KABUL // From the capital, down through the Taliban's spiritual home of Kandahar and on to the city of Herat near the Iranian border, every week Afghanistan's bus drivers must negotiate some of the most dangerous territory this land has. They face the constant risk of crashing at high speed, being robbed by thieves or stopped by insurgents, yet what angers them more than anything else are the foreign soldiers who are meant to secure the route.
"We are civilians and they promised us they would build our country, but now they are disrupting our business," complained Habibullah, a driver. The road linking Kabul to Herat is the main highway in Afghanistan, connecting about half of the nation in its slow curve to the south and west. Reconstructed at huge expense under the occupation, it is a vital military and commercial thoroughfare but also provides an opportunity for ordinary people to travel long distances fairly cheaply. A ticket for a bus ride from the capital to Kandahar costs about US$6.
However, in recent years the highway has become a much-sought prize in the battle between rebels and foreign troops, as well as a hunting ground for armed robbers and corrupt police. The men who earn their living travelling it once or twice a week claim the situation has never been worse. Habibullah has been a driver for three years. He, like his colleagues, blamed US military convoys for adding hours to their journeys.
"We are very tired of the foreign troops. Not only drivers, ask all the nation: ask the women, children, elders, youths, they all have problems with the foreign troops," he said. Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, has ordered convoys to make it easier for civilian vehicles to pass them, but these men insist nothing has changed for the better. They claim they are often forced to be out on the highway at night when they should have reached their destination in the afternoon. They also said foreign troops had thrown water bottles at their buses, cracking windows and in one case breaking a man's tooth.
Omar Gul, Habibullah's brother and co-driver, said: "Out of 100 people, not one will be happy with the American soldiers. All of them hate them." The Taliban are a different story. Without fail, the drivers who were waiting at the bus station in a neighbourhood on Kabul's outskirts had kind words to say about the old regime and even the insurgents who are now fighting to help bring it back. Along the route the rebels have mobile checkpoints, pulling vehicles over in search of anyone who works for the government. They also stage regular ambushes against military convoys.
"The Taliban have stopped us several times and all the bus drivers are happy with them. When they stop the buses they greet us in a very nice way and apologise for any mistakes they might make. They don't take passengers from us without exact reports," explained Habibullah. "If we have a soldier on board and the Taliban stop us, they apologise for affecting our business but say they don't have any choice because he is working for infidels. Then they take him from us. But if I have a Talib passenger and the [intelligence service] or police arrest him they will beat me very badly and insult me."
Taped to one vehicle's windscreen at the station was a photograph of a driver named Ajab Noor. According to colleagues, he had been going at high speed through an area of Ghazni in an effort to avoid being targeted by thieves when he suddenly came upon a US convoy in the road ahead. It fired a warning flare, but he was unable to halt in time and the bus was subsequently shot at, causing him to crash. He died of his injuries.
All the provinces on the route from Kabul to Herat are volatile, but Maidan Wardak is repeatedly cited as the most dangerous place between here and Kandahar. The fact that it lies only a short distance from the capital is an indication of just how much security has deteriorated across the country in recent years. Trouble on Afghanistan's roads was one of the main factors that led to the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s. The movement was welcomed then as it promised an end to the rule of warlords who extorted money at checkpoints and terrified civilians. Today, in the eyes of some at least, a similar situation appears to be developing again.