Return to Afghanistan

Patrick Cockburn

Compared to Baghdad, Kabul is quiet. Checkpoints are everywhere, manned by Afghan police in tattered grey uniforms, but the police look relaxed and their searches of people and cars are often perfunctory. Only at the southern exit from the city, around a well fortified police post, do people appear anxious as they prepare to take the road to Kandahar. Many check their pockets nervously, perhaps to make sure they are not carrying anything to suggest they might have a link to the government or a foreign NGO. South of Kabul this could lead to summary execution by roving squads of Taliban fighters, usually six to eight men who move swiftly across country on motorcycles and set up mobile checkpoints on the roads. Sometimes, as well as examining documents, they take mobile phones from travellers and redial recent calls. If the call is answered by a government office the owner may be killed on the spot.

Taliban rule is not total across southern Afghanistan, but much of the area has been a no man’s land since 2006. Afghan truckers carrying supplies for US or Nato forces have to pay local security companies for protection or bribe their way through. Not all the gunmen on the roads are Taliban: some local commanders and bandits act independently, though probably under licence from the Taliban. One Western aid official in Kabul told me that a 100-truck convoy travelling from Pakistan to the Dutch base in Oruzgan province paid $750,000 for safe passage. The figure sounds extravagant, but similar stories are told by the owners of local Afghan trucking companies, always a more accurate source of information on the Taliban’s reach than Western diplomats or military officers. ‘It got really bad 18 months ago,’ Abdul Bayan of the Nawe Aryana transport company told me. ‘Now if I am carrying goods to a Nato base and we are going to Kandahar or any of the towns on the way, we travel in a convoy of 15 to 20 trucks protected by five SUVs, each with four armed guards. If we are going to Kandahar it costs me $1000 for each truck.’ If the Taliban capture a truck they either burn it or ask for $10,000 to $12,000 to release it unharmed. Since each truck is worth $70,000, Bayan always pays up. Nato and US officials, so keen to stress that the Taliban are part-financed by the profits of the opium and heroin trade, never mention that it also draws a healthy income from its stranglehold on the supply lines of Western forces. I asked Bayan if he had ever asked the Afghan army or police to protect his convoys. He looked bewildered: ‘Get protection from the soldiers and policemen? They can’t even protect themselves, what can they do for me?’

Over the last few years the Afghan government, despite being supported by US air power and 70,000 foreign troops, has lost control of vast tracts of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Soon after the Taliban fell in 2001 I drove from Kabul to the fortress city of Ghazni and then on to Qalat, Kandahar and Helmand. The road, a terrible 300-mile-long rutted track of deep potholes and broken pieces of ancient tarmac, was dangerous, but it was still possible to get through. Eight years later the road itself is in much better shape, but the journey is far too risky for a foreigner to undertake. A few days before I met him, one of the security companies Abdul Bayan uses was attacked by Taliban in Qalat, an impoverished, dusty town in Zabul province; seven of its men were killed and three captured. Daoud Sultanzoy, an anti-government member of the Afghan parliament from Ghazni, said he no longer dared go back to the city he represented, though he was ‘as much afraid of the government having me shot as I am of the Taliban’.

Western Afghanistan has been mostly free from violence since the overthrow of the Taliban. Even so, I could get to Herat only by air from Kabul’s tumbledown airport, since none of the roads is safe. The day after I arrived I had a picnic lunch with a building contractor called Obaidullah Sidiqi in an orchard he owned near the airport. He said it was safe enough in Herat itself, but not outside the city. As a Tajik, like the great majority in Herat, Sidiqi could not safely enter Pashtun areas where last year he had two construction contracts, one for a school and the other for a road, in districts where the Taliban are strong. Only by growing his beard long and pretending to be one of his Pashtun drivers was he able to visit the road-building project; and even then the main engineer, who is a Pashtun, warned him not to return.

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