The Western Bypass Road that runs from Quetta to Chaman is a bumpy track of raw bitumen and dirt. Much of Afghanistan’s supplies, including those of the ISAF and the Afghanistan National Army, are delivered along it. Quite apart from the security risk, the dreadful road conditions make it difficult to traverse. ‘Seven years ago there used to be a single lane; it was a very good road. Then they decided to build [a dual carriageway], but we’re still waiting for it to be built,’ explains Mahfouz, a lawyer from Quetta.
Trade has made many of Chaman’s families wealthy by the standards of this otherwise very poor and marginalised part of Pakistan. The road running from Quetta to Chaman is dotted with large, high-walled estates that are typically home to two or three generations of rich trading families. Like small castles of times past, these estates stand in stark contrast to the surrounding dry emptiness that is a familiar sight in northern Balochistan.
Chaman itself is a surprisingly bustling small town. At the dusty border gateway that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials inspect an endless line of trucks and people transiting between the two countries. Next to the border post, not more than 100 metres away, is a dirt track patrolled by donkey caravans moving items between the two countries, part of the informal economy that has flourished in these parts for decades.
‘We are one people here,’ explains Haji Rehmatullah, a local import-exporter. Rehmatullah has family on both sides of the border, as do most people in Chaman and along the Khyber Pass.
A volatile trade route
‘Why should I be scared, it is part of the risk of my job,’ says Atif Raza, a Pakistani border guard. But there are good reasons for Atif to be frightened. Convoys transporting NATO goods are attacked on an almost weekly basis. Behind Atif, a short walk across the gateway that is the official border crossing, rows of NATO cargo containers, neatly stacked like giant Lego pieces, await transportation to Kandahar and Kabul. These are precisely the sorts of targets for militant attacks of the kind that destroyed more than 160 ISAF military vehicles in December last year.
Militants are not the only ones disrupting the NATO convoys. Last September, the Khyber Pass was closed to convoys in protest at US missile strikes in Pakistan. In January this year, members of the tribal communities in Khyber Agency blocked key roads in protest at the unrelated murder of a tribesman during a police raid. Earlier this month, truckers blocked the motorway through Chaman to protest corruption among border officials.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Companies have taken to hiring only drivers from the tribes that live in the regions bordering Afghanistan around Chaman and Torkum – the large, powerful Afridi and Shinwari tribes along the Khyber Pass, or the Achakzai and Noorzai around northern Balochistan. Transport companies also pay protection money to these tribes. ‘We pay around 30-35,000 rupees (around US$370-430) per trailer, per [tribe],’ explained one trucking company manager.
Working conditions are poor for most truck drivers, who are routinely abducted or killed. ‘We are always fearful [for our safety], but what can I do? A job is a job,’ says Inayat Khan with an air of resignation. Drivers earn from Rs7000 (US$85) a month for ordinary deliveries to Rs105,000 (US$1300) for taking large containers from Karachi to Kandahar. That typically does not include external costs and few of the trucks are insured.
‘We have many claims against [the ISAF and] the Pakistan Government, but our drivers and companies receive nothing,’ explained Noor Khan Niazi, President of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association, the representative body for many of the trucking companies that transport NATO supplies. It appears armies are not the only ones engaged in battle in this part of the world.