x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Drivers risk lives to supply allied troops

Steering a perilous course lined with Taliban insurgents and corrupt police, these men are driven by the need to keep their families fed.

In the eastern border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, lorries are becoming increasingly vulnerable to ambush. Above, a lorry is destroyed after militants blew up the bridge it was crossing in the Khyber area near Peshawar.
In the eastern border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, lorries are becoming increasingly vulnerable to ambush. Above, a lorry is destroyed after militants blew up the bridge it was crossing in the Khyber area near Peshawar.

KHOST // Without the help of Hussein Gul and his fellow lorry drivers, the occupation of Afghanistan would be impossible to sustain for much longer. Here among some of the most inhospitable landscape and dangerous conditions imaginable, these men are risking their lives to help supply foreign soldiers across the country. They do it not out of love for the US and its allies or a belief in the war. Rather, their only motivation is the small amount of money they can make to feed their families.

"Every day is a danger for us. We see danger and we see death but what else can we do?" Mr Gul said. "More than 100 incidents have happened because we drive the containers. Three days ago my friend's lorry broke down so we went to a nearby town to find a mechanic and get it fixed. When we came back the lorry had been set on fire." In Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, Mr Gul and his colleagues are fast becoming the number one target for the insurgency.

Realising how scarce good supply routes for the US and Nato-led coalitions are, the Taliban have staged regular attacks on road networks, supply depots and the lorry drivers themselves in the eastern border region. Their aim is to choke off military bases and add to the cost of the war, and so far their methods appear to be working. Mr Gul has been in his job only for the past four months but already he is coming to the conclusion that it might be more trouble than it is worth.

"The Americans always say that they love the people and are here to help but since knowing them I now realise that is all wrong. They are not here for the reasons they say," the 35-year-old said. Ambushes on supply convoys are common on the main road leading from Kabul to southern Afghanistan but some of the most brazen attacks have happened here in the east - on both sides of the border. In the worst incident of its kind, 160 US and Nato vehicles - including dozens of Humvees - were set on fire at two transport terminals near the Pakistani city of Peshawar in December. More recently, a key bridge was blown up on that side of the frontier and 10 lorries were torched.

Abdul Lellah has been driving containers for the coalition forces for the past two years, taking them from here in Khost to a number of locations, including Kabul. "Whenever I leave home I don't expect to see my parents and my family again. The danger is there 90 per cent of the time and it is the kind of danger that ends in death," he said. Mr Lellah's brother worked as a driver, before quitting when security continued to deteriorate. Now he too has his doubts.

"I don't feel OK at all with this business. The reason I stick with the job is because I can't go to school and I can't do any other work," the 22-year-old said. "People call me an infidel because I am driving goods to the infidels. I can't get access to parking in garages because they tell me this container is for infidels and it will be dangerous for the other lorries who are just taking livestock to civilians."

The insurgents are not the only problem. All the drivers interviewed said the Afghan police frequently ask for bribes, with some drivers claiming they were physically assaulted at checkpoints. "These road mafias work like a chain. If they get 200 Afghanis (Dh14) from us then they phone up the next checkpoint and tell them a lorry is coming that will easily pay you 100. Then when we get there they will ask us for 500," Mr Lellah said.

About 80 per cent of US supplies for Afghanistan - ranging from fuel to heavy equipment - are estimated to go through Pakistan, much of it through the Khyber Pass. The number of attacks has inevitably led to a search for different routes. However, there are few alternatives. The only US base in central Asia is in Kyrgyzstan and the government there has ordered its closure. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, however, have approved the transport of non-lethal supplies through their territory.

Mohammed Ishaq drives between Khost and the eastern city of Jalalabad, with the occasional trip to the insurgent stronghold of Ghazni in southern Afghanistan as well. He is paid the equivalent of $150 a month, which he must use to support 14 members of his family. "When we travel we are 90 per cent sure we will die at every moment. We can't count on our [armed] escort guys because if the insurgents attack they will run and leave us alone," he said.

"Before we only had problems on the way, but now we get threats when we stop somewhere to eat or do anything else. Even when we park the lorries, they plant explosives." skarim@thenational.ae