‘It was easy to fight’: The Taliban took a treacherous, snow-prone pass

Salang Pass, Afghanistan – The Taliban commander’s sneakers got wet from the melting snow, but that was his least problem. In the Salang Pass it was a snowy season, a rough road through the Hindu Kush Mountains in northern Afghanistan that did some man-made insults to nature, and he was determined to keep the essential trade route open in his first season. Its caretaker.

Concerns about traffic flow were new and strange to Commander Saladin Ayubi and his former rebel group. For the past 20 years, the Taliban have been adept at destroying roads in Afghanistan and killing people on them. None of the Taliban’s home-made explosives were safe: culverts, canals, bridges, canals, dirt roads and highways.

But it all ended a year and a half ago. After ousting the Western-backed government in August, the Taliban are now trying to salvage the rest of the economic arteries they have spent so long.

There is nowhere more important than the Salang Pass, where thousands of trucks pass through the rugged mountains every day at an altitude of more than two miles. It is the only effective land route to the capital, Kabul, from bordering countries such as northern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Everything pushes its shields and comes down to its drawers: fuel, flour, coal, consumer goods, livestock, people.

Whether approaching the pass from the north or south, vehicles are greeted with an unexpected and signature: dozens of car washes, often more than one man or a boy with a black hose who shoots cold river water at an uninterrupted pressure, Buyer waiting.

For the weary passer-by, who spent hours and hours through the Tower Mountains like stone gods on either side of the road, the cleaners are the beacons, giving the good news: you have passed and survived the journey. As far as.

After decades of war, overuse and ad hoc repairs, the highway is in poor condition and at risk of collapse. It demands a certain courage to navigate.

So don’t do maintenance.

“It was easier to fight than to deal with this,” said Mr Iyubi, 31, last month, before riding his muddy white pickup truck down the road, occasionally stopping to handle the truck’s stuck columns.

Accidents and breakdowns are common in potholes and dangerous journeys across the road. But the biggest fear is getting stuck in a traffic jam in one of the long, pitch-black tunnels on the highway, where carbon monoxide clots can suffocate those trapped.

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

Although there are several sections, the largest part of the tunnel is more than a mile long and takes about 10 to 15 minutes to get to the best view. The darkness inside is all over, interrupted only by the flickering of the yellow light that hangs in the middle of the sky due to the smoke and dust. Ventilation systems are confined to a set of fans on both ends that do nothing more than barking at the sound of the engine.

In the autumn of 1982, it was estimated that more than 150 people had died in the tunnel from some kind of explosion, although details of the incident are still unclear. Such catastrophes, such as the 2010 avalanche that killed dozens of people, have left the Taliban in the lurch, as well as hundreds of former government workers being paid less.

To reduce further road damage, the Taliban have imposed strict restrictions on passing trucks. The move is a small but substantial one, highlighting the transition from a ragtag rebel to the group’s government that foreign-funded road workers and lucrative construction agreements will not be implemented any time soon.

But that decision did not go unnoticed: with trucks carrying less cargo, drivers are earning less per trip. This means they are spending less on roadside food stalls, hotels and restaurants, while those living here in a country whose economy has already collapsed are suffering extra.

“These Taliban policies affect us all,” said Abdullah, 44, a shopkeeper who sells dried fruit and soft drinks. He is a second-generation resident of Salang, and his stone house looks like a lighthouse on the north side of the pass. When her children peek out the window to see the convoy of trucks below, they look like guards in a small lighthouse.

“Earlier truck drivers used to come and order three meals a day, now they only order one and share,” said Abdullah.

In front of Abdullah’s house, Ahmed Yar, 24, a truck driver carrying flour from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was not thinking about his next meal. His truck, on which his livelihood depended, broke down. But luckily for him, he was able to miraculously lower the flag of a passing bus, which was his essential part.

“Under the previous government, we used to carry 40 tons of flour, now it’s 20,” Mr Yare said. He then got into his cab, threw his truck into gear, and began the long journey to the pass.

Mr Ayubi has defended the Taliban’s decision to impose weight restrictions – and for alternative north-south and south-facing traffic to avoid tunnels – arguing that keeping the road somewhat more efficient is better than allowing it to be completely destroyed in the long run for Salang’s economy.

But the short-term consequences have been devastating for Abdur Rasool, 49, a one-eyed food vendor who has been selling kebabs for 16 years behind the car wash lines and behind the rolled metal of a wrecked vehicle on the side of the road. He has earned about $ 300 this season along the road, which is less than his average of $ 1,000.

“They’re making less money,” he said of his customers, “so they’re taking less kebabs.”

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

And not really, the country’s economy has stalled and Taliban forces are searching the valley around the pass for the remnants of the resistance.

This year, everything seems different in Salang Pass, except for the pass.

The high mountain ranges and rocky valleys are the same as ever. In the distance, truck after truck can be seen crawling along the line like ants. The beggar and the cold dog sit at the corner of the hairpin, where the drivers almost have to stop. Old Soviet trucks and Ford pickups provide lessons for the history of the former occupiers.

Abdul Rahim Akhgar, 54, a traffic officer in Salang for nearly three decades, held the same position when the Taliban last came to power in the 1990s. One recent afternoon he stood on the side of the road at the north end of the pass and looked at a curved flatbed truck that had veered off the road and crashed into the side of a house an hour or two earlier.

One passenger and about a dozen caged chickens died in the accident. Mr Akhgar estimates that 50 people die in accidents every year. But all in all, he added, it’s better now.

“There are no fights,” he said when a young boy wrestled with a chicken that survived the crash. “And travelers can travel easily.”

Reporting contributions from Nazim Rahim Houston.

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