Low pay, big risks for fuel haulers in Afghan war

On the dashboard of his truck, Nowsher Awan keeps a colorful little box and a toy puppy biting on a candy cane. He says he bought the knickknacks in a market because “they just made me happy.”

He’s a humble man, this 30-year-old Pakistani in his torn plastic sandals, making a 435-mile (700-kilometer) journey that will take him through the Taliban insurgency to deliver 15,600 gallons (60,000 liters) of fuel for the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.

It takes 100 such truckloads to keep the armies moving for a single day.

Awan may not reflect much on his importance in this vast logistical operation. He’s in it for the money — $112 a month to support a wife and five children in the distant northwest tribal region of Pakistan. He gets to visit them twice a year. For the rest of the time, he is mostly on the road.

Depending on the Taliban, the Pakistani and NATO armies, checkpoints, congestion and the weather, he says the journey from Karachi to Kandahar can take anything from 4 to 15 days.

Trucks get blown up or hijacked. Drivers are killed. Overall, fewer than one percent of trucks delivering everything from fuel to peanut butter are attacked, according to Lt. Bashon W. Mann, a public affairs officer for NATO forces. But for Awan and other drivers, the fear of ambush and roadside bombs is constant.

Awan has been the recipient of the Taliban’s feared “night letters” — pamphlets that warn drivers against hauling supplies to “the foreign invader.” He says the message is always the same: “Don’t do this job, or else we will do something to you.”

Awan isn’t entirely alone on this run, his 14th. His younger brother is driving a truck behind him in the convoy and they keep in touch by cell phone. Awan’s eyes keep darting to his side mirrors. “I am always watching my brother,” he explains.

He also has The Associated Press for company — myself and photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who joined him in the Pakistani city of Quetta for the final 160 miles (255 kilometers) to the NATO base in Kandahar.

Our presence would frequently cause bewilderment among the Pakistani and Afghan soldiers who had never had two Western women cross their checkpoints and border posts. U.S. soldiers on the Afghan border eyed us with suspicion, unaccustomed to Western reporters traveling unaccompanied by soldiers or armed security.

Awan’s journey had begun on a comfortable highway out of the port city of Karachi. Now we were in the southern province of Baluchistan, on a narrow and congested road that detours around a long-simmering clan feud. Ahead loomed the Kojhak mountain pass, a long, frightening climb alongside a precipice. Then it would be downhill and into Afghanistan for a final white-knuckle ride through Taliban country.

Awan has never been attacked. But as he chatted in his brightly decorated cabin, between cell phone conversations with his brother and blasts of music on an old cassette player, it became clear that he doubted his luck would last. “It is a very dangerous job,” he said. Later he would say in a tone of resignation: “I think one day the Taliban will kill me.”