KABUL, Afghanistan – Heading southeast out of the capital, Kabul’s tightly packed concrete walls give way to vacant lots, dusty shops and half-finished construction projects conceived in better times. Makeshift memorials of plastic flowers peek from rock piles marking long-forgotten traffic accidents in a land where death is rarely a stranger.
Along the shoulder of the potholed road just past the last Kabul checkpoint, truck driver Latif adjusts decorative fabric strips hanging from his side mirror. He’s been here three days, sleeping in his 18-wheeler, guzzling too much tea, waiting for the rest of a convoy to coalesce and head for a NATO base in eastern Ghazni province, along the so-called death route to Kandahar.
Analysts with fancy titles debate Afghanistan’s security outlook after 2014, when foreign combat troops complete their withdrawal. But Afghan truckers doing their thankless yet increasingly deadly job along this industrial stretch have little doubt. Many say they can feel the situation worsening by the month.
Latif, 29, who, like many Afghans, uses one name, points to the hills a few hundred yards away. They’re filled with the Taliban, he says, this close to Kabul. Let’s not talk too long. If they see us with a foreigner, they’ll kill us.
A light drizzle turns into tiny daggers of rain, so Latif and two other drivers retreat to the back of a car, the windows steaming up from their heated mutton pilaf as the discussion turns to the life – and life expectancy – of a road warrior.
Hundreds of millions of foreign aid dollars spent on Afghan highways since 2002 were aimed at knitting the landlocked nation together. Instead, the Taliban, police and thieves compete for control of the roads, the drivers say, with truckers the target of attacks, kidnappings and extortion.
Latif estimates that convoys he’s been a part of have been hit 400 times in a dozen years, sometimes two or three times per trip.
Two years ago in Ghazni, a particularly brutal assault killed 15 security guards, three policemen and five soldiers in his convoy. In the rush to escape, he and other panicked truckers drove over a friend’s body, killing him if he wasn’t already dead. It’s nothing to be proud of, he says, but that’s their reality.
“I know they’ll kill me,” he says. “That’s all anyone thinks.”
Convoys once traveled with several armed escort vehicles, but now cost-cutting often means only a single escort protecting 100 or more trucks. The drivers, already a superstitious lot, barrel down the road as fast as possible, hoping to outrun rockets and jostle their behemoths into “lucky” spots in the convoy, leading to dents and busted mirrors.
Taliban spies are everywhere, they say, calling ahead with descriptions and license plate numbers. “I’m sure they’re watching us now,” says Haroon, 22. “We feel pre-sold.”
Far worse than being attacked is getting captured, the men agree. A couple of months ago, Haroon’s convoy was headed to a base in Ghazni when 18 drivers became separated. They were later found strangled, their eyes gouged out, their severed heads left on the road as a warning against working with NATO.
Of course they’re scared, the men say, but they don’t have much choice. Latif supports 15 family members with his wages of $200 to $500 a month, depending on distance and danger, which is half what he earned two years ago. Demand is falling, he says, now that NATO’s mission is winding down.
He has no insurance or death benefits. There’s no truckers union, and the bribes to be paid come out of his pocket. On rare trips home, he tells neighbors he’s a shopkeeper so insurgents don’t kill him.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” Latif says. “If you work, you risk death. If you don’t, your family dies of hunger.”
And if you die, your relatives might never know it with certainty, he adds, particularly if the Taliban steals your ID and their attack leaves you unrecognizable.
In many ways, analysts say, Afghanistan couldn’t function without its truckers, who carry virtually everything the population consumes.
“When you go to the edge of Kabul, you see that security is not some abstract concept,” says Graeme Smith, Kabul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. “Those who make their living on the road – truckers, bus drivers, traders – are among the bravest people in Afghanistan.”