‘Fighting Was Easier’: Taliban Take On a Treacherous, Avalanche-Prone Pass

THE SALANG PASS, Afghanistan — The Taliban commander’s sneakers had soaked through from the melting snow, but that was the least of his problems. It was avalanche season in the Salang Pass, a rugged cut of switchback roads that gash through the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Afghanistan like some man-made insult to nature, and he was determined to keep the essential trade route open during his first season as its caretaker.

The worry about traffic flow was both new and strange to the commander, Salahuddin Ayoubi, and his band of former insurgents. Over the last 20 years, the Taliban had mastered destroying Afghanistan’s roads and killing the people on them. Culverts, ditches, bridges, canal paths, dirt trails and highways: None were safe from the Taliban’s array of homemade explosives.

But that all ended half a year ago. After overthrowing the Western-backed government in August, the Taliban are now trying to save what’s left of the economic arteries they had spent so long tearing apart.

Nowhere is that more important than in the Salang Pass, where, at over two miles high, thousands of trucks lumber through the jagged mountains every day. It is the only viable land route to Kabul, the capital, from Afghanistan’s north and bordering countries like Uzbekistan. Everything bumps up its slopes and down its draws: Fuel, flour, coal, consumer goods, livestock, people.

Whether approaching the pass from the north or south, vehicles are welcomed with an unexpected and signature flourish: dozens of car washers, often little more than one man or boy with a black hose that shoots cold river water in a continuous arc, waiting for a customer.

For the weary traveler, who just spent hours zigzagging through the mountains that tower over either side of the road like stone gods, the cleaners are beacons, signaling good news: You’ve made it through the pass and survived the trip. So far.

After decades of war, overuse and ad hoc repairs, the highway is in poor shape and prone to calamity. Navigating it demands a certain daring.

So does the upkeep.

“The fighting was easier than dealing with this,” Mr. Ayoubi, 31, said last month, before hopping in his mud-spattered white pickup truck and making his way down the road, stopping occasionally to manage clogged columns of trucks.

Accidents and breakdowns are common occurrences on the potholed and perilous journey across the pass. But the greatest fear is getting stuck in a traffic jam in one of the highway’s long, pitch-black tunnels, where the buildup of carbon monoxide can suffocate those trapped within.

The centerpiece of the highway is the Salang Tunnel. Constructed by the Soviets in the 1960s, it was once the highest tunnel in the world.

Though there are different sections, the largest part of the tunnel is more than a mile long and takes anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes to traverse in the best scenario. The darkness within is all-encompassing, interrupted only by flickering yellow lights that seem to hang in midair because of the smoke and dust. Ventilation systems are limited to sets of fans at either end that do little except whine above the engine noise.

In the fall of 1982 it is estimated that more than 150 people died in the tunnel from an explosion of some kind, though details of the event still remain murky. Disasters such as that, along with avalanches like those in 2010 that killed dozens, loom over the Taliban running the pass, along with the several hundred infrequently paid former government workers alongside them.

To slow the road’s further destruction, the Taliban have strictly enforced weight restrictions on the trucks navigating the pass. The move is a small but substantive one, highlighting the group’s shift from a ragtag insurgency to a government acutely aware that foreign-funded road workers and lucrative construction contracts won’t materialize anytime soon.

But that decision hasn’t been without consequences: With trucks carrying less cargo, drivers are making less money each trip. That means they are spending less in the snack shops, hotels and restaurants that dot the road along the pass, piling additional misery on those who make their living here in a country whose economy was already collapsing.

“These Taliban policies affect all of us,” said Abdullah, 44, a shopkeeper who sells dried fruit and soft drinks. He is a second-generation Salang resident, and his stonewalled home overlooks the northern approach to the pass like a lighthouse. When his children peer out the windows to watch the convoy of trucks below, they look like tiny lighthouse keepers.

“In the past truck drivers would come and order three meals, now they just order one and share it,” Abdullah said.

In front of Abdullah’s house, Ahmad Yar, 24, a stocky truck driver hauling flour from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, wasn’t thinking about his next meal. His truck, upon which his livelihood depended, had broken down. But in a fortunate twist of fate, he managed to frantically flag down a passing bus that miraculously had just the part he needed.

“Under the former government, we carried 40 tons of flour, now it’s 20,” Mr. Yar said, explaining that the Western-backed government couldn’t have cared less if his truck had been overweight. He then scampered up into his cab, threw his truck in gear and began the long trek up the pass.

Mr. Ayoubi defended the Taliban’s decision to enforce weight restrictions — and to alternate northbound and southbound traffic each day to avoid clogging the tunnels — arguing that keeping the road somewhat functional was better in the long run for Salang’s economy than letting it be completely destroyed.

But the short-term consequences have been devastating for Abdul Rasul, 49, a one-eyed food vendor who has been selling kebabs for 16 years in a spot tucked away behind the rows of car washers and the twisted metal of wrecked vehicles littered along the roadside. This season he’s made about $300, down from his average of around $1,000.

“They’re making less money,” he said of his customers, “so they’re taking less kebabs.”

“It’s not like the years before,” he added.

And indeed it isn’t, with the country’s economy in a shambles and the Taliban’s forces searching in the side valleys around the pass for remnants of resistance forces.

Everything seems to be different in the Salang Pass this year, except for the pass itself.

The towering rows of mountains and the rock-strewn valleys are as they’ve always been. In the distance, truck after truck could be seeing crawling up the pass like a line of ants. Beggars and cold dogs sit at the hairpin turns, where drivers have to slow almost to a stop. The passing old Soviet trucks and Ford pickups provide a history lesson of former occupiers.

Abdul Rahim Akhgar, 54, a traffic officer in the Salang for nearly three decades, held this same job the last time the Taliban were in power in the 1990s. On a recent afternoon he stood on the roadside at the northern mouth of the pass and looked at a twisted flatbed truck that had veered off the road and slammed into the side of a house below an hour or two earlier.

The crash killed one passenger and about a dozen or so caged chickens. Mr. Akhgar reckoned that 50 people die in the pass in accidents each year. But all in all, he added, it’s better now.

“There’s no fighting,” he said as a young boy wrestled with a chicken that survived the crash. “And travelers can travel easier.”

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Houston.

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