Tens of thousands of dollars are being illegally collected monthly from drivers in Afghanistan's Laghman province using the main highway between Kabul and Jalalabad.
And it's not the Taliban who are threatening drivers to finance their insurgency.
Rather, it's local officials who have figured out ways to pocket the taxes and fees they collect on a roadway that was built using US tax dollars.
For the average Afghan, there seems to be no end to the fees they have to pay to use one of the country's few paved highways. First, there's the toll that all are legally obliged to pay, although no one is sure where those toll revenues end up.
Then, there's the bribes truck drivers must pay the police in order to allow their overweight vehicles to use the road. On top of that, local governments impose their own "municipal tax" on parts of the road that pass through their community. And of course, there are the "fees" imposed by the traffic police.
Officials at all level of government appear to be involved, from the Ministry of Public Works to local government employees to the traffic police.
An estimated US$50,000 a month in illegal fees is collected from drivers using the highway.
Take, for example, the official checkpoint operated by the Ministry of Public Works in Sorkhakan district. It's usually staffed by 12 revenue officers who are charged with collecting a toll.
A shrewd driver can negotiate a "discount" with a toll taker. There's no record of the transaction and since the toll is often paid in Pakistani rupees rather than Afghan currency, little way to record the transaction.
"Tax officials take money off me every time I come through Laghman," said Mir Wali, driving a truck full of flour and rice to Kabul. "They'd stop my truck if I refused to pay."
Or, let's say you're a truck driver hauling goods to Kabul. You're required to stop at an office in Kamar Mashal in Sorkhakan district to make sure that you vehicle doesn't exceed the 40-tonne weight limit. But numerous drivers reported they were able to exceed the limit by as much as 20 tonnes by paying a bribe ranging anywhere from US$100 to US$200.
"I have 45 tonnes of cement in my truck, five tonnes more than the maximum set by the government," said Jawid, a driver coming up to Kabul from the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
"A few minutes ago, when the machine showed I was five tonnes over, officers told me to go over to an old guy and he'd sort me out. I went up to the man, who cooks food for the officers. He told me to pay US$200 and make the problem go away.
"The officials are afraid of being caught taking bribes, so they use their cook as a broker," the driver speculated.
But that's not the end of fees drivers face.
Many local governments impose their own "municipal tax" on vehicles passing through their district, despite the fact that such fees are illegal.
"I take passengers from Laghman to Jalalabad four or five times a day, and every time I go through the Sorkhakan area, the municipality makes me pay," taxi driver Maruf said. Maruf said this had been going on for 10 years.
Drivers said police had been exacting payments for years. Refusing to pay would simply make trouble, they said, as police would then stop them and accuse them of a traffic offence. Sometime, the bribe is only US$1, but in time, it adds up.
Officials at every level appear to be aware that such highway robbery regularly occurs. Yet no one has any interest in stopping the practice.
That's just the way things are done in Afghanistan.Topics: Afghanistan Highway Traffic Toll Roads Corruption