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KARACHI, Dec 29: Three weeks after Taliban militants torched over 200 Nato vehicles on the outskirts of Peshawar, Karachi-based transporters continue to be affected. Although the limited transport of Nato supplies from Karachi to Peshawar – and from there on to Afghanistan – has resumed, local transporters remain afraid of retaliatory attacks by militants. Moreover, decreased Nato traffic has caused an already saturated local market to become more competitive.

This month, main truckers’ associations in both Karachi and Peshawar announced that their members would no longer transport Nato supplies owing to security concerns. But according to Noor Khan Niazi, president of the Karachi Goods Carriers Association (KGCA), the transport of Nato goods has been limited, but not suspended. “Supplies are not going as frequently, but they haven’t completely stopped either,” he says.

The decrease in Nato traffic stems from widespread fear of attacks by elements linked to the Taliban in Karachi. “The problem is here [in Karachi] as well,” says Niazi. “Goods carriers are feeling increased pressure from the Taliban, or from people connected with the Taliban.” He refers to a recent incident in which several trucks known to transport Nato supplies were burnt at Gate 5 of the New Truck Stand on Hawksbay Road.

A senior police official at the Crime Investigation Department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that while Taliban presence in Karachi was minimal, criminal elements with links to militants in the tribal areas have been instructed to halt any activity that supports US efforts in Afghanistan.

The fear of Karachi’s goods carriers is compounded by the recent death of Shaukat Afridi, who supplied fuel to Nato forces in Afghanistan. After being kidnapped for ransom on May 9 this year, Afridi was murdered by his captors on September 26 when police raided the house in which he was being held captive by activists of an outlawed organisation.

As a result, those goods carriers who do transport Nato supplies are keeping a low profile. “Nato transport is ongoing,” says Nadeem Arain, the KGCA general secretary. “But people who do the work are very scared. They’re not telling anyone that they do this work and they’re not answering their phones.”

Meanwhile, truck drivers are reluctant to be affiliated with Nato. One truck driver who asked not be identified by name for security reasons says that he used to deliver goods to Kabul and Kandahar, but is now too scared to go beyond Punjab. “I’m scared of the Taliban,” he says. “First they kill the driver, then they set the truck on fire. They don’t care who you are and now they’re on the lookout in Karachi as well.”

Supply and demand

KGCA general secretary Arain points out that the fallout of decreased Nato traffic will be felt in the Karachi market. Owing to lacklustre import and export activity, goods carriers are already struggling to find work. If carriers previously committed to Nato deliveries begin competing for other cargo transport, the increased competition will drive down overall rates.

Between 300 and 400 trucks leave for Afghanistan from Karachi everyday out of a total of 2,500 trucks. These include about 150 containers carrying military supplies and 200-300 oil tankers transporting fuel. Currently, according to KGCA president Niazi, only 15 or 20 containers are leaving Karachi each day.

“It’s a supply-demand issue,” says Arain. “If transporters who used to do Nato work start to feel the pinch, they won’t be able to make payments on their [leased] vehicles, they’ll start firing the drivers on their staff, and criminality in the city is bound to increase.”

The plight of transporters is worsened by the fact that their vehicles, which are valued at about four million rupees each, are rarely insured. “Only five per cent of the trucks of all our members are insured,” explains Niazi, “so no one will risk having a vehicle torched.”

Temporary setback

Niazi is optimistic, however, that Nato deliveries will resume at a normal level in coming months. He explains that only those transporters hailing from the Afridi and Shinwari tribes are involved with Nato deliveries from Karachi. “The people who do this work have relationships and contacts in the tribal areas,” he says. “Even the Taliban won’t say anything to these people because of their contacts.” He adds that since these transporters have knowledge of the Frontier province and few language issues, their drivers and vehicles will remain in demand for those routes.

This viewpoint is supported by Saifur Rahman Wazir, himself a Karachi-based transporter who sends civilian goods such as shoes and clothes to Afghanistan via the Ghulam Khan border near Miramshah. “There’s an advantage to having ties in the area,” he says. “But only if you’re helping out civilians. There will always be problems for those trying to do military work.”