U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan rely on a crucial supply line from the Pakistani port of Karachi. Pakistani truck drivers take enormous risks to ferry fuel and other goods to the troops along the route, where the threat of a Taliban ambush is ever-present.
Raziq Shah has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He's a Pakistani truck driver, hauling fuel to U.S. and NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
In 2009, there were about 40 attacks on NATO supply trucks coming from Pakistan. Securing the supply lines has become more crucial as some 30,000 additional U.S. troops pour into Afghanistan this year, bringing the total American force to about 100,000.
Just last week, bursts of automatic gunfire greeted Afghan-bound trucks on a stretch of highway on the outskirts of Karachi, a port city in southern Pakistan. Three people were wounded when militants on motorbikes ambushed the convoy. It was rare for Karachi, as the majority of attacks have occurred closer to the Afghan border.
'Courage To Do What We Have To Do'
Shah, 30, is from the northwest Khyber tribal agency on the border with Afghanistan. Drivers from the Pakistani border area tend to dominate this dangerous business.
On a recent sultry night at the Karachi port, Shah prepares to drive a tanker carrying 10,000 gallons of fuel to troops in Afghanistan, who consume more than 1 million gallons a day, according to NATO.
As Shah arranges himself for the long journey into Afghanistan, fellow travelers honk hello. Speaking in Pashtun, Shah explains that since 2003, he has made 100 trips to Afghanistan, and he says they do not get any easier.
"You would only go to Afghanistan if you didn't care about your life ... or you were compelled to go to feed your family," Shah says. "That compulsion gives us courage to do what we have to do. We have to fight the danger as well as poverty," he shouts above the din of the engine.
Shah gestures with such excitement that half the time he has no hands on the steering wheel. His fast-talking, manic demeanor marks him as a daredevil. He's had three brushes with the Taliban. Only luck and God have saved him, he says.
'Gripped With Fear'
Another trucker, Zait Ullah Afridi, 33, is lucky, too, but perhaps not as intrepid as the voluble Shah. He sits shyly at the Karachi depot in a room full of drivers, many of them cousins. They pester him to tell his tale of why he no longer supplies U.S. and NATO troops next door.
"Four of us were taking oil to Helmand province when the Taliban appeared and ordered us out of the truck," Afridi says. " 'Why are you coming here?' they asked. We said we had to because there are no other jobs. They took our names and told us to take an oath not to come again. We didn't swear an oath. But after that," says Afridi, "I have never gone back."
His cousin, Siraj Afridi, says he has no choice but to deliver supplies for a war he does not believe in, to combatants he does not support. He still drives across the border despite coming under attack by the Taliban, who opened fire on his convoy as it snaked through a narrow canyon on the road to Kabul.
"There was just 50 feet separating the mountains on each side," Siraj Afridi says. "And when the Taliban started shooting from both sides, we abandoned our trucks and dove behind boulders. Three oil tankers exploded in flames," he says.
Siraj Afridi says each member of his crew is gripped with fear.
"On the road, everything scares us — trees, cats, goats. It's life and death, and ... we don't feel alive until we cross the border back into Pakistan," he says.
Can Taliban Be Stopped?
But Jacques Khalid, a senior officer of the Al-Haj Group, a Pakistan-based transport company that supplies the U.S. Army and NATO, says 90 percent of his losses are in Pakistan. Khalid is an assumed name to protect his identity from those who he says would stop at nothing to disrupt the supply chain into Afghanistan.
Khalid says the company is losing an average of three tankers a month. Monthly profits range from $600,000 to more than $2 million, he says. A driver risking his life to supply troops in Afghanistan is paid just $300 for one trip that can last 15 days.
Oil tanker owners have in the past threatened strikes to protest their lack of protection.
But Khalid says he is not exploiting his subcontractors. "That subcontractor has a certain driver. He has not put a gun on his head and said, 'You must go to Afghanistan,' " Khalid explains. "He is willing to do it for money."
Another Khyber-based tanker owner, Mohammad Shakir Afridi, says, "As long as Taliban fighters are willing to blow themselves up, no amount of security can stop them." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.