CHAMAN, Pakistan -- The Taliban's capture of a key Afghan-Pakistani border post has sent trucking costs soaring, with insurgents and government officials separately taxing traders, and bandits demanding bribes to allow safe passage of goods.
Thousands of vehicles cross daily from Chaman, Balochistan province, Pakistan, to Wesh, Spin Boldak district, Kandahar province, on the Afghan side, carrying goods destined for Kandahar city.
On the way back they usually ferry agricultural produce bound for Pakistan's markets or ports.
The trade -- worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year if not more -- ground to a halt earlier in July after the Taliban seized the dusty border town but resumed last week with the insurgents seemingly firmly in charge.
They have captured a vast swath of the country since early May after launching a series of offensives to capitalise on the final stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops.
While they have not yet taken any provincial capitals, they have captured a string of key border posts -- with Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan -- that provide vital revenue from customs duties on goods arriving in the landlocked country.
"We loaded grapes in Kandahar, and on the way we have been extorted at least three times," trucker Hidayatullah Khan told AFP at Chaman.
"Sometimes they charge Rs. 3,000 ($20), somewhere else Rs. 2,000, and in some other place Rs. 1,000," he said.
Chaos and confusion
Truckers interviewed in Chaman last week told of chaos and confusion on the Afghan side of the border.
Imran Kakar, vice president of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, gave one example of a truck carrying fabric from Karachi destined for Kandahar.
The Taliban charged the driver Rs. 150,000 (about $1,000) as duty in Spin Boldak, but when the vehicle reached Kandahar, government officials were also waiting.
"We had to pay even higher customs duties as they don't acknowledge the payments made to the Taliban," said Kakar.
The scenes were reminiscent of Afghanistan during its brutal civil war in the 1990s, when a patchwork of militias held stretches of key trade routes and, using the roads at will, extorted truckers and residents.
Hundreds of trucks were lined up last Wednesday (July 28) on the Pakistan side of the border, waiting for permission to cross.
On a dusty plain last week, with rugged hillocks as a backdrop, drivers and "spanner boy" apprentices tinkered with their vehicles ahead of the journey.
While the distance is just 100km, the journey is fraught with danger.
Vehicles and roads are poorly maintained in Afghanistan, police and army checkpoints routinely demand "tea money" or more from every driver, and bandits lie in wait -- either to steal goods or demand further payment for safe passage.
Still, traders and drivers say they have little option but to keep on trucking.
"War has been going on; we know that, but we don't have any other choice," said Abdul Razzaq, a driver carrying hatchling chicks to Kandahar.
"Transportation of goods is the only way for us to feed our families," he said.
The Afghan government is responding to the Taliban's brutal ideology and constant attacks on citizens' livelihoods by launching a wide range of projects that will benefit millions.
The Taliban have damaged public infrastructure worth more than $1 billion, government spokesman Dawa Khan Menapal told Salaam Times in May.
They blew up many bridges, roads and other infrastructure projects in different parts of the country since the beginning of the solar year, he said.
They also damaged irrigation systems, severely harming infrastructure, and have planted bombs in more than 2,000 houses, he added.
The government has inaugurated dozens of public projects since the beginning of the solar year in March.
The inauguration of Kamal Khan Dam and the start of work on a number of other dams are among the major projects that Afghans have widely welcomed.