It’s an odd object to come across in this part of Pakistan, on the edge of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province bordering the Tribal Areas. In the madness of Karkhano, one of Pakistan’s best-known smuggler bazaars, among a jumble of domestic products for sale outside a nondescript storefront, is a black plastic trunk emblazoned with the name Lt. Stoddard, 2611, 62nd ECB(H). Inside are personal items belonging to the U.S. soldier: T-shirts and sweatshirts, socks and gloves, even a few pairs of underwear. An identical trunk next to it, its lid similarly flung open, is teeming with books and DVDs, all in English, all well-worn, all incongruous here.
That’s only the beginning; digging deeper, things start to take a turn for the surreal. Hidden behind a torn and faded copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a stack of letters from a woman in the U.S. to her lesbian lover deployed with the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. “We’ll make greatness out of what shall be once we overcome the obstacles standing in our way,” one letter says. Beneath pirated copies of Rambo: First Blood and Full Metal Jacket is a notebook belonging to a budding U.S. military rap artist: “To carry out the mission, complete the objective,” he writes in acrid verse. “u move I shoot, f–k being selective.” And then another letter, this time from a woman to her soldier son, dated July 3, 2008, revealing in intimate detail the regrets of a mother about the soldier’s sister: “I feel like I have missed out raising B—- in some way I can’t explain,” she confesses. “Maybe because E—- was drinkin’ and I was the shield to save my kids from abuse by his actions and I’m sure that hurt her growing up.”
How did such things, windows into American lives, get here?
The answer lies on the Grand Trunk Road, which runs by Karkhano. It once carried hippies from Afghanistan through Pakistan to the land of enlightenment in India during the 1960s. It now ferries Afghan refugees brave enough to go back to Kabul across the historic Khyber Pass. Vans and gaudily painted buses stuffed to overflowing ooze black exhaust fumes as they inch over the remaining hundred metres to the last police checkpoint in the “settled areas” of Peshawar. Beyond that, past the sign reading “Entry of Foreigners Prohibited,” is tribal country, with its gun shops, its hashish dispensaries, and its anarchy. Past that is Afghanistan.
Along that same road is where supply convoys from the U.S. military and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) make their way toward Kabul from Pakistan, under an agreement with the Pakistani government. They are routinely attacked by men claiming to be Taliban militants. The reality, however, is more difficult to decipher. Tribal country is a different world, where the reach of the political centre does not extend. It is ruled by its own princes, an unsavoury collection of tribal chieftains. If there is money to be made, they will surely find a way to make it. And there is money to be made in the foreign supplies that transit through their domain.
This explains how the trunks got there. One local shopkeeper, pleading anonymity, provides the details: “Most of these attacks are carried out by looters, not Taliban,” he says. “There are a number of ways it happens. It could be that gangs know a convoy is coming and mount a raid; it could also be that the truck driver has been paid off and he drives off with it; sometimes the guards at the depot are paid off and the goods are stolen straight from there. Whatever happens, the goods end up in the hands of the local tribal leaders. They sell them, sometimes trunks, sometimes entire shipping containers, to the local shop owners, unopened. It’s a risk for the shop owner: he may get nothing. Then again, he may hit a jackpot.”
In one story making the rounds of the bazaar, a shop owner once bought a shipping container; when he broke the seal and opened it, he found crates filled with hay. He was disappointed but accepted his lot as part of the risk and left the container at his home so his family could make use of the rather expensively acquired animal feed. The next day, his wife went to get some of the hay and discovered guns packed under it. Jackpot.
Lesbian love letters, martial rap, motherly confessions, perhaps guns. What else is turning up in Karkhano bazaar? Digging some more leads to unsettling finds: laser sights for the M-16 assault rifle, body armour, night-vision goggles, American uniforms, some with name tags still attached, U.S. Army-issued boots, backpacks, camouflage rain gear, tents, personal GPS systems—in short, just about everything a soldier needs before going out into a war zone. And for after: among the items is a U.S. Army Commendation Medal.
The fact that these supplies might be reaching militants is a worrying development for ISAF and American forces in Afghanistan. If recent attacks in Pakistan are any indication, the Taliban are realizing the tactical advantage that wearing stolen uniforms and posing as security forces gives them. An attack on a UN guest house in Kabul on Oct. 28 involving extremists dressed as Afghan police officers, in which 12 people were killed, including six foreign UN workers, shows that the Afghan Taliban are also catching on. “There’s quite a concern,” says Maj. Graeme Henley, a spokesman for ISAF based in Kabul, after being informed by Maclean’s of what kinds of items were up for sale. “If any stolen coalition uniforms are available on the open market, that is a major security threat.”
According to ISAF and U.S. officials, no sensitive information travels along the Khyber Pass route, at least not officially. But one binder obtained at the market, apparently belonging to an individual soldier who likely packed it with his personal belongings, contains documents clearly marked “secret.” These include detailed plans of an ISAF forward operating base in the heart of Afghanistan. ISAF’s military intelligence division, when contacted by Maclean’s, refused to comment on the discovery, indicating only that it was “bad.”
It’s no secret that strange things often turn up in war zones. During the height of the Iraq conflict, thieves’ markets in Baghdad offered up a rich repository: a freshly minted sheet of currency printed by the old regime, bearing the image of Saddam Hussein, falcons from Saddam’s personal collection for the lucrative falconry industry in the Middle East, works of art looted from the Iraqi National Museum. In Afghanistan, markets similar to the ones in Baghdad are popping up: the Bush bazaar is a well-known spot near the Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, named after former president George W. Bush, where shoppers can pick up American military gear.
But Karkhano appears to be in a class of its own. Among the other finds there is the personal information of approximately 180 individual U.S. soldiers, including name, date of birth and social security number, contained in a binder belonging to the U.S. Human Resources Command (USHRC). That information would only be worth approximately $50 per individual on the identity theft black market, according to Robert Siciliano, an American identity theft expert. “This type of information is now available on chat rooms,” he says. “But the potential damage it can cause to an individual is huge. Information like that is the key to the kingdom. It can be used to open bank accounts and credit accounts. A criminal or terrorist can use the information to impersonate that person.” Officials at USHRC did not respond to repeated email and telephone requests for comment.
In fact, very few people are willing to talk about what is happening at the Karkhano bazaar. A Pakistani military spokesman told Maclean’s this is a civilian issue. “Talk to the local police,” he said, even after being told that Pakistani military officers are some of the bazaar’s best customers. “This is bulls–t! So what if individuals are buying smuggled goods. Pakistan is full of these kinds of markets. It doesn’t make those officers criminals.” Perhaps not criminals, but supporting a trade in goods stolen from a military ally does have some irony. Moreover, the presence of Pakistani military officers is causing trouble for the local shopkeepers: the Taliban have threatened them for supplying military gear to their enemy.
But the Taliban may be the lesser danger in Karkhano bazaar, where their presence is tolerated by the real power brokers. “This is dangerous territory you are wading into,” says Dawood Jan, the most senior Pakistani police officer at the checkpoint across from the bazaar. “There is nothing we can do about it. Karkhano is owned and run by powerful tribals. They are above the law. No one can touch them.”
One of those tribals, Iktidar Khalil Afridi, denies any involvement with the bazaar. Seated in his massive walled compound, one kilometre inside the Tribal Areas, he feigns ignorance of the type of business that goes on there. “I have no interest in this market,” he says, visibly irritated by the line of questioning. “I’ve never even gone into it.” He then abruptly ends the interview, retreating past his fleet of cars and through his lush garden, glancing over at his pet ostrich before disappearing through an intricately carved wooden door.
Back at Karkhano, the shopkeepers are equally evasive about their business, bouncing the blame back to their overseers, men like Afridi who they say force them to sell what they do. Rifling through another trunk produces a valentine card from an American woman to her future husband deployed in Afghanistan. “No matter how far apart we are,” it reads, “our love grows stronger every day.” The shopkeeper offers the card to this reporter for free, but with a warning: “People are talking about the stranger coming here taking pictures and asking questions about the American supplies,” he warns. “I think you should leave and never come back.” Apparently, some windows are not meant to be opened.