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.

Truck drivers stand near their fuel tankers on the outskirts of Herat

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.

Working for the U.S. and NATO forces is so sensitive that most workers don’t want to tell me their full names, while the higher-ups in the industry will only speak on condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution. Within their communities, drivers say they are ostracized for their work.

Many don’t tell their families the specifics of what they do for a living; they claim the Taliban letters are a case of mistaken identity. “I just lie at home. I say, ‘I transport containers, not petrol,’ because it’s less dangerous. And I don’t tell them I go to Afghanistan, just inside Pakistan,” explains Irfan, another driver, who has been working the route for six years. “Sometimes I think I want to get out of this industry, it’s too dangerous, but I need the money,” he says. “It’s not fair—the contractors get the spoils, while we go through the troubles.”

And contractors don’t hide their profits. One manager of a prominent fuel-contracting company is more than blunt. “In the end, it’s the poor man who loses; they are the ones most targeted by terrorists,” he told me, while declining to be named because he worries about reprisals. He says his company provides compensation to injured drivers or the families of those who are killed in the line of duty, but the drivers I spoke to, some of whom worked for that company, say it’s simply not true. They are charged for damage-insurance on the trucks, but they have yet to see a family collect when a driver is killed.

The company manager met me at a posh Karachi cafe. He wanted to stay away from the office so that no one would know he has spoken to the media. “In a time of war, you’re asking me why it’s dangerous?” he shot back when I asked why he doesn’t want me to publish his name. Surely, I suggested, if the Taliban knows which trucks are for export, they also know which companies run them. “Of course they know,” he tells me, “I just don’t want to make a public display of it.” His cousin was killed two months ago—kidnapped, tortured, and shot for working with the United States. He says in the last six years, militants have killed 50 drivers contracted to his company, which runs 1,500 fuel trucks.

“You want to kill, and I help you. We work for you, and we also die for you. The drone attacks kill our children. When I go back to my village, people say, ‘You gave the fuel for the drones that kill children and women,’ and I don’t have an answer,” he says, suddenly singling me out as the representative of the entire NATO effort in Afghanistan.

He has stopped going back to his village in Waziristan’s hinterlands. He has hired private security. “We die for you. What do you do for us?” he asked.

He answers the question himself. “It’s all about the money. The feeling among Pakistanis is we work with Americans, we like their money, but we don’t like their faces,” he grins sheepishly and looks down. I watch the heavy silver watch on his slender wrist brush the table as he wrings his hands.

“I am in this business out of necessity,” he tries to explain. “If we don’t help you, you would give it to India; that would be worse,” he says, referencing Pakistan’s longstanding rivalry and the fear that America will allow India a free hand in Afghanistan.

But at the truck terminal on the other side of the city, drivers’ oil-stained palms stroke heavy beards as they pause to think of answers to my questions about why they cart war supplies through increasingly treacherous territory. For them, working with NATO is not about American foreign policy. “I’m uneducated, I’m poor, and I can’t do anything else. I need the money,” says Khan, another driver.

Khan tucks his curly hair behind his ears and tells me the owner of his truck was killed yesterday. “We just got a new warning from the Taliban to stop working on my last trip. Even the people of Pakistan are scared. The police won’t let me stop to eat and fuel up. Hotels don’t want to let us park in front because they’re afraid. It’s 100-percent dangerous. And the problem is, nobody gives a fuck about us.”

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow  Slate and the  Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.