Chaman, on the border with Afghanistan. The border between Pakistan and the Taliban is supposed to be sealed tight. But it's only the refugees, fleeing the U.S. air attacks on Kandahar, who are being stopped by the Pakistanis from getting through. It seems these Afghans have lost faith in the accuracy of our "smart" bombs after one of them crashed through a warehouse belonging to the International Committee for the Red Cross in Kabul, even though a huge red cross was painted on the roof.
Smart these bombs may be, but they're more blind than Stevie Wonder.
The actual border is nothing more than a chain slung across a road. It's guarded by the Pakistani Frontier Corps, who occasionally fall on families of Afghans and begin whacking them with nasty, stubby whips. The fleeing Afghans are being turned back from Pakistan while every conceivable kind of merchandise is getting through. Coming from Afghanistan is a dusty procession of trucks carrying Korean refrigerators, Japanese auto parts, Apple computers, toys, everything. Even golf clubs going God knows where. There are a lot of sand traps out here, but no fairways, that's for sure. I was witnessing the ebb and flow of global contraband, and nobody is better than smuggling than the Afghans. Their ravening entrepreneurial instincts are honed by centuries of war.
An example: I was sitting in a carpet shop in Quetta, drinking green tea with some Afghan traders. First they talked about how their investment in opium had taken a beating (the price dropped from $700 a kilo to $200 since Sept 11th, because the Taliban commanders who'd stockpiled tons of opium were nervously selling it off), and then the conversation turned to the dud Cruise missiles which had landed around Kandahar. These traders shifted eagerly on their stacks of plum-dark Bokharas and somber tribal Baluch carpets.
"There about twelve of these missiles unexploded," said one trader.
"Really? The Chinese will pay good money for them. They tear the missiles apart and study them, so they can build their own. Very good money. Lakhs and lakhs of dollars," said a slender Afghan excitedly. A lakh is 100,000 of something.
"The Iranians will pay, too. Maybe more." chimed in another Kandahari as he poured the green tea into tiny porcelain cups. "Besides, the Chinese already have one or two missiles from the last time the Americans tried to kill Osama bin Laden."
"Ah, but these missiles are new. The very latest thing," said the first trader.
Then the talk turned to logistics: would it be easier to smuggle the missiles across to China (via Pakistan, though the bribes would be heavy)? Or risk going to Iran? The idea of dragging unexploded missiles through a war zone with U.S. fighter jets strafing any suspicious convoy on the roads just added to the challenge. Besides, the rewards were to die for. Lakhs and lakhs of dollars.
Islamabad. The Taliban, despite their fierce zealousness, are not adverse to making a few dollars, too. And we hacks are happy to oblige. Last week, a convoy of 15 or so foreign journalists was escorted into Jalalabad by the Taliban to see a village that had reportedly been hit by several bombs. It was the first time journalists were allowed into Afghanistan, and you can imagine how that whetted the appetite of the remaining 1,600 of us left behind, especially among the TV networks. The Taliban announced a second convoy for this week or the next. I don't know how it started, whether it was the Taliban or the press, but now the going rate for a seat on the next bus into Afghanistan is around $5,000 and climbing.
There's a frenzied desperation among us for stories. When the first convoy reached Jalalabad, two smart-alecky Afghan kids came up to the group. They spoke decent English, and they went around to journalists pretending to be spokesmen for the local chapter of bin Laden's terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. Everyone told the kids to get lost except for one U.S. news network. The interview went out as a world exclusive. Ethically, I suppose it beats selling slightly dented Cruise missiles to the Chinese.