Special forces strike in the night - and oil tanker owners lose livelihoods

Fuel destroyed by air strikes in desert swoop

Jonathan Steele in Kandahar province
Wednesday November 21, 2001
The Guardian

It was a quiet night in the desert and the group of tanker drivers were sleeping by their vehicles after another long day's driving from the Iranian border.

Suddenly they heard the sound of vehicles crossing the sand in the dark.

"About seven or eight armed men surrounded us. They were talking English, and all had military uniforms," Shahzada recalled yesterday in Spin Boldak, about six hours' drive away from where the incident happened.

Some of the intruders had sophisticated night-vision equipment or, as he put it graphically, "big goggles".

"They grabbed us and tied our hands behind our backs with very tough plastic," he said.

The men, presumably US special forces, put the drivers in four small armoured vehicles and took them to a bleak spot in the desert.

Shahzada judged they went about four miles away from their tankers. He and his friends had no idea what was going to happen next. It was some time before dawn on November 18.

One of the strangers could speak a few words in Persian. Many Afghans speak a variety of Persian, known as Dari.

"He accused us of taking oil for terrorists, but we said it wasn't true. The oil is just for ordinary people," Shahzada explained. "I have been doing this work for 15 years. We pick the oil up at the border with Iran near Zahedan, and deliver it here. It's my job.

"We saw one of the men making a telephone call. We didn't know what they were planning to do," he went on.

As the drivers sat fearfully in the dark wondering what their fate would be, they heard the sound of aircraft. A huge ball of fire lit up the desert. In horror the men realised what was going on. All five tankers had been hit by missiles or bombs.

The attack over, the armed kidnappers took the men back to the wrecks of their tankers and untied them. Then they disappeared. In its way the whole episode was remarkably efficient.

Mohammed Akhtar, one of the tanker owners, who was listening as Shahzada recounted the incident yesterday, admitted his drivers take a route through the desert to avoid paying tax at various checkpoints they might encounter on the roads. He had clubbed together with two people to buy his tanker. Most tankers had three joint owners, because it was too expensive to buy one on your own.

Shahzada acknowledged that the Americans had gone out of their way to save their lives by taking them off into the desert before sending in the strike aircraft to destroy their vehicles.

But he did not see much reason for gratitude. "In a way they were protecting our lives," he said.

"But they took away our livelihoods." And as far as he was concerned, they had done nothing to deserve it.