Supplies of food and clothing for American troops in nearby Afghanistan are among the most popular items for sale in the bustling markets of this Pakistani border town. They include Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and other military goods intended to meet the basic needs of U.S. soldiers.
The coveted products are smuggled to Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region of Khyber Agency, near Peshawar, in the North West Frontier Province, and resold in the Karkhano Markets.
“There is an unprecedented rise in demand for these goods, especially those which the U.S. government sends for its troops in Afghanistan,” said Haji Ikhlas, an Afghan businessman.
Ikhlas sells all varieties of American goods — from food and clothing to shaving kits and tissue papers — at his well-appointed shop in the Sitara Shopping center of Karkhano Markets.
The trade exposes the flaws in the anti-smuggling steps taken by the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
And it poses the obvious question: How do goods intended for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan reach Pakistani markets in the first place?
Swift sales on the down low
The businessmen dealing the smuggled goods, who are largely from Afghanistan, are understandably reticent about their illegal activities.
The salesmen in the market also do not take kindly to questions from outsiders, especially journalists.
They chased out an Associated Press reporter who tried to take pictures here on Thursday, in addition to assaulting Mohammad Khalid, a local Pakistani television journalist, when he tried to shoot video inside the market without permission.
So, this reporter had to pose as a regular customer in order to investigate what was happening inside the market.
“Anyone who wanted to snatch a piece of bread from the mouth of our children would not be spared,” Ikhlas said.
Business is good in the market and merchants are not about to surrender their profits.
Demand for American goods
“For its superior quality and cheaper prices, these goods are rapidly capturing local markets,” observed a high-ranking Pakistani official, who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because he, like many others, was shopping specifically for goods intended for U.S. troops.
“Definitely, it would be of great quality as they send it for their soldiers,” the official said.
Among the American-made foods, the greatest demand is for energy drinks, jelly, biscuits, cheese, cooking oil, butter, tomato ketchup and chewing gum.
Doing a price comparison, sources maintain that a U.S.-made “Power Gold” energy drink is available in the Karkhano Market for the equivalent of 17 cents per bottle, but the same product could be sold for as much as $1.00 in a market in the capital, Islamabad.
But other products that are suspected of having pig contents, such as the MREs, have less market value because of the conservative Islamic beliefs held by many residents of this part of Pakistan.
During a recent visit, other items on sale included cheddar cheese sauce, American cream caramel toffee, Hellman’s Ranch dressing and Martha’s Gourmet corn bread mix.
“There has been a record rise in demand for the U.S.-made edibles, making it difficult for us to fulfill our customers’ orders,” said Shakoor, another Afghan trader who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.
"Even now people come from Islamabad, Lahore and other cities to buy these goods," he added.
Assorted U.S.-issued apparel used by American troops — including camouflage clothing, jackets, sleeping bags and belts — have also proven to be popular items.
Shakoor said the demand was so great that shoes and jackets meant for U.S. soldiers had sold out within three days.
“Every day many people visit the market and some call by phone [asking] when we would bring new stock of the U.S. shoes and jackets,” Shakoor said.
Of course, the commercial resale of the MREs is strictly prohibited by the U.S. government. Products carry a strict warning: “U.S. Government property, commercial resale is unlawful.”
How do goods reach the market?
Local traders won't say how the goods reach Pakistan.
“Nobody exactly knows how these goods reach here,” one local trader said.
However, there are several theories although it seems clear that Afghans in border towns smuggle the goods to Pakistani markets on the remote transit routes across the frontier.
There are reports that the U.S.-made food items are given to the recently formed Afghan National Army by the coalition forces and that the Afghans, in turn, sell them in the market.
However, some sources believe that some items — particularly the MREs — are simply stolen from transport shipments.
“People who supply these goods to coalition forces in Afghanistan secretly open the containers from the bottom, showing that the container was sealed, and then steal various items,” said Nawab Shinwari, a resident of Lowargi in Khyber tribal agency, which borders Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
He said most drivers of these vehicles steal the goods from their own shipments while stopped to rest in Lowargi, before entering Afghanistan.
“After reaching Afghanistan, they show completely sealed containers to the coalition forces,” said Nawab Shinwari.
Afghan sources also say there are special weekly bazaars around Afghanistan, including the Bagram airbase, the U.S. military headquarters outside Kabul, and food items are displayed for public sale. Traders may smuggle the goods to Pakistan later in order to maximize their profit margin.
“Even the Americans distribute these goods among the Afghan warlords and other influential tribal chieftains as gifts [and they in turn]later sell them in the market,” said Afghan trader Haji Ikhlas.