After NATO attack, truckers face hard times

The recent killing of 25 Pakistani soldiers has made the Afghan border crossing much more difficult for truckers.

Trucks at Torkham Border
Much of the materiel transported by NATO passes the Torkham border crossing [Mujib Mashal/Al Jazeera]

Torkham Border, Afghanistan – Pakistan’s decision to close down its two border crossings to NATO supplies in reaction to the foreign coalition’s deadly raid into its territory has made the route, already marked by frequent attacks from Taliban fighters and dangerous mountainous passes, much more difficult for truckers.

An indefinite ban was imposed on NATO’s supply route as Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, prayed at the funerals of the 25 slain soldiers, and as the nation’s “rage” at the “unprovoked attack” was expressed through demonstrations and effigy-burnings. Hundreds of trucks, loaded with fuel and consumable items on their way to Kabul and beyond, were being turned back from the Torkham crossing near the historical Khyber Pass to the provincial capital, Peshawar.

While the ban is only on trucks carrying NATO supplies, regular commercial transport is affected as well. Drivers travelling on the same road remain vulnerable to attacks from the Taliban as well as further scrutiny from Pakistani police.

According to Nesar Ahmad Nasery, the deputy head of Torkham Customs, around 1,000 trucks cross into Afghanistan on a daily basis, nearly 300 of which are NATO contractors. The rest carry commercial goods. NATO moves 30 per cent of its fuel and nearly 50 per cent of its consumable goods through Pakistan, according to NATO officials.

Two years ago, when a similar ban was imposed, over 100 NATO trucks were set ablaze, allegedly by armed groups, while the convoys waited in volatile tribal areas.

Truck driver Saz Mohammad [Mujib Mashal/Al Jazeera]

“The drivers are certainly afraid,” said Saz Mohammad, who had just crossed the border into Afghanistan. “There are police all along the highway, but could they prevent attacks last time?”

Mohammad said the police had questioned him at least five times, to make sure he was not carrying NATO supplies. NATO contractors, who had been stopped at the border immediately after the Pakistani cabinet’s defence committee held an emergency meeting to discuss the reaction to the raid, had all been driven back to Peshawar.

“Protecting them from attacks at the border is very difficult work,” Mohammad said.

Other drivers, transporting regular commercial goods not related to NATO, complained that the ban on NATO supplies had gave Pakistan’s highway police, another excuse to make the journey difficult for them.

Trucks carrying shipping containers, a trademark of the NATO supplies, which come in sealed containers, face the most questioning, said Haider Jan, who had just crossed the border.

“The only thing that they did not take from me was my pants,” Jan said, referring to the Pakistani police.

“From morning to now, they took 300 or 400 rupees from us each time we got stopped.”

What exactly happened?

NATO has ordered the “the most formal level of investigation” into the raid, which occurred in the early hours of Saturday.

But what exactly happened in the attack that Pakistan has described as a deliberate act of aggression remains unclear.

ISAF sources say the attack was in retaliation, after a joint force of Afghan and ISAF special forces, carrying out an operation on the outskirts of the volatile Kunar Province, came under fire from the direction of the Pakistani base and called for air support.

Pakistan, calling the attack unprovoked, has said its forces only opened fire to retaliate and try to stop the attack.

“If ISAF was receiving fire, then they must tell us what their losses were,” said Major General Athar Abbas, spokesman for the Pakistan military. He said NATO knew of the base’s location.

It remained unclear whether contact had been established during the firing, which Pakistan claims lasted about an hour. Earlier, Abbas had said that NATO had made no effort to contact Pakistan. But Ishfaq Nadeem, director-general of military operations, told reporters that NATO had been informed that they were firing on the Pakistani base 15 minutes into the attack. However, Nadeem said they continued firing after a brief pause.

NATO’s investigation, led by a one-star general, will release its findings on December 23, but the repercussions of the attack were immediately clear.

In addition to closing the supply route, asking NATO to vacate the Shamsi base reportedly used for launching drones, Pakistan has also boycotted a major international conference in Germany on Afghanistan’s future next week.

Despite reports that President Hamid Karzai personally called Prime Minister Gilani and urged his government’s attendance, Pakistan is set to go on with its boycott.

The Bonn conference is aimed at bringing all major stakeholders together in securing a peaceful Afghanistan after NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

Unlike previous incidents, the US has refused to apologise to Pakistan this time around.

A troubled road

NATO’s supply trucks have often been torched, allegedly by Taliban fighters. But many say that the torching of vehicles is much more complicated. Some times, the attacks might be launched by rival contractors, trying to disprove the other’s ability to transport NATO goods safely. Others also implicate truck owners, who they say might torch their own vehicles, after selling the goods, for the insurance money. Obviously, these are allegations that are difficult to prove.

While frequent torchings happen on the Pakistani side of the border, Al Jazeera encountered the remains of at least three vehicles on the road to the border from Kabul.

The Torkham Highway has been a major travel as well as commercial gateway to Paksitan and beyond, despite a troubled history and security concerns in some patches along the highway.

During the years of factional war in the 1990s, the 200-km bumpy dirt road had regular checkpoints manned by warlords. The most infamous checkpoint was in the mountainous Sroubi region, manned by a brutal commander referred to as “Zardad’s Dog”. 

His leader, the warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad, was later convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in the United Kingdom for hostage-taking and torture.

During the Taliban government, the first image that one encountered upon entering Afghanistan through the Torkham crossing was broken cassettes, VHS tapes, and musical instruments hanging from a tree, announcing the beginning of a land deprived of entertainment by law.

The road was smoothly paved in the early years of the Karzai administration, cutting down the day’s journey from Kabul to only a few hours.

“About 500 trucks loaded with Pakistan-produced goods cross into [Afghanistan] through the Torkham gate,” said Nasery, the deputy head of customs.

Nesar Ahmad Nasery is the deputy head of Torkham Customs [Mujib Mashal/Al Jazeera]

Because Afghanistan is a landlocked country, the traders use Pakistani ports to import their goods from China and elsewhere. But the transit relationship has been troubled over the past few years, with the Afghan and Pakistani governments failing to agree on terms.

“Afghan traders still manage to bring in about 150 trucks of transit goods, but it is a major area of problem for them. Pakistani goods come in very easily though,” Nasery said.

It remains uncertain whether the closing down of the border to NATO supplies will be a temporary measure on the part of the government, as in previous occasions, but NATO officials and Nasery hoped that would be the case.

“The military and civilian government had to show a strong reaction after the attack, to quell the rage,” said Nasery.

“But if you look at the economic side of it, the supplies bring Pakistani government as well as Pakistani labour a lot of benefits. I think the gate will be opened to NATO supplies again, soon.”

Major Sergeant Nicholas Conner, a spokesman for the NATO, said the ban on supplies was not going to affect the coalition, because it had stock-piled items and had been considering alternative routes for a long time.

“But our hope is that this is a temporary stop and it will be lifted after we reach some sort of an agreement,” he told Al Jazeera.

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter @MujMash.

Source: Al Jazeera