Afghan truckers brave Taliban fire to supply NATO
As British soldiers unload water and razor wire from his truck, Mohammad displays scars where a Taliban bullet passed through his belly and out of his buttock, the cost of an earlier delivery to NATO forces by the father of five. ( dpa )
He spent several months in hospital as a result of the injury he sustained in Afghanistan's Zabul province by Pakistan when insurgents ambushed a column of vehicles transporting cargo for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force ISAF).
"I am very scared of the Taliban, they left a letter on my doorstep saying they would kill me if I keep working for ISAF, but I'm poor, I need the money," the 30-year-old says, relieved to have arrived safely in the Maywand district from Kandahar city after a four-hour drive under police escort.
He insists that he will carry on doing the job, which provides his family with an income of 200 US dollars a month.
As more than 50,000 foreign troops battle with the Taliban for the seventh year since the radical militia was ousted from power, the huge logistics operations powering this campaign are also its Achilles heel.
Even heavily protected convoys of the Coalition forces are wary of the roads, where they can be ambushed or targeted with roadside bombs.
The unarmed truckers, meanwhile, must rely on police protection that is often afforded only on payment of unofficial fees, whittling down their wage even further.
Further east in the Paktika province on the Pakistani border, dozens of truck drivers parked for unloading at the US and Polish base at Sharana tell the same story.
"The Taliban knows we are carrying American goods and shoot at all the trucks," says Sardah Mohammad, a 40-year-old father of five from the Shamoli valley outside Kabul.
He drives a Russian-made Kamaz truck for the AZ Corporation, an Afghan private haulage company that works the roads under contract with the military. A single hole punched through the front grill and exiting under the steering wheel shows how his predecessor died in an attack.
"The Taliban attacked me in Khowst province," says another driver Yaqoob, also from Shamoli. "I was in convoy, the Taliban burned the first four trucks but spared the drivers, then the Afghan army came to our aid."
And when the police are around, there's no guarantee they will have the firepower or inclination to fend off a determined attack.
"All we get is police to accompany us when what we really need is a US escort convoy," says Zemari, who at age 18 is the youngest driver in the group and carries the most conspicuous load.
On the back of the large flatbed transporter sit two small Polish army trucks that he picked up from Kabul airport.
All have had incidents on the road and all know drivers who were killed on the job. "I know it's dangerous but I can't get any other work," is the reply he and most of his colleagues give when asked why they continue.
Recipients of the goods say they do what they can to offer the drivers protection.
"If they send important supplies to me I will send my soldiers to escort them, if the supplies are not important ones, we pay contractors," said Lt. Col. Piotr Zieja, the commander of the Polish battle group at Sharana.
But the problem is not confined to Afghanistan.
Many loads destined for NATO consumption come via Pakistan, especially fuel, crossing in trucks and tankers through the Chaman crossing near the southern Pakistani city of Quetta of via the Khyber Pass near the northern city of Peshawar.
They are easy targets for Taliban insurgents operating along the border area, and often a well aimed rocket propelled grenade will destroy more than one vehicle.
Most attacks take place when the tankers are parked in the night along Pakistan-Afghanistan Highway, waiting for clearance on the border. Often drivers become casualties together with their load.
"Up to three oil tankers were either destroyed or damaged every month in similar attacks over the past twelve months," said political officer Bismillah Khan from Landi Kotal, a Pakistani tribal town located five kilometres from the border.
Recently tightened security along the route has decreased the number of attacks, according to the official. "Nonetheless, the transportation of oil for NATO forces is becoming a risky business," he added.