Afghans are grappling with rising fuel prices and dwindling supplies in the
depth of winter, while convoys of relief aid stand idle just across the border
Thousands of fuel tankers and trucks carrying compressed-gas cylinders used for
cooking and heating were stranded after Iranian officials imposed a blockade on
the Afghanistan-bound deliveries because they claim such supplies would help
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.
Following official assurances that the supplies were intended solely for use by
Afghan civilians, Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad promised visiting Afghan Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim on
December 26 that the blockade would be lifted.
But more than a week later only a handful of trucks have been allowed to
continue on to Afghanistan, while thousands remain backed up at two key border
crossings - at Islam Qala, in western Afghanistan, and Zaranj, 500 kilometers
farther south - with no explanation from Tehran.
On January 3, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, repeated
his country's plea for a resumption of traffic. Omer said that despite
assurances from Tehran "that the problem was solved, it has not been".
Afghans affected by the resulting fuel shortages say they believe the crisis is
Tehran's retribution for crippling sanctions imposed by the United Nations
Security council this past summer. Analysts in Kabul link it to Iranian
resentment over being left out of a multibillion-dollar gas-pipeline deal
worked out among neighbors Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan.
Caught in the middle
Like many Afghans, Haji Mohammad Noor is feeling the pinch of fuel costs that
have risen sharply amid the crisis. A trucker from western Farah Province, Noor
is grounded in neighboring Herat Province and can't afford to hit the road
again until fuel prices decrease.
Transport fares have not risen along with costs, and he has decided to wait out
the fuel blockade. But the living costs he incurs are already eating away at
Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Noor says the Iranian authorities
"are doing it because America imposed sanctions against them".
"Now they are taking it out on Afghanistan because Americans are here," Noor
says. "This way they want the Afghans to pressure the Americans [to ease
sanctions] and then they will open the border."
Noor's explanation is being echoed in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Afghan Commerce Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, part of the delegation that
accompanied Fahim to Tehran last week, says that while he was there, Iranian
officials claimed they had reports that some of the Afghan-bound fuel transited
through Iran was used by NATO forces in Afghanistan. Ahadi says the Afghan
delegation convinced its Iranian counterparts that their reports were
inaccurate and left under the belief that supplies would be resumed by the time
the delegation returned to Kabul on December 27.
Kabul-based analyst Waheed Mozhda says that all the stranded trucks and tankers
belong to private Afghan entrepreneurs transiting fuel from Iraq, Kuwait,
United Arab Emirates, and Central Asia.
Mozhda says it is difficult to independently establish if any of the fuel may
have been destined for use by NATO forces. But by closing the supply routes, he
says, Tehran is clearly sending a signal to Washington in response to
international sanctions imposed against the country over its controversial
Message in a debacle
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Royanyan this past week claimed victory as a
result of recent austerity measures taken by Iran, which some have argued were
necessitated in part due to economic difficulties magnified by the sanctions.
Royanyan told Iranian state television on December 30 that overall gasoline
consumption in the country has fallen by 20% since expensive gasoline subsidies
were cut off this month.
Mozhda says that the Tehran might now be sending a message to its neighboring
competitors in the ongoing regional competition over energy pipelines.
"Ever since Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Turkmenistan signed a deal on a
gas pipeline [in Ashgabat this month], Iran is unhappy," Mozhda says. "In the
past, there were plans to extend a similar pipeline from Iran to India."
On December 12, leaders from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India
signed a deal to build a natural-gas pipeline that would deliver gas from
Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. The project, called TAPI,
was negotiated for 15 years and is challenged by the security conditions in
southern Afghanistan and the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan.
Mozhda says that the current blockade of gasoline and natural-gas supplies is
hitting Afghan consumers hard because they were already grappling with high
inflation. He says the fuel blockade has significantly pushed up energy and
transportation costs, which in turn have raised the prices of most commodities.
"This is another example of how regional and global rivalries affect
Afghanistan and lead to Afghan suffering," he says.
Afghan traders, who are disadvantaged by their county's landlocked status, have
been impacted by the fuel blockade. Khan Jan Alakozay, the deputy head of the
Afghanistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries, says that Iranian border
authorities are now demanding US$300 from each vehicle parked along the road
approaching the border crossing. He says that small transport companies whose
vehicles are stranded are expected to claim tens of thousands of dollars in
compensation from the fuel importers.
"The government of Afghanistan is aware of all these issues. But the Iranian
authorities have resisted taking any serious steps to address them," Alakozay
says. "If this crisis continues, it will morph into a much bigger problem."
Back in the western Afghan city of Herat, Waeesuddin is another of the
thousands of truckers waiting for a solution to be found. He says that fuel
prices have already increased more than 10% compared to a month ago. He sees a
bleak future for his business.
"It is hurting the whole of Afghanistan," he says.
RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Sharafuddin Stanekzai, Ahmadullah
Takal, and Nori Norias contributed to this report from Herat and
Prague Copyright (c) 2010, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC
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