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.
From a distance, there's nothing unusual about the trucks in Karachi's Shiren Jinnah rest terminal. Lines of empty fuel tankers are parked on the side of a main road, waiting their turn to be filled up near the harbor. Huddled outside the trucks, jovial drivers drink tea, chat, and kill time. It's only on closer inspection that the scars of war become evident. Bullet holes riddle the bumpers, and parked between the mammoth carriers are the charred skeletal remains of burnt truck carcasses awaiting repair.
These are no ordinary fuel tankers. The trucks parked in this rest stop are bound for Afghanistan, ferrying supplies to U.S. and NATO forces. And all the drivers know someone who has been killed on the clock—burnt alive in the cab or shot by militants bent on disrupting Western lines of supply for America's longest war.
Nowhere is the war in Afghanistan less popular than in neighboring Pakistan, and the local drivers hired to ferry supplies and fuel to troops are the ones paying the highest price. Men who risk their lives on the perilous roads from Karachi to Kabul or Kandahar are caught in a tangle of poverty, rhetoric, and the imminent threat of death.
"Pakistan is more dangerous than Afghanistan now. I'm more scared here than there. There are forces helping us on the Afghan side. Here, we don't have help from anyone," explains Dilshad, a young Pashtun driver who has been carting fuel for NATO forces for the last three years. "The Taliban are saying we're not supposed to help the West. Before, they used to warn us to stop, now they just kill us."
The reward for their labor is around $300 a month and assault from all directions. Drivers say they must lie to their wives, they can't face their neighbors, and they live in fear of the escalating threats from the Taliban, who have stepped up their assault on the supply line in Pakistan in recent years. More than 60 percent of the Pakistani population lives on less than $2 per day, so $300 a month can seem like a lot, but these drivers are generally supporting large families.
Pakistan's overland route is integral to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan—40 percent of NATO supplies are trucked in through two of the country's border crossings. The United States and NATO contract Pakistani companies to ferry fuel, cargo, and food from the port of Karachi into Afghanistan, leaving day-to-day management, insurance, and compensation up to their local operators. An average of 2,500 to 3,000 cargo trucks and 450 to 500 fuel carriers are plying Pakistan's roads on any given day. A typical journey, drivers say, takes 20 days there and back.
Each year has become more terrifying than the last, Dilshad tells me. Last month, a friend of his was killed when the Taliban set his truck ablaze on the Pakistani side of the route. On Feb. 7, gunmen torched five trucks. On Jan. 30, three trucks were attacked. On Jan. 21, three separate attacks in Pakistan left three trucks torched and one driver shot. On Jan. 19, Pakistan's local press reported the bodies of three kidnapped drivers were found peppered with bullets. Everyone gathered here has at least one tale of surviving a brush with death.
Drivers say the trucks' "for export" signs and their special license numbers make them easy targets. Defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi explains that long stretches of lonely roads snaking through restive provinces, like Baluchistan, provide a broad area for militants to target, and lax security around rest stops doesn't help. "When they are parked in a large number in truck depots, these trucks are like sitting ducks, anybody can do anything," Rizvi said. Some attacks, Rizvi says, are not perpetrated by the Taliban, but by criminal looters who siphon off fuel or commandeer the battle gear and then torch the trucks. But aside from beefing up security around the depots, he thinks there's little the Pakistani government can do to prevent attacks.
Although the truckers don't pay for any damage the trucks suffer if they are attacked, they also don't get compensated if they're injured on the job. "If we die, our families don't even get a coffee," Dilshad says, chuckling ruefully. He describes letters arriving at his house in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as the North-West Frontier province), warning him that he is a marked man and commanding him to halt his work. The dozen other drivers gathered around us nod in agreement. They have all received the same letters.
As U.S. drone attacks against militants in North Waziristan intensify, truckers say the perception of being associated with the West has become even more hazardous. In 2010, 118 drone strikes pounded Pakistan's tribal regions, according to a study by the New America Foundation—that's roughly one bombing every three days, double the number of strikes the year before.
Drone attacks are touted as one of America's most effective weapons against insurgents, who hit troops in Afghanistan before seeking refuge across the porous border. But most Pakistanis believe that the targeted strikes kill more civilians than militants and are an affront to national sovereignty, though their government appears to allow them. Nearly 800 people were killed by drone strikes last year, and as of mid-February, there have already been nine strikes in 2011.
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.
Photograph of truckers by Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images.