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Axel grease, palm grease

Rohullah Rahimi
As the flow of imported supplies for the NATO war effort grows at the northern border with Uzbekistan, so does the scourge of roadside bribe taking from trucking companies working the routes south.
7.09.2011  |  Mazar-e Sharif
It's an especially dangerous drive for tankers and trucks in eastern and southern Afghanistani, as this Taliban rocketed wreck on the Ring Road in Kandahar shows. But as movements of NATO cargo from Hairatan grow, so do opportunities for corrupt state servants. (Photo: Allen)
It's an especially dangerous drive for tankers and trucks in eastern and southern Afghanistani, as this Taliban rocketed wreck on the Ring Road in Kandahar shows. But as movements of NATO cargo from Hairatan grow, so do opportunities for corrupt state servants. (Photo: Allen)

You have to dip a lot deeper and more often in your pocket these days if you are transporting goods and fuel south by road from the northern river port of Hairatan.

With NATO supply operations via from Pakistan under increasing pressure, this alternative import route across the border from Uzbekistan has grown in recent months. And with it, the number of police and transport officials allegedly squeezing money from truckers moving south.

“They are plundering right along the highway,” said Khalifa Homayoun, who owns four commercial tanker trucks that transport NATO fuel 360 kilometers from Hairatan to Kabul. 

According to Homayoun and others working the route, every run means numerous encounters with police and transport officials who demand cash in exchange for letting loads pass. 

“When we begin our trip from Hairatan we usually prepare around 10,000 afghanis (230 US dollars) in small bills. This is in order to pay from 20 to 200 afghanis each time to traffic police, security checkpoints and transport agencies that line the route,” he said. “And now we are used to it.”

Refusing to pay only makes matters worse, says the haulier, as a shunned official will likely issue a written fine for a fictitious transgression. “Then you just have to pay more to strike off the penalty.”

A new kind of ambush

It starts on the 60-kilometer stretch of highway south to the Highway 1, or the Ring Road, the country’s main traffic artery that from here either takes you west to Mazar-e Sharif or east towards Kunduz, branching off down to Kabul.

“They are plundering right along the highway.” Truck owner on authorities who should regulate and protect traffic. 

Where groups of mujahedin fighters once ambushed Soviet convoys on this key link from the border with Uzbekistan, drivers today must negotiate four checkpoints if they are going to Mazar or 20 on their way to the capital.

“If you don’t pay to each security ring [checkpoint], you will not be able to drive through easily,” said Sanjar, another fuel truck driver. “The police share the money they take from the truck drivers with other government organizations,” he claimed.

Not so, say the police.

Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai, spokesman for the 303rd Pamir Police Zone which serves the northern region, rejected charges made by drivers and traders that money is extracted from them illegally. “These [sums] are all related to transport and transit payments, and the police don’t have anything to do with it,” Ahmadzai said. “Whenever the trucks are stopped by the police, this is in accordance with transport regulations, not for any other reason.”

So what’s on the move?

But the alleged ritual extortion doesn’t deter the volume of traffic - far from it. There is a flow of goods crossing from Uzbekistan for the civilian Afghan population, and western food products, fuel and other commodities are moved from here to foreign military bases like Bagram Airfield north of Kabul.  While officials decline to discuss the sensitive issue of military logistics, there is little doubt that Hairatan is getting busier and with it, the road south.

The Friendship Bridge in Hairatan. This is where train wagons of goods and fuel are crossloaded onto trucks for the journey south. (Photo: Allen)

In the past three years NATO brokered agreements with Russia and Uzbekistan to enable rail transports of goods and fuel through their territory. This eases the military alliance's dependency on eastern and southern routes through Pakistan, which are heavily targeted by insurgent forces.

Fuel is the big growth area, arriving by train from Uzbekistan across the giant Friendship Bridge on the Amu Darya River before it is loaded onto tankers for the road journey south.

“Unlike solid goods, the quantity of imported fuel has increased almost 50 per cent,” said the director of another company that moves loads for the international forces, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Before, around one hundred trucks used to be imported daily, but now it has reached 150 trucks a day.”

The level of solid materials appears to fluctuate, but again, no one cares to be too specific: “It is over a year ago that the NATO started importing non-fuel goods and the importing process is continuous,” said a local administration official who also declined to be named. “Thirty [train] wagons of goods or less are imported daily, which then get moved by local transport companies.” 

Consumers carry the burden of 'overheads' 

Once on the road, the kickbacks start without exception, unless the load has its own security detail escorting it. Private security companies also demand handsome fees for their services, leaving the remaining drivers to hand over afghanis to police and other authorities on the route.

“Paying money to security forces and transport agencies has turned into a tradition, and you cannot drive safely without paying them,” said Ahmad Shah, president of the Afghan Trans trucking company. “We usually give 5,000 to 8,000 afghanis to our drivers for these travel expenses, then we add this sum onto the cost of the goods we deliver."

Give me shelter: Drivers want a smooth ride, not constant extortion. (Photo and main story photo: Rahimi)

Military clients can easily absorb the extra costs tacked onto shipments, but for common or household goods that are also in transit, the burden is simply shunted down the chain.

"The trader will never pay that amount from his own pocket, he'll just add it on to the price of the goods,” also noted Sayed Taher Roshan, head of the Chamber of Commerce in Balkh Province. "Of course, the only ones who suffer are the end consumers."“

Silent officialdom

According to the Afghan police officials contacted for this story, none of this happens.

Meanwhile, the International Security Assistance Force prefers to remain silent on the issue. Despite this claimed constant harassment of drivers on the road from Hairatan, including those who move NATO goods and fuel, ISAF did not respond to repeated written requests for comment..

So the advice for those intending to import any large volume of goods into Afghanistan from the north and truck it south: Make sure your drivers have plenty of ready cash in their pockets.