KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – On the dashboard of his truck, Nowsher Awan keeps a colorful little box and a toy puppy biting on a candy cane. He says he bought the knickknacks in a market because "they just made me happy."
He's a humble man, this 30-year-old Pakistani in his torn plastic sandals, making a 435-mile (700-kilometer) journey that will take him through the Taliban insurgency to deliver 15,600 gallons (60,000 liters) of fuel for the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan.
It takes 100 such truckloads to keep the armies moving for a single day.
Awan may not reflect much on his importance in this vast logistical operation. He's in it for the money — $112 a month to support a wife and five children in the distant northwest tribal region of Pakistan. He gets to visit them twice a year. For the rest of the time, he is mostly on the road.
Depending on the Taliban, the Pakistani and NATO armies, checkpoints, congestion and the weather, he says the journey from Karachi to Kandahar can take anything from 4 to 15 days.
Trucks get blown up or hijacked. Drivers are killed. Overall, fewer than one percent of trucks delivering everything from fuel to peanut butter are attacked, according to Lt. Bashon W. Mann, a public affairs officer for NATO forces. But for Awan and other drivers, the fear of ambush and roadside bombs is constant.
Awan has been the recipient of the Taliban's feared "night letters" — pamphlets that warn drivers against hauling supplies to "the foreign invader." He says the message is always the same: "Don't do this job, or else we will do something to you."
Awan isn't entirely alone on this run, his 14th. His younger brother is driving a truck behind him in the convoy and they keep in touch by cell phone. Awan's eyes keep darting to his side mirrors. "I am always watching my brother," he explains.
He also has The Associated Press for company — myself and photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who joined him in the Pakistani city of Quetta for the final 160 miles (255 kilometers) to the NATO base in Kandahar.
Our presence would frequently cause bewilderment among the Pakistani and Afghan soldiers who had never had two Western women cross their checkpoints and border posts. U.S. soldiers on the Afghan border eyed us with suspicion, unaccustomed to Western reporters traveling unaccompanied by soldiers or armed security.
Awan's journey had begun on a comfortable highway out of the port city of Karachi. Now we were in the southern province of Baluchistan, on a narrow and congested road that detours around a long-simmering clan feud. Ahead loomed the Kojhak mountain pass, a long, frightening climb alongside a precipice. Then it would be downhill and into Afghanistan for a final white-knuckle ride through Taliban country.
Awan has never been attacked. But as he chatted in his brightly decorated cabin, between cell phone conversations with his brother and blasts of music on an old cassette player, it became clear that he doubted his luck would last. "It is a very dangerous job," he said. Later he would say in a tone of resignation: "I think one day the Taliban will kill me."
The war, now in its 10th year, consumes roughly 1.5 million gallons (6 million liters) of fuel a day, according to Mann, the NATO public affairs officer. The fuel and other supplies — from peanut butter to armored cars — come on four routes, two from Pakistan and two through Central Asia.
In 2010, 27,073 trucks crossed at Chaman, the border post nearest to Kandahar, roughly a quarter of them carrying fuel, according to Gen. Obeidullah Khan, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, which borders on southern Afghanistan.
By his count, 194 of the trucks were destroyed in 159 separate attacks — a rate of about three a week. Some of the loot from the hijacked ones — U.S. and British uniforms, military tents and cots — is on sale in the markets of Quetta, the Baluchistan capital.
Last month gunmen with rocket launchers and automatic rifles stormed a terminal outside Quetta and destroyed 14 fuel tankers. Outside the federal capital of Islamabad last year, dozens of gunmen attacked a fuel convoy parked overnight, killing six people.
Assad Sher, a 24-year-old driver, says he is fired at and his tanker is routinely pelted with stones. Fida Hussain, another driver, has been robbed and beaten. "Most of the attacks are at night," he said. "They come and they put a blindfold on our eyes and send us away and then they sometimes blow up our tanker."
The drivers work in an atmosphere of suspicion. They distrust — and are distrusted by — the NATO forces as well as the Taliban, while the U.S. and Pakistani militaries distrust each other. A senior Pakistani military officer who requested anonymity so he could speak freely said the suspicions are reflected in the fact that NATO deals directly with private trucking companies, effectively cutting out the Pakistan authorities.
For the contractors, NATO is a gold mine. At a going rate of 7 rupees a liter, each Afghan trip stands to earn the truck owner about $5,000, says Asghar Khan, who runs a clearing house for trucks on the Quetta-Kandahar run.
Awan's $112 is a tiny fraction of the proceeds, but it's better than a poor Pakistani's monthly wage and he says it has enabled him to enroll his children in school. He dreams of his daughter becoming a doctor.
It's Tuesday, Feb. 8, and at 4:11 a.m. a nightwatchman armed with a shotgun pounds on the trucks parked in the Quetta terminal. Drivers sleeping in their cabins come awake, headlights blaze and one by one the fuel trucks set out, kicking up mud. Next stop, if all goes well, is Chaman, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north, on the Afghan border.
But at Abdullah Khan, a village of monotonous brown mud huts hugging the road, the trucks are waved down at a checkpoint maintained by a dozen privately employed guards. The clan wars have flared again and the guards are there to make sure none of the drivers blunders into the crossfire.
Baluchistan also has a nationalist insurgency, a reminder that Pakistan has other pressing problems besides the Taliban, al-Qaida and the debate in the U.S. about whether the country is pulling its weight in the war on terrorism. Pakistan routinely counters with a reminder that it has lost more than 3,000 soldiers in the war, more than the U.S. and other NATO armies combined.
Once cleared through the checkpoint, the convoy faces an even more daunting challenge: the 2,290-meter (7,513 foot) Kojhak Pass, one lane each way. It holds particularly unpleasant memories for driver Shurab Gul.
On one of his runs he was laboring up the pass, moving so slowly that ambushers managed to run up to his truck and attach an explosive charge.
"I was crying when they blew up my truck. I jumped out and ran. I thought about my family — what would they do if anything happened to me?" he recalled. He has five sons and a daughter.
As the convoy climbs up the mountain, a free-for-all develops among the uphill traffic, the faster cars trying to pass them, and the oncoming traffic barreling downhill. Cars weave in and out, often getting dangerously close to the precipice.
Awan's truck and the AP team reach the border post at Chaman around 1 p.m. It looks like chaos. Trucks barge across. Cars, horns blaring, weave among bicycles and rickshaws carrying passengers and luggage. The poorest push wheelbarrows carrying children and old people.
The first town on the Afghan side is Spinboldak, and traffic is at a standstill. A day earlier a bomb in the customs hall killed an Afghan customs officer and wounded two visiting Americans, and now troops are defusing a bomb on the road ahead.
At the truck terminal, the U.S. soldiers who greet us are jumpy. Who are we? Do we have permission to be on this road? Do we have bodyguards? A soldier tells us of reports that suicide bombers are lurking up the road. They refuse to let us go, threatening to abort our onward trip even though our Afghan documentation allows us to travel freely throughout the country. After an hour, when it becomes clear that they have no grounds to hold us and we will not accept armed security, we are released. But by now night is closing in and the oil tankers are not ready to move onward to Kandahar in the darkness.
The next morning it is bitterly cold as the trucks set off through flatlands flanked by gray streaked hills. Security has become much more intense. Bridges, a favorite Taliban target, are protected by barbed wire. Private security guards in jeeps and trucks weave among the tankers.
On the cassette player, a singer named Shah Zaib Bulbul, a Pashtu like Awan, belts out a tune. The scratchy music puts a smile on Awan's face. Soon he'll reach the relative safety of his destination in Kandahar base, but first he has to pass the village of Takht-e-Pul. This place is dangerous, Awan shouts over the music. "They fire on us. They are unknown people. Their faces are covered."
And don't point a camera at the U.S. soldiers who are in a convoy heading toward us, he warns, "because they will start firing on us. It's a big problem."
The journey ends at the massive Kandahar base built up by U.S. and other NATO forces over the last 10 years of war. The tankers park in a holding area to wait for their number to be called.
It will be hours before Awan's turn comes, so he'll spend the night here and head back to Karachi in the morning to tank up for his 15th run to Kandahar.
Kathy Gannon is Associated Press special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan