Missing containers

Pakistan’s economy, security, infrastructure at stake



Special Report

Amir Mateen

ISLAMABAD: The case of missing containers, on which the Supreme Court has sought a report on July 5, is just the tip of the larger scandal that involves serious threats to Pakistan’s security.

It’s not just the case of freight companies evading taxes and smuggling contrabands with the connivance of local and foreign officials. The story involves international racketeers who, with the help of Pakistan, Afghanistan and ISAF officials, run a ring of organised smuggling of arms and goods spanned over many years. It is also about how the ISAF and the US government got away with either no or one-sided contracts partial to their interests governing the transportation of arms and goods through Pakistan.

The rules and procedures laid down for what has been one of the largest logistical exercises in recent history raise lots of questions that need to be asked: How much is the extent of pilferage from the convoys of the ISAF, NATO and the US forces? How the pilferage of arms is impacting the security situation in Pakistan? How is the smuggling of goods and arms in the name of ISAF and US hurting the Pakistan economy?

What are the systems, if any, to monitor the goods being transported through Pakistan? What are the screening procedures at the port of entry and exit, and during the convoys’ mobility from Karachi to Afghanistan? What is the nature of Pakistan’s agreements with the ISAF, NATO and the US regarding the transit facility?

Finally, it needs to be seen how much is it impacting Pakistan’s infrastructure. How the US and the ISAF compensate Pakistan for the wear and tear of its infrastructure? How much Pakistan charge the US and ISAF for the usage of its transit facilities?

A thorough survey of the issue reveals a picture detrimental to Pakistan’s interests.

Pakistan has allowed nearly 300,000 containers of the coalition forces to pass from Karachi to Afghanistan through Chamman or Torkhum since the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan eight years ago. Over 7000 containers cross the Pakistani territory every month, not to forget an unaccountable number of containers that return to home countries by the same route. This makes it one of the biggest logistical exercises undertaken by any country in recent history. Yet there is no single authority to oversee this massive movement of the most sensitive equipment on planet earth.

It suits the coalition forces, as the arrangements for this massive transit are favourable to them. Pakistan has no idea what goes through its territory in thousands of the ISAF, NATO and the US containers as it is not allowed to see inside them.

Pakistan was not allowed to even scan the containers. It is only recently that scanners have been put up for random checking at Port Qasim, which deals with just 40 per cent of the cargo. The equipment is not good enough to scan specially-fabricated hard metal containers. The 60 per cent of the coalition cargo passing through Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT), Karachi International Container Terminal (KICT) and Karachi Port Trust (KPT) goes un-scanned.

The Musharraf regime gave the coalition forces almost free entry and the passage through Pakistan with no control on their contents and monitoring. National Logistics Cell (NLC) was given the charge of coordination with the coalition forces. But the NLC deals with hardly 15 per cent of the cargo, mostly related to Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) and the cargo of humanitarian nature meant for NGOs and the foreign embassies.

The bulk of coalition forces cargo is handled by private parties hired by the ISAF, NATO and the US. The NLC simply gives them No-Objection-Certificate (NOC) after their documentation at Karachi. The problem starts once the containers leave the ports.

The ISAF containers need cross-border certificate from the Afghanistan embassy, which takes, some allege suspiciously, 15 to 20 days. Sources say this is the time when most of the containers are changed, altered or emptied. Others get altered en-route to Afghanistan.

The US military cargo carries Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID), which only allows the US Homeland Security constant monitoring of their assets. The US does not share this facility with its coalition partners, or with any agency of Pakistan. These tags provide the US the real time positioning and indicate any kind of breach to their seal.

The interior ministry has time and again reported the breach of the existing system. The ministry reported incidents where violators changed the assets after opening containers from the middle without breaching the seal. There have been many occasions when containers have been found to be carrying items other than what had been declared. A container when recovered from miscreants was found containing US and French currencies whereas records showed it to be carrying ration items. However, Member Customs Munir Qureshi claims they were actually Afghan coins that were looted by the Taliban but later recovered. Containers have also been found carrying illegal liquor. The interior ministry complained about the involvement of one company hired by the coalition forces, Messrs Al Razziq to be involved in smuggling. All of this is happening through organised gangs who operate at local, regional and international levels.

The biggest issue is the pilferage and smuggling of arms through this cargo. Numerous media reports have reported the ambush of containers carrying arms and about the arms smuggling through false declaration or fake documents. The Central Board of Revenue and the Customs Department have tried to belittle the issue by claiming that the number of missing containers was only 40 and not 12000.

Defence experts say even one container of arms is enough for sustaining insurgents and militancy for weeks and months. “The militancy in Balochistan is thriving on arms pilferage and smuggling,” says Baloch Nationalist Rauf Khan Sasoli.

Pakistan’s security problem, one can safely say, is largely fuelled by the arms being pilfered from the convoys of the coalition forces and the ones being smuggled back from Afghanistan.

But the ISAF and the US continue to insist on the existing arrangements that are partial to their interests. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the ISAF led by the UK stipulates that Pakistan allow them men and material by land, sea and air across the territory of Pakistan; procurement and acquisition of goods, services and building infrastructure; use of communications and road infrastructure; ensure safety and security to the men and material of the ISAF; facilitation in the movement of war equipment, material, vehicle, vessels, aircrafts and the use of other allied facilities. The ISAF is immune from personal arrest and detention to the staff including contractors. The most crucial clause is that the ISAF is exempted from taxes and duties. The MOU with the US, signed in 2002, leaves Pakistan even more high and dry. It does not mention any Pakistani concerns about threats to its security or consequences for its economy.

This leaves little room for Pakistan to manoeuvre. There is hardly any mention of the impact of this massive movement on Pakistan’s infrastructure. This may have affected the national highways, particularly because of heavier containers. The NLC is paid a paltry Rs1000 per container for coordination with various departments before issuing the NOC. This hardly compensates for the damage to highways. Pakistan is once again being squeezed, almost like the first phase of the Afghanistan war when the jihad left our infrastructure in tatters.

The impact on economy may be even more. Senator Ilyas Bilour points out quite rightly that the bazaars of Peshawar and Quetta are flooded with goods stolen or smuggled from the convoys of the coalition forces. “The money that the Americans are giving us through the Kerry Lugar and the coalition support fund is peanuts in comparison to the loss that we are suffering because of the pilferage and smuggling,” says security analyst Ziaur Rehman Rizvi. “If we could imply levy taxes of the goods that are being taken through our territory, it should be five times the amount. They could have at least purchased non-military goods from Pakistan instead of buying a bulk from our adversaries like India.

The News

July 3, 2010