the market for luxury cars, SUVs and four-wheel drives. Jan says a neighbour of his bought a 2008 model of the Toyota Mark X for one million rupees, when the market rate is closer to three million rupees. The Land Cruisers that cost upwards of six million rupees, he adds, can be bought for half that amount.
Pakistan has had to revise the list of items on the transit trade agreement so many times custom officials say they often lose track.
In 2014, two army officers serving in the FC died in a car accident near Kuchlak. Pictures from the crash revealed they were in a sports car. The incident lead to an inquiry which eventually resulted in the dismissal of six army officers earlier this year, over charges of corruption.
The fateful vehicle was reputedly confirmed to have been smuggled by the inquiry.
Even though Afghanistan, unlike Pakistan, is a left-hand drive country, they have had to impose bans on the import and registration of right-hand drive vehicles, so lucrative is the car trade across the border. But this has not affected the smuggling of spare auto parts.
Cars coming into Pakistan this way are all non-custom paid vehicles and the vehicles are impounded, and later auctioned off, if caught. Sometimes they are regularised under amnesty schemes in exchange for token fines — the last was issued in 2013 by the FBR. While this generates some (nominal) official revenue, critics argue it also legitimises the illegal trade that produces them.
Customs officers say luxury vehicles find their way to Afghanistan from showrooms in Dubai, where the trading economy relies on low import and export duties. They also say the cars come disassembled in major chunks, the body smuggled separately to the engine, making them harder to detect among legally allowed items of trade. But the locals I talked to uninhibitedly said they’re just driven across the border.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.