Taliban attack treacherous, avalanche-prone pass

SALANG PASSAGE, Afghanistan — The Taliban commander’s sneakers had been soaked by melting snow, but that was the least of his problems. ...


SALANG PASSAGE, Afghanistan — The Taliban commander’s sneakers had been soaked by 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 cut through the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Afghanistan like a man-made insult to nature, and he was determined to keep the vital trade route opened during his first season as his caretaker.

The worry about traffic was both new and strange for the commander, Salahuddin Ayoubi, and his band of former insurgents. Over the past 20 years, the Taliban have mastered the destruction of Afghan roads and the killing of people on them. Culverts, ditches, bridges, canal roads, dirt roads and highways: No one was safe from the Taliban’s panoply of improvised explosives.

But that all ended six months ago. After toppling the Western-backed government in August, the Taliban are now trying to salvage what remains of the economic arteries they took so long to destroy.

Nowhere is this more important than in the Salang Pass, where, more than three kilometers above sea level, thousands of trucks cross the jagged mountains every day. It is the only viable land route to Kabul, the capital, from northern Afghanistan and neighboring countries such as Uzbekistan. Everything goes up and down its slopes: Fuel, flour, coal, consumer goods, livestock, people.

Whether approaching the pass from the north or the south, vehicles are greeted with an unexpected and characteristic rush: dozens of car washers, often little more than a man or boy with a black hose throwing the cold water of the river in a continuous arc, waiting for a customer.

For the weary traveler, who has just spent hours zigzagging through the mountains that tower on either side of the road like gods of stone, the cleaners are beacons, signaling good news: you have crossed the pass and survived the travel. Until there.

After decades of war, overuse, and spot repairs, the highway is in poor condition and prone to calamity. Navigating there requires a certain audacity.

The interview too.

“Fighting was easier than dealing with this,” Mr Ayoubi, 31, said last month before jumping into his mud-splattered white van and striding his way down the road, stopping occasionally. time to manage congested columns of trucks.

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

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

Although there are different sections, most of the tunnel is over a mile long and takes 10-15 minutes to traverse at best. The darkness inside is overall, interrupted only by flickering yellow lights that seem suspended in midair from smoke and dust. Ventilation systems are limited to sets of fans at each end that only moan above the noise of the engine.

In the fall of 1982, it is estimated that more than 150 people died in the tunnel due to a any explosion, although details of the event are still unclear. Disasters like this, along with avalanches like the ones in 2010 that killed dozens of people, threaten the Taliban who rule the pass, along with the hundreds of infrequently paid former government workers alongside them.

To slow the destruction of the road, the Taliban imposed strict weight restrictions on trucks navigating the pass. The move is small but substantial, underscoring the group’s move from a ragtag insurgency to a government keenly aware that foreign-funded road workers and lucrative construction contracts won’t materialize any time soon.

But this decision was not without consequences: with trucks carrying less goods, drivers earn less money on each trip. This means they spend less on the snack bars, hotels and restaurants that dot the route along the pass, heaping additional misery on those who make a living here by a country whose economy was already collapsing.

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

“Before, truckers would come and order three meals, now they just order one and share it,” Abdullah said.

Outside Abdullah’s house, Ahmad Yar, 24, a stocky truck driver hauling flour from the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, was not thinking about his next meal. His truck, on which his livelihood depended, had broken down. But in a lucky twist of fate, he managed to frantically flag down a passing bus miraculously with the part he needed.

“Under the previous government we were transporting 40 tons of flour, now it’s 20,” Yar said, explaining that the Western-backed government didn’t care if its truck was overweight. He then climbed into his taxi, started his truck and started the long trek up the pass.

Mr Ayoubi defended the Taliban’s decision to enforce weight restrictions – and alternate north and south traffic each day to avoid clogging the tunnels – arguing it was best to keep the road somewhere little functional in the long term for the economy of Salang rather than leaving it 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 hidden spot behind rows of car washes and the twisted metal of wrecked vehicles littering along the road. side of the road. This season he has earned around $300, down from his average of around $1,000.

“They make less money,” he said of his customers, “so they take less kebabs.”

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

And indeed that is not the case, with the country’s economy in shambles and Taliban forces searching the side valleys around the pass for remnants of resistance forces.

Everything looks different in the Salang pass this year except for the pass itself.

Towering mountain ranges and rock-strewn valleys are what they always were. In the distance, truck after truck, you could see the pass crawling like a line of ants. Beggars and cold dogs sit on hairpin bends, where drivers have to slow almost to a stop. Passing old Soviet trucks and Ford vans provide a history lesson from the former occupants.

Abdul Rahim Akhgar, 54, a traffic policeman in Salang for nearly three decades, held the same position when the Taliban last held power in the 1990s. On a recent afternoon, he stood on the side of the road at the north mouth of the pass and watched a twisted flatbed truck that had veered off the road and slammed into the side of a house less than an hour or two earlier.

The accident killed a passenger and about a dozen caged chickens. Mr. Akhgar estimated that 50 people die each year in the pass in accidents. But overall, he added, it’s better now.

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

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Houston.

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