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 with Iran.
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 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 days 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.
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 his profits.
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 Vice President 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 nuclear program.
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 percent 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 $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 percent compared to a month ago. He sees a bleak future for his business.
"It is hurting the whole of Afghanistan," he says.
By. Abubakar Siddique
Copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.