Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 28, 2001
Trade blurs the lines of war
An alliance stronghold relies on goods smuggled from Taliban territory. 

At War With Terror

GOLBAHAR, 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.

"Just 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.

It's 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.

Aided 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 to Golbahar.

The 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.

And 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."

The 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.

The 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.

"We're 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.

Traders boast of their ability to import anything to the Panjshir Valley, no matter how large.

"We 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 whole car."

Unlike 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.

The 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.

The absence of reliable supply routes does not seem to concern the opposition.

"We have been coping with existing supply routes for many years," said Dr. Abdullah, the Northern Alliance foreign minister and chief spokesman.

"We've been encircled for 10 years, and we're used to it," said Azimi, the governor of Kapisa province, the main conduit for Kabul goods.

The 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.

"The 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."

From 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 outsiders.

In 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 Emirates.

The 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.

"The 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."

Even 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.

"We 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." home page   
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