The Pakistani truck drivers who supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani truck drivers who supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani truck drivers who supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 22 2011 7:25 AM

Bullet Holes in the Bumper, Threats in the Mail

The hard lives of the Pakistani truck drivers who ferry supplies and fuel to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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Working for the U.S. and NATO forces is so sensitive that most workers don't want to tell me their full names, while the higher-ups in the industry will only speak on condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution. Within their communities, drivers say they are ostracized for their work.

Many don't tell their families the specifics of what they do for a living; they claim the Taliban letters are a case of mistaken identity. "I just lie at home. I say, 'I transport containers, not petrol,' because it's less dangerous. And I don't tell them I go to Afghanistan, just inside Pakistan," explains Irfan, another driver, who has been working the route for six years. "Sometimes I think I want to get out of this industry, it's too dangerous, but I need the money," he says. "It's not fair—the contractors get the spoils, while we go through the troubles."

And contractors don't hide their profits. One manager of a prominent fuel-contracting company is more than blunt. "In the end, it's the poor man who loses; they are the ones most targeted by terrorists," he told me, while declining to be named because he worries about reprisals. He says his company provides compensation to injured drivers or the families of those who are killed in the line of duty, but the drivers I spoke to, some of whom worked for that company, say it's simply not true. They are charged for damage-insurance on the trucks, but they have yet to see a family collect when a driver is killed.


The company manager met me at a posh Karachi cafe. He wanted to stay away from the office so that no one would know he has spoken to the media. "In a time of war, you're asking me why it's dangerous?" he shot back when I asked why he doesn't want me to publish his name. Surely, I suggested, if the Taliban knows which trucks are for export, they also know which companies run them. "Of course they know," he tells me, "I just don't want to make a public display of it." His cousin was killed two months ago—kidnapped, tortured, and shot for working with the United States. He says in the last six years, militants have killed 50 drivers contracted to his company, which runs 1,500 fuel trucks.

"You want to kill, and I help you. We work for you, and we also die for you. The drone attacks kill our children. When I go back to my village, people say, 'You gave the fuel for the drones that kill children and women,' and I don't have an answer," he says, suddenly singling me out as the representative of the entire NATO effort in Afghanistan.

He has stopped going back to his village in Waziristan's hinterlands. He has hired private security. "We die for you. What do you do for us?" he asked.

He answers the question himself. "It's all about the money. The feeling among Pakistanis is we work with Americans, we like their money, but we don't like their faces," he grins sheepishly and looks down. I watch the heavy silver watch on his slender wrist brush the table as he wrings his hands.

"I am in this business out of necessity," he tries to explain. "If we don't help you, you would give it to India; that would be worse," he says, referencing Pakistan's longstanding rivalry and the fear that America will allow India a free hand in Afghanistan.

But at the truck terminal on the other side of the city, drivers' oil-stained palms stroke heavy beards as they pause to think of answers to my questions about why they cart war supplies through increasingly treacherous territory. For them, working with NATO is not about American foreign policy. "I'm uneducated, I'm poor, and I can't do anything else. I need the money," says Khan, another driver.

Khan tucks his curly hair behind his ears and tells me the owner of his truck was killed yesterday. "We just got a new warning from the Taliban to stop working on my last trip. Even the people of Pakistan are scared. The police won't let me stop to eat and fuel up. Hotels don't want to let us park in front because they're afraid. It's 100-percent dangerous. And the problem is, nobody gives a fuck about us."

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.