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NATO drivers to US, Pakistan: Keep us truckin'

As Pakistan's blockade on NATO's Afghanistan supply lines enters day 20, truckers in Karachi are struggling to make ends meet.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / December 14, 2011

In this picture taken on Dec. 8, Pakistani truck drivers drink tea next to their trucks carrying supplies for NATO forces as they wait for border to open at a terminal in Chaman, Pakistan.

Shah Khalid/AP

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Karachi, Pakistan

It's day 20 of Pakistan's blockade on NATO's Afghanistan supply lines, and few people are watching for updates more closely than Ijaz Khan.

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The trucker has plied the 2,500-mile round-trip journey from the port of Karachi to the Afghan border town of Torkham since 2002. And though he dislikes the work, he desperately wants to get back on the job. 

“Everyone around here is waiting for the news that the blockade is over. We need to work to feed our families.” But, he adds: “I wish I had a different job. People hate NATO truck drivers, we get no respect.”

For Pakistan’s NATO truckers, the state of US-Pakistan relations is more than a lively conversation point. With those relations at a fresh low following a cross-border NATO attack last month that left 24 Pakistan soldiers dead, it’s left them struggling to survive.

Several weeks to go?

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has said that he expects the blockade to continue for “several weeks” and that an apology will no longer suffice as Pakistan seeks “new rules of engagement” with Washington.

On Tuesday, a Congressional panel requested a $700 million cut in aid to Pakistan over its failure to take action on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in what is seen as a sign of deepening acrimony between the two countries.

While deliberations continue for ending the impasse, supplies ranging from fuel to refrigerated foodstuffs to US military hardware are piling up at the port in Karachi, a sprawling city of 16 million. Nearby, almost 4,000 trucks remain parked and idle while their drivers pass time drinking tea and playing cards.

“The cargo flow continues, there is no interruption in cargo imports. The border closure has not yet led to a situation where anyone has said to stop shipping either from the US or Pakistan side,” says Muhammad Rajpur, the Pakistan representative of Farrell Lines, the shipping company which handles US military cargo and transports up to 1,000 US Army vehicles each month.

Aiding the enemy

According to Haji Hazrat Ali, Vice Chairman of the All Pakistan Oil Tanker Owners Association, some 80 percent of NATO truckers are ethnic Pashtun. Many hail from the deeply conservative Waziristan tribal area, a militant hotbed home to senior Pakistani Taliban leaders including Hakimullah Mehsud. While their family and tribal connections help ensure their safe passage to the border, most truckers are deeply conflicted about aiding a perceived enemy.

Rahat Khan, one such young driver, says police harassment of NATO truckers is routine. “They tell us, ‘Give us Rs10,000 ($112) or we will smash your windows.’ They beat us when we take prayer breaks. There is no point in reporting it because things would get worse.”

Following the supply suspension, Rahat says he is down to “eating one meal and skipping the next. What else can you do? But we should resume only when America shows us some respect.”

The NATO truckers’ main consolation is they make $250 a month – roughly double of what “domestic” truckers take home. But while Pakistani companies provide insurance to truckers' families for loss of life, no such cover exists for their NATO trucker counterparts who at times contend with militant attacks.

Last Friday, some 42 oil tankers and trucks carrying goods bound for US troops in Afghanistan were destroyed by militants armed with rocket launchers. 

According to Rajpur, the shipping official, the current impasse appears to be having an acute effect on NATO despite the fact that it has steadily decreased its dependence on Pakistan since opening a northern supply route. That route, known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), has been hit with freezing weather in Central Asia recently. “Instead of the NDN they are shipping essential supplies like gasoline and water via air.”

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