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Afghanistan: Security Worries Mount On Key Roads

  • Charles Recknagel

As the Taliban retreats, large parts of Afghanistan are falling to factions within the Northern Alliance or to various other groups seizing territory. One of the results is growing confusion about who controls what areas, plus increasing insecurity on the roads between them. Seven foreign journalists have been killed this week on the road between Jalalabad and the capital Kabul. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the deteriorating security situation is scaring off traffic into eastern Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Khyber Pass, Pakistan; 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is only one road linking eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is through the Khyber Pass.

Usually, it is a busy highway. But these days, with Pakistan's border closed to refugees and Afghanistan's future uncertain, the winding, dusty road through the pass is quiet.

Most Afghan refugees trying to reach Pakistan long ago gave up trying to cross through the official checkpoint at Torkham, which straddles the pass at the Afghan border. Instead, the refugees pay smugglers to guide them over the mountainous frontier by foot. Only those too poor or too weak to be smuggled still come to the checkpoint, where they hope to be among the lucky few whom Pakistani officials sometimes admit because they are particularly vulnerable.

By UN estimates, some 140,000 refugees have slipped illegally into Pakistan in the last two months, fleeing either from U.S. air strikes, from factional fighting, or from Afghanistan's continuing drought. Most melt into the Afghan neighborhoods of Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar, some two hours by road from the Khyber Pass, or in Quetta, far to the southwest.

Now, in recent days, movement in the opposite direction -- from Pakistan to Afghanistan, which has never been prohibited -- is also drying up. That is because much of the road from the Khyber Pass to Kabul has become highly insecure during the past week. Particularly notorious is the stretch of road running from Jalalabad -- the first major city in eastern Afghanistan -- to Kabul. One part of that road is nominally under the control of the Northern Alliance in Kabul. Another part is under the control of Pashtun factions in Jalalabad, who are still trying to work out their relationships with each other and with the new authorities in the capital.

But that nominal control, exercised either from Kabul or Jalalabad, is shaky at best. Earlier this week, unidentified gunmen at one of the many spontaneous checkpoints along the road brutally murdered four foreign journalists for motives still unknown. And reports on Iranian state radio today say three more foreign journalists were killed on the same road yesterday.

The day after the 21 November killings, which came after several incidents of armed robberies on the road, only a handful of people and trucks were waiting at Torkham to cross into Afghanistan.

One of those waiting was Issa Khan, an independent trucker who, with his partners, regularly carries food and other humanitarian supplies to Kabul on contract for the UN. He told our correspondent that he had been waiting at Torkham for a week in hopes the road would become more secure.

Khan, who is a Pashtun, says his last trip on the road was when he returned from Kabul the day after the Northern Alliance occupied the capital (13 November). Soon after he left the city, he was stopped by gunmen who robbed him of the equivalent of more than $300.

Khan, who has made the Kabul run for years, says he is angry with both the U.S. and the Northern Alliance for rolling back the Taliban, which, until less than 10 days ago, controlled Kabul and most of the country. He says that, under the Taliban, the roads were safe and his business was good.

"Whenever the Taliban were there, we were safe. But now we don't know what is going to happen. We haven't seen yet."

Anger with the Northern Alliance runs high at this border crossing, where almost everyone is an ethnic Pashtun. The crossing is located in one of Pakistan's autonomous Pashtun tribal areas, where people share close linguistic and cultural links with Afghanistan's dominant Pashtuns.

Many of the people in this border town say they fear the Northern Alliance, which is made up mostly of Afghanistan's ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities, wants to again govern the country. They are particularly unhappy that Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of one of the Northern Alliance's several factions, has returned to Kabul. Rabbani was driven out of the capital in 1996 by the Taliban, which drew its strength from Afghanistan's Pashtun community.

Rahimullah is one of the money-changers at the border who offer Afghanistan's currency, the afghani, to anyone going across. He works inside a bare room filled with a dozen other money changers, shelves of biscuits, and a single pay telephone for anyone who wants to make a last international call.

Afghanistan's own telephone infrastructure is so badly damaged that, beyond the border, international calls, or even calls between different Afghan cities, are virtually impossible.

The money changer says the people entering Afghanistan on most days are returning Afghan refugees. But he says people are only making the trip these days if a family emergency requires it. Rahimullah:

"People who have been living a long time in Pakistan are only going back if they have to because of some emergency at home. They don't feel the situation is suitable for going back. They only go to take care of some emergency."

Rahimullah says his customers' fears about Afghanistan's political situation are reflected in the daily rate he and the other money changers set for the afghani. When there is news the international community is pressing for a broad-based government in Afghanistan -- which here means a major role for the Pashtuns -- the afghani currency gains strength. But any news that seems to favor the Northern Alliance brings a drop in the currency. The information is relayed into the bare room from the terrace outside, where several men sit, intently listening to a small transistor radio. Rahimullah says:

"When we get any news that there will be an international agreement concerning the form of the government, the afghani gets stronger. And when there is any news that no one is taking an interest, then the afghani gets weaker."

Similarly, Rahimullah says, any news that Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, a Pashtun by birth, could return soon to Kabul brings a jump in value. But news like Rabbani getting to Kabul first sparks a prolonged slump.

So far, the political barometer of the currency market shows the people coming to Torkham remain hopeful Afghanistan's future will improve. The afghani this week was trading here at 100,000 afghanis for 155 Pakistani rupees (about $2.50). Before the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, the same amount of afghanis was locally worth just 90 Pakistani rupees (about $1.50).

With so few people crossing, most of the men in the streets of Torkham on this day are vendors waiting for customers. Biscuits, bread, and any other portable foodstuffs all sell well here because, the vendors say, they are hard to come by across the frontier.

Also among those waiting is an ambulance driver name Jumahail. He says he is stationed by the border every day to ferry Afghans wounded in U.S. air strikes to hospitals inside Pakistan.

The driver says he is just back from taking two wounded Afghans to a hospital in Landikotel, the nearest large Pakistani town, some eight kilometers from Torkham. He says they are among 10 people he has shuttled to Landikotel this day.

"They were people seriously wounded due to the air strikes. Right now, I'm just back from taking another two. All the injuries are serious, but I take three to four really badly wounded people every day."

The ambulance service is provided free for the patients by Pakistani's leading private charity, EDHI. All the patients also receive free medical treatment.

With traffic into Afghanistan falling off this week due to security concerns, there are no immediate signs the situation will change soon. UN spokesman Eric Falt said yesterday that six of 48 trucks carrying supplies for the World Food Program that recently left Peshawar for Kabul had reached Jalalabad, about halfway to the capital. But there is no timetable for when they will complete the journey.

The spokesman also said food aid from Quetta to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar remains suspended due to drivers' security fears in that region.

Falt said some 52,000 tons of foodstuffs have been distributed in Afghanistan from mid-October to mid-November and that that quantity is enough to feed six million Afghans for a month.

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