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‘Fighting Was Easier’: Taliban Take On a Treacherous, Avalanche-Prone Pass

THE SALANG PASS, Afghanistan — The Taliban commander’s sneakers had soaked by from the melting snow, however that was the least of his issues. It was avalanche season within the Salang Go, a rugged lower of switchback roads that gash by the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Afghanistan like some man-made insult to nature, and he was decided to maintain the important commerce route open throughout his first season as its caretaker.

The concern about site visitors movement was each new and unusual to the commander, Salahuddin Ayoubi, and his band of former insurgents. Over the past 20 years, the Taliban had mastered destroying Afghanistan’s roads and killing the folks on them. Culverts, ditches, bridges, canal paths, filth trails and highways: None have been protected from the Taliban’s array of selfmade explosives.

However that every one ended half a 12 months in the past. After overthrowing the Western-backed authorities in August, the Taliban at the moment are making an attempt to save lots of what’s left of the financial arteries that they had spent so lengthy tearing aside.

Nowhere is that extra vital than within the Salang Go, the place, at over two miles excessive, 1000’s of vans lumber by the jagged mountains daily. It’s the solely viable land path to Kabul, the capital, from Afghanistan’s north and bordering nations like Uzbekistan. Every part bumps up its slopes and down its attracts: Gasoline, flour, coal, shopper items, livestock, folks.

Whether or not approaching the move from the north or south, automobiles are welcomed with an sudden and signature flourish: dozens of automobile washers, typically little multiple man or boy with a black hose that shoots chilly river water in a steady arc, ready for a buyer.

For the weary traveler, who simply spent hours zigzagging by the mountains that tower over both aspect of the highway like stone gods, the cleaners are beacons, signaling excellent news: You’ve made it by the move and survived the journey. To this point.

After a long time of struggle, overuse and advert hoc repairs, the freeway is in poor form and susceptible to calamity. Navigating it calls for a sure daring.

So does the maintenance.

“The preventing was simpler than coping with this,” Mr. Ayoubi, 31, stated final month, earlier than hopping in his mud-spattered white pickup truck and making his manner down the highway, stopping sometimes to handle clogged columns of vans.

Accidents and breakdowns are widespread occurrences on the potholed and dangerous journey throughout the move. However the best concern is getting caught in a site visitors jam in one of many freeway’s lengthy, pitch-black tunnels, the place the buildup of carbon monoxide can suffocate these trapped inside.

The centerpiece of the freeway is the Salang Tunnel. Constructed by the Soviets within the Nineteen Sixties, it was as soon as the best tunnel on this planet.

Although there are completely different sections, the biggest a part of the tunnel is greater than a mile lengthy and takes wherever between 10 to fifteen minutes to traverse in the very best situation. The darkness inside is all-encompassing, interrupted solely by flickering yellow lights that appear to hold in midair due to the smoke and dirt. Air flow techniques are restricted to units of followers at both finish that do little besides whine above the engine noise.

Within the fall of 1982 it’s estimated that greater than 150 folks died within the tunnel from an explosion of some variety, although particulars of the occasion nonetheless stay murky. Disasters resembling that, together with avalanches like these in 2010 that killed dozens, loom over the Taliban working the move, together with the a number of hundred sometimes paid former authorities staff alongside them.

To gradual the highway’s additional destruction, the Taliban have strictly enforced weight restrictions on the vans navigating the move. The transfer is a small however substantive one, highlighting the group’s shift from a ragtag insurgency to a authorities acutely conscious that foreign-funded highway staff and profitable building contracts gained’t materialize anytime quickly.

However that call hasn’t been with out penalties: With vans carrying much less cargo, drivers are making much less cash every journey. Meaning they’re spending much less within the snack retailers, lodges and eating places that dot the highway alongside the move, piling extra distress on those that make their residing right here in a rustic whose economic system was already collapsing.

“These Taliban insurance policies have an effect on all of us,” stated Abdullah, 44, a shopkeeper who sells dried fruit and gentle drinks. He’s a second-generation Salang resident, and his stonewalled residence overlooks the northern method to the move like a lighthouse. When his youngsters peer out the home windows to observe the convoy of vans beneath, they seem like tiny lighthouse keepers.

“Previously truck drivers would come and order three meals, now they simply order one and share it,” Abdullah stated.

In entrance of Abdullah’s home, Ahmad Yar, 24, a stocky truck driver hauling flour from the northern metropolis of Mazar-i-Sharif, wasn’t desirous about his subsequent meal. His truck, upon which his livelihood depended, had damaged down. However in a lucky coincidence, he managed to frantically flag down a passing bus that miraculously had simply the half he wanted.

“Underneath the previous authorities, we carried 40 tons of flour, now it’s 20,” Mr. Yar stated, explaining that the Western-backed authorities couldn’t have cared much less if his truck had been chubby. He then scampered up into his cab, threw his truck in gear and commenced the lengthy trek up the move.

Mr. Ayoubi defended the Taliban’s resolution to implement weight restrictions — and to alternate northbound and southbound site visitors every day to keep away from clogging the tunnels — arguing that protecting the highway considerably useful was higher in the long term for Salang’s economic system than letting it’s utterly destroyed.

However the short-term penalties have been devastating for Abdul Rasul, 49, a one-eyed meals vendor who has been promoting kebabs for 16 years in a spot tucked away behind the rows of automobile washers and the twisted metallic of wrecked automobiles littered alongside the roadside. This season he’s made about $300, down from his common of round $1,000.

“They’re making much less cash,” he stated of his prospects, “so that they’re taking much less kebabs.”

“It’s not just like the years earlier than,” he added.

And certainly it isn’t, with the nation’s economic system in a shambles and the Taliban’s forces looking within the aspect valleys across the move for remnants of resistance forces.

Every part appears to be completely different within the Salang Go this 12 months, aside from the move itself.

The towering rows of mountains and the rock-strewn valleys are as they’ve all the time been. Within the distance, truck after truck might be seeing crawling up the move like a line of ants. Beggars and chilly canine sit on the hairpin turns, the place drivers should gradual nearly to a cease. The passing previous Soviet vans and Ford pickups present a historical past lesson of former occupiers.

Abdul Rahim Akhgar, 54, a site visitors officer within the Salang for practically three a long time, held this similar job the final time the Taliban have been in energy within the Nineties. On a current afternoon he stood on the roadside on the northern mouth of the move and checked out a twisted flatbed truck that had veered off the highway and slammed into the aspect of a home beneath an hour or two earlier.

The crash killed one passenger and a few dozen or so caged chickens. Mr. Akhgar reckoned that fifty folks die within the move in accidents annually. However all in all, he added, it’s higher now.

“There’s no preventing,” he stated as a younger boy wrestled with a hen that survived the crash. “And vacationers can journey simpler.”

Najim Rahim contributed reporting from Houston.

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