KABUL: Truck drivers are routinely breaching a major security cordon surrounding Kabul’s diplomatic quarter by bribing police and using back roads to dodge key checkpoints, Arab News can reveal.
Some of Afghanistan’s most important buildings, including the presidential palace and the defense and foreign ministries, are situated in the so-called Green Zone, which is meant to shield officials from insurgent attacks. The US, British, Saudi and Turkish embassies are also located there.
But several drivers of small trucks said they can easily circumvent the metal barriers, CCTV cameras and armed guards protecting the area by paying off the police, creating the opportunity for a potentially catastrophic security breach and undermining a key component of the Afghan and American strategy to stabilize the city.
“Some trucks just pay bribes to the police to get inside the Green Zone without any identification cards or official permission,” Tela Mohammed Atmanzai, director of the Kabul-based Cargo Transport Union, told Arab News.
“The bribes are only taken in some streets and main roads, not in all the connecting roads to the Green Zone,” he said.
“Most of the trucks go in after 9 p.m., but powerful men and drivers who pay money to the police can get in any time of the day.”
Insurgents have deployed car and truck bombs against military and civilian targets in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter to devastating effect in the past.
In May last year, a truck bomb near the Germany Embassy killed more than 150 people. No militant group accepted responsibility for the blast, but the Afghan intelligence service blamed the Haqqani Network, an affiliate of the Taliban.
On Jan. 27 this year, more than 100 people were killed and more than 200 wounded when a suicide bomber drove an ambulance filled with explosives into a busy shopping area in the Green Zone. The Taliban said it carried out the attack.
While central Kabul has long been home to security cordons, checkpoints and concrete blast walls, the Green Zone is a relatively new phenomenon.
Its creation was formally announced last summer in response to the bombing near the Germany Embassy.
It includes the areas of Wazir Akbar Khan, Shashdarak and Shahr-e-Naw, and is due to be expanded to cover around 1.86 square miles. An additional Blue Zone is being established to include outlying areas.
Until the Jan. 27 ambulance bombing, trucks were allowed into the Green Zone at any time if they had security permits issued by the government or an embassy.
This has changed, and they are now only allowed to enter after 9 p.m. They are only meant to enter one way, through two tightly controlled checkpoints near the airport.
The first is manned by Afghan security forces with sniffer dogs. The second is manned by American troops, who x-ray the vehicles.
After passing through both checkpoints, the trucks are meant to be escorted to their destination by Afghan police.
These restrictions, together with low metal barriers over several roads, have made it impossible for large lorries to enter the Green Zone undetected.
But drivers of smaller trucks said many of their colleagues continue to find ways to dodge the checks so they can deliver their goods quicker.
One way they use passes the house of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is currently suspended from his position over allegations that he had a political rival abducted and sexually assaulted. Police in the street there routinely accept bribes, one driver said.
“They just look to see what’s loaded in the truck, then if you pay them a little bit they allow you to pass,” Shir Mohammed Ahmadi, a truck driver from Panjshir province who delivers furniture to offices and houses in the Green Zone, told Arab News.
Having bribed the same police several times, he now regards them as friends. “This is my business. We have to work like this to take bread back to our homes. If we don’t work like this, we can’t survive,” he said.
As well as using the route past Dostum’s house, Ahmadi drives down other back roads to sneak into the upscale neighborhood of Shirpur with his vehicle.
“There are two streets that aren’t blocked. There are just police standing there looking after them. The amount we bribe them depends on the materials we’re carrying,” he said.
After paying them $5-$15 in local currency, Ahmadi can then move through Wazir Akbar Khan, where the British and German embassies are located, without being stopped or questioned.
Kabul’s Green Zone has been likened to the heavily fortified quarter of Baghdad that bore the same name and came to symbolize the American occupation of Iraq.
But people are free to pass through most of Kabul’s Green Zone on foot, and civilian cars can travel down many of the roads with few of the restrictions placed on trucks.
Several schools and hospitals are located within the security cordon and, like in Baghdad, civilians still live within its limits.
Interior Ministry spokesman Najibullah Danish denied that police inside the Green Zone are accepting bribes from truck drivers.
“Right now the Green Zone is safe. All the threats it faced are being removed, just as they are in other parts of the city. We do not have any problems there now,” he said.