Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taleban Donkey Racket

Some Taleban commanders are making a fortune out of donkey convoys supplying Northern Alliance-held territory.
By Tim Judah

Across Afghanistan donkeys are the main beasts of burden. They are forever laden down with sacks of food, beaten, kicked and even stoned when they stray from their path. But, without them, most Afghans would starve to death.


Here, in territory controlled by the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance, one of the oddest facts is that almost everything which can be bought in the region's modest but otherwise well-stocked shops, except for fresh food, either comes from Taleban territory or through it.


It is not hard to fathom why donkey drivers want to cross the frontlines with their goods. The reason is that they can fetch up to one hundred per cent more for their goods than in Taleban territory.


From Iran come biscuits, soft drinks, cigarettes and tea. From Pakistan come clothes, textiles and medicines. From China come radios and lanterns. From Taleban-held parts of Afghanistan come such staples as rice and wheat plus sweets and rugs.


The donkey trade is highly market sensitive so, with the arrival of foreign journalists here, more animals are being loaded up with high value goods, which, under normal circumstances, would only gather dust in the busy shops of Jabal Saraj's bazaar. These include French cheeses and Swiss bottled water.


In principle, the Taleban could bring the Northern Alliance to its knees if they managed to prevent the donkey convoys getting through. However, in many areas, Kabul regime commanders prefer money to victory.


For example, here in Jabal Saraj the sheer quantity of goods on the market is so vast that it is clear that this is no clandestine smuggling operation. In fact, it is huge money-spinner for certain Taleban commanders and is highly organised.


According to Abdul Wakil, who had just arrived with goods from Kabul the best crossing point is at Giowar, four hours drive from Jabal Saraj. Here, merchandise comes by road from Kabul to the frontline. After the Taleban check you for weapons, the goods are offloaded onto donkeys, which spend their day criss-crossing between the frontlines.


On the Northern Alliance side of the frontline, goods are removed from the animals and then sent on by road.


The Taleban tax is 10 US dollars per donkey and, according to Abdul Wakil, there are anything up to 500 of them working the Giowar crossing. Since the return trip takes some three hours, a donkey convoy could make three trips a day since this "border" is open twelve hours a day.


It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that the local Taleban commanders are making a fortune here and indeed, there are also unconfirmed reports that much of the trade is actually organised by them, as opposed to them simply taxing it.


One of the more intriguing questions is just how much fuel is pouring across from Taleban country. Some does come by donkey but how much is unknown.


With the only road north now closed and dozens of tanks and armoured cars manoeuvring around Jabal Saraj over the weekend one wonders whether Taleban commanders are so greedy that they are also the ones who keep the Northern Alliance army, at least here, on the move.


Amongst other things, the Taleban supply route to Jabal Saraj appears to underline the fact that there are two types of Taleban. At Giowar the business is obviously controlled by "Taliban-lite" commanders, that is to say commanders who are Taleban by convenience rather than ideology.


Where hard-core Taleban control the frontlines, moving food and other goods across to enemy territory is a serious business of life and death.


Every morning, in the almost inaccessible northern town of Farkhar, which lies just across the frontlines from Taleban-controlled Taloqan, dozens of donkeys can be seen trit-trotting through the mist and into the market.


When they arrive, their drivers book them into the town's donkey park where they are fed and watered while their drivers swap gossip over a hearty breakfast of tea and kebabs. It is the Afghan equivalent of a motorway service station.


But there is also a grimmer side to the gossip. Here the drivers check to see if any of their fraternity have been killed or maimed overnight and what the military situation is like along their various trails. Sometimes their stories are terrifying.


Braoud showed off bloodstains on his clothes as he explained how his friend Najibullah had died two nights earlier. "This is his, and this is his blood," he said standing by Najibullah's white donkey whose flank was encrusted with dried blood.


Braoud, Najibullah and another friend had been following a trail they thought was safe. "We were walking very quietly. He was five metres in front of me. I saw him put his foot on the mine. It just exploded."


Najibullah stepped on the mine just before dawn and Braoud carried him on his back. "The blood just kept pouring out, " he said. " I tried to staunch the wound but then his head slumped against me. I took him off my shoulder and he was dead. He had lost too much blood. Then I tied him to his donkey."


Najibullah, had five children. His wife, in Taleban territory,still did not know her husband was dead.


Braoud said, "Yesterday a donkey was killed and another man injured. It happens every week. The Taleban are planting mines to stop us coming but we still have to do it."


In Farkhar's hospital, Suleiman, lay looking at the stump of his newly amputated leg. He and three of his friends had been surprised by a Taleban patrol as they made the nighttime crossing. His friends got away but he had his donkey confiscated along with his goods.


Then the Taleban told Suleiman to "walk" - straight into a mine, where they left him for dead. His friends were too scared to come back but they paid a man to rescue him.


Back in the market, other donkey drivers appeared angry but not yet ready to throw in the towel. One gestured at his goods and said, "If the Taleban capture these things they burn the oil and keep the rice." He added that in Taleban territory, "there are lots of people who are hungry but, not because there is no food, but because they don't have money".


This is certainly the case on both sides of the frontline where aid agencies stave of starvation amongst the poorest of Afghanistan's people and those who live in the worst drought affected areas.


Early next morning, Najibullah's brother, who lives in Northern Alliance-held territory came to collect his brother's body. His rough wood coffin covered by a green drape was loaded onto the back of a lorry. "It was too risky but he had to do it. No one with money would do such a job," he said.


Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale), is a regular IWPR contributor.