My journey of a thousand miles began with a single bribe. I was riding in a Pakistani truck hauling a shipping container from the port city of Karachi to the Afghan capital of Kabul, along one of the two main routes used to supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. I was accompanied by the truck driver and his brother, and a friend who served as a translator. We were still on the outskirts of Karachi when we were first stopped by the police, two tubby traffic cops on white Suzuki motorcycles. After paying the equivalent of $4 to the cops, we set out again, but for the next six days, bribery, along with breakdown and the threat of militant attacks, would be a constant impediment to our journey, culminating in a barrage of police "tolls" on the final stretch through the Khyber Pass on our way into Afghanistan.
But I couldn't blame the Pakistani cops for wanting to get into the vast feeding frenzy that has accompanied the tens of billions of supplies that have surged through the country since 2001. Pakistan is one of two ground routes used to supply landlocked Afghanistan, with the other, much longer and more expensive, winding its way through Central Asia. This route is so vital that when it was shut down for a seven-month period in 2011 and 2012 following a dispute between the United States and Pakistan, the U.S. military estimated that the closure cost $100-million a month.
After more than a decade, this improvised system has become not only the lifeblood of the Afghan war but a major force in its own right inside Pakistan – a vast industry that has grown to encompass everyone from the rural Pashtun families who send their sons to drive the trucks to the millionaire Punjabi businessmen who hire them, from crane operators and gangsters in Karachi to international contractors and Western lobbyists. It has linked the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands to the heart of the global economy, and its complex and volatile development offers a dramatic example of how a foreign military intervention alters the economic and social fabric in the region around it.
Since I started covering Afghanistan almost five years ago, I've always made it a point to try to get out of the blast walls and armored vehicles and into the countryside, taking advantage of the fact that with my half-Asian features and Persian language skills, I can often pass for a local. This was my most ambitious trip yet, though, one that, to my knowledge, no other foreign journalist has undertaken. Not only did it mean spending seemingly endless stretches jostling around in cramped, burning hot cabin, and braving Taliban attacks – we narrowly missed two bomb blasts on our trip – but it almost meant crossing Pakistan's tribal areas, which are normally off-limits to foreigners. The result is Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber, an e-book published by Foreign Policy and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which details my journey and the lives of the truckers who ply the NATO routes, most of them ethnic Pashtuns from the borderlands.
I made the trip because I wanted to understand another side to the war, what military planners sometimes called its "second-order effects", that is, the unintended and often unanticipated consequences of a vast troop deployment and its associated spending. As has been well-documented, intervention has proved self-defeating in Afghanistan, by fuelling corruption and giving local power brokers incentives to stoke the flames of conflict. The ecosystem that has spring up around the NATO supply routes shows that these consequences have spread into neighboring countries. I found that the boom had badly damaged Pakistan's highways and other infrastructure, and led to one of the country's largest scams, whereby thousands of containers with fake documents were imported under NATO's customs-exempt rules but actually opened inside of Pakistan. As such, they could have contained anything, mostly alcohol destined for the black market but in some cases, weapons.
While the billions that have been spent trucking in military supplies have undoubtedly allowed some Afghans and Pakistanis to improve their lives, the money has also fuelled chaos and criminality on an epic scale. Massive criminal networks and a new generation of warlords – and the accompanying "criminalization of the state," as the Africanist scholar Jean- Francois Bayart calls it – will be (just as much as schools and roads) part of the West's enduring legacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Matthieu Aikins is a writer based in Kabul