Logistics!

So, the raids on NATO trucks held up when Pakistan suspended the border crossing. A good point is made in comments at Adam Elkus’s blog – what about the people who own the trucks?

What indeed. The so-called “transport mafia” played a critical role in the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990s, according to Ahmed Rashid. Back in the 1980s, one of the ways the Soviet-Afghan war transformed Pakistani politics was that an economy grew up to service it. Famously, this is what Osama bin Laden actually did for the mujahedin – his construction firm built the roads up to the border, his organisation received new recruits in Pakistan and passed them on. Logistics. Another element of this war economy was a network of transport firms that trucked the war material the Americans were supplying and the Saudis paying for up from Karachi to the border.

Most of these were close to the politicians who also benefited from the war – the NWFP Islamist parties and the feudal landowners who made up the right of the PPP. In fact, very often, they were actually owned by politicians, or by their proxies. To make sure the money fell in the right places and the trucks went to the right places, the Pakistani army created a new agency, the national logistics cell, which was responsible for divvying up the contracts and organising the operation.

After the war was over, the system stayed in place and became part of the general berserk vision of extending Pakistani and Saudi influence into Central Asia. The military would get to implement the strategic depth concept, and keep recruiting jihadis to use in Kashmir. The jihadis would get to continue their never-ending tour. The Saudis could spread Wahabism and dispose of their malcontents. The ISI would reinforce its special role in politics. And the transport mafia would benefit from what appeared to be enormous economic opportunities trading through Afghanistan into what had been the Soviet Union.

In fact, when the Pakistanis came to pick a proxy in Afghanistan after 1992, the choice was between Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the project of creating a new movement. The ISI wanted to stick with Hekmatyar, who they had originally sent into Afghanistan in the mid-70s. However, the other beneficiaries of the war weren’t satisfied with him – in the first Bhutto government, the logistics mafia and its friends were very powerful indeed. The key figure was the Interior Minister, the former chief of the Frontier Corps who had recruited the first generation of mujahedin in the 70s.

From a left-wing point of view, a crucial factor here was that the whole imperialist vision of caravans of trucks trading across the Hindu Kush as far as Siberia was a form of economic development that went straight to the traditional powers in Sindh via their new investments in the war economy. A stereotype view might be to say that the PPP was a mixture of Benazir and Bhutto – mass protest politics, and the feudal world. It was this intersection between internal Pakistani class and regional politics, grand strategic visions, and tactical opportunism that led them to support a group of Afghans based in Spin Boldak. Later, during the wars of the 90s, the Taliban repeatedly benefited from transport supplied by the NLC.

So you’ve got to wonder if setting fire to a load of trucks isn’t overreaching a bit. The role of transport and route security just can’t be overstated here; the irony in this McClatchy piece is intense.

For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

“More and more we’ve realized that they are not coming through the passes, they’re just coming through the . . . gate,” said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

On the other side of the border, here’s the guy who charges $1,200 a truck for safe passage. People are starting to notice; the US Host Nation Trucking contract amounts to 10% of Afghan GDP, paid to companies controlled by the Afghan government’s relatives.

Obviously, there are a lot of people in Pakistan who would be delighted to set fire to trucks owned by a Northern Alliance defence minister’s son, but as far as I know a major dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan is precisely about whether cargo can move through Pakistan in foreign-owned vehicles. This strongly suggests the movement on the Pakistani side is controlled by the same old, same old people. Key quote:

Until now, the diplomat said, protection of the route had not been needed because the delivery rate had been remarkably efficient given the length and rough nature of the route from the port of Karachi.

I suspect that if they want it delivered, it will be delivered. I’ve even heard it suggested that some of the cargo burned was insured in advanced, which if true would be impressively sick – it’s not often you get to have your own foreign policy and pull off an insurance fire at the same time.

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