Sat, Apr 28, 2012 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: NATO truckers idling in wealthy suburb of Karachi


On the fifth-floor balcony of an exclusive apartment block in Karachi, Iqbal Amlani glares out at what he calls his “million-dollar view” — the Arabian Sea lapping at a shoreline that includes nearby Clifton beach, where city-dwellers wade in the shallows.

“It used to be a million-dollar view,” he corrects himself.

Spoiling his vista are hundreds of fuel tankers cluttering up the road outside his block and every other building nearby.

The seafront road alone is crammed with about 500 trucks, each capable of carrying 60,000 liters, double-parked bumper to bumper, on both sides of a multi-lane road.

In total there are thought to be more than 1,000 in and around Clifton, a neighborhood usually associated with Pakistan’s most wealthy citizens.

Pashtun truck drivers from the northwest of the country began parking in the well-heeled streets, a short drive from Karachi’s port and oil terminal, in November last year, when Islamabad banned the transport of NATO supplies through its territory.

The border closure was retaliation for the accidental killing by US forces of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Although Pakistan had previously closed the border in shorter protests, no one expected the ban to drag on for so long this time.

The drivers, many of whom are sinking into debt, are desperate to get back to work even though some of the big Pakistani fuel suppliers fear the once hugely lucrative NATO logistics business will never recover.

For years Pakistan’s truck drivers provided the vital fuels that powered almost every aspect of NATO’s war effort in Afghanistan, from the diesel in the tanks of armored vehicles to the fuel required for squadrons of aircraft and the countless generators powering air conditioners in austere military bases.

For months now, the drivers have been idling away their time drinking tea and playing games.

“Every day we look at the papers or go to the fuel company office to ask when the border is going to open,” said Arif Shah, a 26-year-old driver who has been unable to pay five of the £345 monthly installments to service the loan on his tanker.

It seemed like a good investment when demand was growing rapidly on the back of US President Barack Obama’s decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan for the surge in 2009. Shah could make far more on the month-long round trips to Bagram and Kandahar if he owned his own vehicle.

One oil supplier estimates that more than 2,000 trucks have been added to Pakistan’s national fleet over the past 10 years.

“We stay here because we keep being told it will just be a week more, we just need to wait a little longer,” Shah said. “If we get back to work then everything will be fine.”

Hopes of the border reopening rose, albeit slightly, on April 12, when the Pakistani parliament unanimously passed long-delayed recommendations that would govern future relations with the US.

It banned outright the transport of arms or ammunition through Pakistani territory, but not food, fuel and other important goods.

However, the unpopular government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari would almost certainly pay a high political price for resuming supplies in an election year, particularly as parliament also called for a complete end to lethal strikes by unmanned US drones in Pakistan — something US officials say will not happen.

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