On road to ruin

CHAMAN, PAKISTAN (AFP) – The Taleban’s capture of a key Afghan-Pakistan border post has sent trucking costs soaring, with insurgents and government officials separately taxing traders, and bandits demanding bribes to allow safe passage of goods.

Thousands of vehicles cross daily from Chaman in southwestern Pakistan to Spin Boldak on the other side, carrying goods destined for Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-biggest city.

On the way back they usually ferry agricultural produce bound for Pakistan’s markets or ports.

The bilateral trade – worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year if not more – ground to a halt earlier this month after the Taleban seized the dusty border town, but resumed this week with the insurgents seemingly firmly in charge.

They have captured a vast swath of the country since early May after launching a series of offensives to capitalise on the final stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Plainclothes security personnel guards as goods trucks prepare to make their way towards the Afghan border crossing point in Chaman. PHOTO: AFP

While they have not yet taken any provincial capitals, they have captured a string of key border posts – with Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan – which provide vital revenue from customs duties on goods arriving in the landlocked country.

“We loaded grapes in Kandahar and on the way we have been extorted at least three times,” trucker Hidayatullah Khan told AFP at Chaman.

“Sometimes they charge PKR3,000 (USD20), somewhere else PKR2,000, and in some other place PKR1,000,” he said. That was on top of the taxes he had to pay Taleban officials in Spin Boldak and Afghan government customs officials who have opened shop in Kandahar.

Truckers interviewed in Chaman this week told of chaos and confusion on the Afghan side of the border.

Imran Kakar, vice president of the Pak-Afghan Joint Chamber of Commerce, gave one example of a truck carrying fabric from Karachi destined for Kandahar.

The Taleban charged the driver PKR150,000 (about USD1,000) as duty in Spin Boldak, but when the vehicle reached Kandahar government officials were also waiting.

“We had to pay even higher customs duties as they don’t acknowledge the payments made to Taleban,” said Kakar.

The scenes were reminiscent of Afghanistan during its brutal civil war in the 1990s, when a patchwork of militias held stretches of key trade routes and extorted truckers and residents using the roads at will.

Hundreds of trucks were lined up on Wednesday on the Pakistan side of the border, waiting for permission to cross.

On a dusty plain this week, with rugged hillocks as a backdrop, drivers and “spanner boy” apprentices tinkered with their vehicles ahead of the journey.

While the distance is just 100 kilometres, the journey is fraught with danger. Vehicles and roads are poorly maintained in Afghanistan, police and army checkpoints routinely demand “tea money” or more from every driver, and bandits also lie in wait – either to steal goods or demand further payment for safe passage.

There is also the risk they could be caught in crossfire during fighting between the Taleban and government forces.

Still, traders and drivers say they have little option but to keep on trucking.

“War has been going on, we know that, but we don’t have any other choice,” said Abdul Razzaq, a driver carrying hatchling chicks to Kandahar.

“Transportation of goods is the only means for us to feed our families,” he told AFP.