Afghan roads once threatened by the Taliban are now safer. . . for some people

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Mohammad Daud had not visited his relatives for about five years. The 32-year-old from the city of Jalalabad in southeastern Afghanistan avoided the long journey to their rural district, fearing he would be harassed, kidnapped or killed by thieves or the ongoing Taliban. road.

In recent months, however, he has been there several times, meeting his family, inspecting their ancestral lands or just for a day out with friends. “Before, it was impossible… People were afraid of being abducted,” he said. “Now I can travel anywhere.”

The end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan last August, when the Taliban overthrew the Western-backed government, led to a marked drop in violence on the roads, if only because the group – which long threatened travel routes as insurgents—is now largely militarily uncontested.

Amidst this change, the Taliban’s control of the road network has become one of the most important ways for them to consolidate their power, from asserting control over trade and the economy to promoting their ideology. draconian by restricting women’s freedom of movement.

In the predominantly Hazara neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, many women do not cover their faces and still wear colorful outfits © Oriane Zerah/FT

“These roads and routes have always been at the center” of power in Afghanistan, said Graeme Smith, senior consultant at Crisis Group. Roads are “the cornerstone of the country and fundamental to how Afghans view their own government”.

In addition to banning teenage girls from school and ordering women to cover their faces in public, the Taliban began ordering women to travel with a Mahramor male escort.

A 21-year-old woman who lives in Kabul made several trips out of town alone or with female relatives following the Taliban takeover, only to become increasingly shaken as militants aggressively interrogated at checkpoints. “They asked us, ‘Where is your man? Where is your landlord? “, did she say.

Before, “the security was not good, but we weren’t afraid of what we had to wear,” she added. Now, traveling is “hard and it’s terrible to go anywhere alone”. To avoid being watched when traveling by bus or shared taxi, she sometimes wears a burqa and asks a man to pretend to be with her.

Landlocked Afghanistan, which lacks alternatives such as railways, has always relied on its roads. Cities such as Kabul or Herat were important stops along the ancient Silk Road trade routes that facilitated the spread of goods and ideas, from gold and spices to Buddhism and Islam.

A Taliban checkpoint in Kabul
A Taliban checkpoint in Kabul © Oriane Zerah/FT

Islamist militants in southern Afghanistan formed the Taliban in the 1990s in part to wrest control of the roads from warlords who used checkpoints to extort and brutalize residents.

But after being ousted from power in a 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban adopted similar strategies, using makeshift roadblocks to tax trucks and attack officials, troops or foreigners in shift.

For international organizations in Afghanistan, travel during the conflict often involved negotiating with warring parties to safely cross battle lines with supplies such as food and medicine. Traveling anywhere was dangerous, said Philippe Kropf, communications officer for the United Nations World Food Program in Afghanistan. “They would need to know that we are coming with a convoy of food that needs to be let through. . . that we are not military,” he said.

Between January and May, the UN recorded a nearly 500% drop in armed clashes, explosions and other security incidents compared to the same period a year earlier, according to a June report submitted to the UN Security Council. ‘organization. After a devastating earthquake in June, the WFP was even able to move at night – previously unthinkable – to speed up the delivery of aid.

But parts of the country, such as Panjshir province in the north, remain destabilized by a simmering anti-Taliban insurgency.

Cattle on the way to the Chinarak coal mine in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan
Cattle en route to the Chinarak coal mine in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan © Oriane Zerah/FT

Control of the country’s roads is also at the heart of the Taliban’s economic project. Since coming to power, they have set out to dismantle the vast network of police and military checkpoints that dotted the highways and were used to extort traders and travellers. A study funded by the UK Foreign Office last month estimated that these checkpoints collect around $650 million a year in bribes.

This has helped facilitate trade in lucrative commodities such as coal, thereby increasing tax revenue for the cash-strapped Taliban government. It also removed opportunities for local commanders to accumulate independent wealth and power through smuggling, limiting their ability to challenge group authority.

For traders and truckers, the checkpoints “created a degree of uncertainty, not only in terms of the cost [of bribes] but also the potential for violence,” said David Mansfield, researcher and author of the study. Now, “they’re not shaken. . . There is this constant message that the roads are safer.

But another, more mundane obstacle remains: Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure. Truckers and locals must navigate everything from potholes to bomb craters on their journey. The Taliban are committed to modernizing transport networks. “Our roads are destroyed all over Afghanistan,” said Esmatullah Burhan, spokesman for the mines ministry. “First, we have to collect the money to build them.”

But it’s unclear how – if at all – their internationally-sanctioned government will find the funds. “Roads are going to be key to the economic recovery that is so badly needed,” Smith said. “It really is a matter of life or death. They have to fix these roads to run these trucks.

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