Afghan truckers a forgotten front in a war growing more vicious
30 July, 2012
KHOSH GOMBAT: In the cabins of their "jingle" trucks flamboyant with tinsel baubles and painted tiger patterns as they move NATO's war supplies, Habibullah thinks he and other drivers were becoming a forgotten front in an Afghan war, growing more vicious.
From a dusty truck park midway between Kabul and the Pakistan border, under the constant thump of helicopters from Jalalabad airbase over the road, Habibullah moves food and military materiel across the Taliban's eastern heartland, from Nuristan to the former al Qaeda cave stronghold of Tora Bora.
"We worry about our fate when NATO leaves, because the Taliban also call us the infidels. For them, we are not just the enemy, but also traitors," said the 23-year-old, who contributes seven trucks to a cooperative with five owners. It is a thankless and increasingly deadly job, and one so mired in graft that the drivers see a fraction of the cash paid by US military paymasters, with the rest skimmed by middlemen or even going into the hands of insurgents for "protection".
Only this week, three of Habibullah's trucks were attacked and burned by Taliban amid the rugged mountains of Nuristan, a virtual no-go zone for NATO soldiers after heavy past losses and now garrisoned by a handful of Afghan troops and police.
The NATO-led coalition this week acknowledged that insurgent attacks had risen 11 percent in the past three months compared to last year, with a spokesman blaming a severe winter and crop failures driving poor farmers into paid Taliban ranks.
Another driver, Lalajan said, "We have between us lost 15 trucks this year so far. We had one truck break down and we sent others to help. Then out of the blue the Taliban appeared," said Lalajan, his heavily bearded face furrowing as he sits cross-legged with his 4-year-old son crawling over his lap. "I asked them, I will give you money not to attack my trucks, but they said my money was haram (forbidden). The leader burned them," he added.
Adding to security fragility, Lalajan said, was that Afghan drivers working from distribution hubs in Afghanistan like Bagram airbase north of Kabul could not obtain insurance. Local drivers, except for those working for the largest transport companies, were also forced to rely on brokers who sold on contracts to smaller firms and pocketed the difference, often as much as half the job's entire worth.
For the majority of contracts paid by the military, worth around $8,000 on average, middlemen pocketed $4,000 for doing nothing other than having good connections.
Drivers then received around $300 per month in salary, but pocketed $1,000 extra in danger money for each 10-to-15-day delivery to military bases in the riskiest areas.
According to World Bank data, Laghman province, which is home to the truckers, is one of Afghanistan's poorest, with 67 percent of people living in poverty and 78 percent underemployment, while seven in 10 people do not get adequate food each day.
Habibullah said, "We don't have any faith that the government will reach any deal with the Taliban. If they reach a deal, these attacks on us will still continue, because in the eyes of the Taliban we are infidels," he said. "We think for drivers like us, foreign borders should be opened to us. We should be allowed to leave Afghanistan."