The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 28, 2001
Trade blurs the lines of
alliance stronghold relies on goods smuggled from Taliban territory.
War With Terror
Afghanistan - The traders crowded to inspect the goods fresh off the
delivery trucks: 10-gallon containers of fuel, bales of clothing, bags of
fertilizer, and cartons of cigarettes, batteries and soap.
It was an eclectic mix of products that had one thing in common: It all
came that morning from Kabul, the Afghan capital, separated from this
bustling trading center by a small chain of mountains and a fearsome front
line in Afghanistan's civil war.
about 100 percent of the goods we sell comes from Kabul," pronounced
Bashi Arif, a former army colonel who manages the wholesale market that is
the main transfer point for all goods smuggled in from Taliban territory.
a remarkable curiosity that the Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of the
opposition Northern Alliance, is dependent upon Taliban-held Kabul for
most of its consumer supplies. Except for munitions and diesel fuel used
by alliance troops, which are trucked south from Tajikistan over a
treacherous trail through the Hindu Kush mountains, practically everything
comes in across enemy lines.
by corrupt Taliban officials, the goods arrive every day by a single route
through the mountains, carried for the last two hours by donkeys through a
narrow gap in the saw-toothed range. Once in Northern Alliance territory,
they are repacked into trucks and ferried an hour across a bumpy dirt road
transfer by several trucks and by donkey is not cheap. Gasoline,
frequently adulterated with diesel, retails for $9 a gallon in guerrilla
territory. Smuggled rice costs double what it fetches in Kabul.
there is some risk to the smugglers. "They have caught a lot of
traders and put them in jail, but we have no other choice," said
Raqib, who frequently travels to Kabul on shopping missions. "We
either bring in food or we die."
dependence of the opposition heartland on Kabul for its lifeblood might
weigh on Pentagon planners, who last week said they would steadily deprive
the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces of fuel and supplies they will need in the
coming winter months. If Kabul is cut off, so is Golbahar.
Pentagon has indicated - without going into detail - that it intends to
make sure the Northern Alliance is supplied with what it needs this
winter. But even if it couldn't, the Afghans are resilient, resourceful
smugglers with centuries of practice, going back to when traders moved
silk and other treasures from the east through Afghan territory on their
way to Europe. More recently, they have proved adept at smuggling opium
and emeralds. With that track record, it is unlikely any trade routes in
or out of Afghanistan would be closed for long.
expert smugglers and the war has taught us a lot," said Raqib, who
leaves his beard untrimmed to serve as a "passport" into Taliban
territory, where the ruling regime requires men to keep their beards long.
boast of their ability to import anything to the Panjshir Valley, no
matter how large.
can bring anything over the mountain on a donkey," said Sarfaraz, a
shopkeeper who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "Even a big
truck. You just separate it in pieces and reassemble it on this side. I
think we could even bring over an airplane. I once saw them bring over a
the routes into the Panjshir from Northern Alliance territory that shut
down for five months when winter snows close the mountain passes, the
smuggling route from Kabul is open all year. It is also the only route by
which refugees are leaving Kabul to flee to opposition territory.
Northern Alliance could open up more supply routes into the Panjshir
Valley from the north by capturing two strategic northern cities: Mazar-e
Sharif and Taloqan. Their capture would allow the guerrillas to bring in
supplies more directly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, though they would
have to repair the Salang tunnel beneath the Hindu Kush mountains to do it
- the opposition blew up the southern tunnel entrance in 1997 to trap
Taliban forces in the north.
absence of reliable supply routes does not seem to concern the opposition.
have been coping with existing supply routes for many years," said
Dr. Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister and chief spokesman.
been encircled for 10 years, and we're used to it," said Azimi, the
governor of Kapisa province, the main conduit for Kabul goods.
onset of the U.S. bombing campaign three weeks ago has barely disrupted
the chain of supply. A car-parts dealer in opposition-held Jabal Saraj,
Mohammed Rahim, said he has continued to receive a shipment of spare parts
every week from a Kabul trader.
effect of the bombing has driven down prices in the market," Raqib
said. "And we don't worry about supply. There is always supply in
Kabul, the goods travel east and then north by truck to Najrab, where they
are moved to smaller trucks that carry them to the mountain village of
Giowa. In Giowa, hundreds of donkeys are available to carry the goods
through the mountains to Durnoma, a village on the Northern Alliance side
of the mountains that is notorious for its banditry. It is off-limits to
Durnoma, the packages are reloaded into trucks and carried to Golbahar.
Most of the goods that come across the mountain originated outside of
Afghanistan - chiefly in Pakistan, though the cases of canned Pepsi that
have flooded the markets of the Panjshir originate in the United Arab
path across the mountains seems like such a fragile route that the Taliban
should be able to block it easily. But the traders say the Taliban profits
from the trade by taking a cut of the business.
Taliban themselves are smugglers," said Bashi Arif, the manager of
the market, noting that a bag of sugar can triple in price between Kabul
and Golbahar. "With so much money to be made, the Taliban let it over
the front line."
if the Taliban closed the route, the traders are confident they would be
able to soon devise an alternative - assuming there was sufficient profit
to be made.
trust in God," Bashi Arif said. "If one way is closed, God will
open another way. We have a saying in Afghanistan: When it rains on
others, it will leak on us."