Afghanistan: Illegal checkpoints enrage travellers

Originally published
Drivers are sick of being forced to pay levies and bribes simply to pass from one part of Afghanistan to another.
By Danish Karokhel in Torkhum (ARR No. 44, 17-Jan-03)

Khushal, a minibus driver from Kabul, is so tired of negotiating illegal checkpoints and police bribes as he ferries his passengers across Afghanistan that he is quitting the business.

Truck driver Hayat Khan was also fuming after paying 15 US dollars to get through seven illegal checkpoints on the way from Torkham, on the Pakistani border, to Kabul. To cap it, he had to pay a further five dollars to police manning an official post on the edge of the capital.

That's a lot of money in a country where the average wage is only 40 dollars a month.

Everyone is tired of the checkpoints set up by the local commanders who were appointed by the government after Islamic mujahedin fighters ousted the communist-backed Najibullah regime in 1992, but have since become a law unto themselves, ignoring orders from Kabul.

The Taleban abolished these tollbooths when they took over in 1995 - a move that initially boosted the popularity of the student militia - but the checkpoints reappeared with a vengeance when the regime fell in 2001.

Afghan president Hamed Karzai called last September for an end to all checkpoints, including previously legal ones operated by local authorities to raise revenue.

But while most of the local authorities have heeded his call, the warlords - backed by private armies wielding more might than the fledgling Afghan national army - have largely ignored it.

For Khushal, the last straw was being assaulted by a policeman at an official checkpoint at the entrance to Kabul last week. "He asked me for my taxi permit, although that is the job of traffic police. I offered him 20 afghanis (40 US cents), and he slapped me and accused me of bribing him. Then he took 40 afghanis off me," he told IWPR.

"I am being forced to quit being a driver. I want to start another business where I won't ever see another checkpoint."

Hayat Khan said, "In Torkham I paid 500 afghanis at three checkpoints. In Jalalabad they took 230 afghanis from me at three more. I was stopped for two hours at a tollbooth in Laghman province and paid 100 afghanis.

"We are being robbed by everyone. They seem to think we are made of money."

Momen Khan, the head of the police post which watches out for suspicious people, arms and smuggled goods entering the capital, said that checking used to be carried out by soldiers, but was now being done by local villagers who received no salary. "Drivers are giving them 10-20 afghanis for their work," he told IWPR.

There were no such excuses for the illegal checkpoints outside the capital, which warlords have turned into cash machines to fund their often lavish lifestyles.

During a recent visit to Paktia province south of Kabul, the head of the region's municipal checkpoints, Ajab Gul Zazai, said that they had collected 500,000 afghanis (110,000 dollars) in revenue for the government in the three-month period before they were dismantled following Karzai's decree. "We have stopped taking money from vehicles, but regional commanders are doing it instead."

One warlord in Paktia province, Raz Mohammad of Said Karam District, became particularly wealthy as he controlled routes to and from Pakistan, one of the main suppliers for eastern Afghanistan. He also became so unpopular with the locals that they had him killed.

But the new commanders soon set up their own tollbooths in the area and, according to the latest information from the area, Raz Mohammad's brothers are back operating the original checkpoints.

Many drivers traveling the country complain that they can end up paying to four different authorities - a fixed rate government transport tax, a municipal levy which is still being charged by some localities despite Karzai's decree, checkpoint charges and, sometimes, police bribes. Of these, only the first is legal.

Jamil, who drives a small truck, said that he had to pay three times on the 95-km stretch between Khost and Gardez, both south of Kabul, "Transport (government tax) took three dollars, municipality took 100 Pakistani rupees (around two dollars) and the checkpoint took 150 rupees more."

A soldier working for the local commander manning the checkpoint stopped one truck and asked for 300 Pakistani rupees. "There are 35 men working here. Our commander has allowed us to take money from vehicles for our personal expenses," he told IWPR.

Sometimes drivers pay up when threatened with a time-consuming search. Rasool, carrying goods from Kabul to Torkham, said he had paid six dollars at one legal security checkpoint at the eastern entrance to the capital. "If we don't give them money they can hold us the whole day. When we pay them they don't search us at all, but let us go straight through."

Commander Momen Khan said the authorities had cleared away illegal tollbooths on the road to Jalalabad, 175 km east of the capital, but added, "Some local people are taking money from vehicles in the name of the government. We can't control the whole road, we simply don't have the means to patrol it regularly."

Danish Karokhel is an IWPR reporter/editor