KABUL, Afghanistan — Heading southeast out of the capital, Kabul’s tightly packed concrete walls give way to vacant lots, dusty shops and half-finished construction projects conceived in better times. Makeshift memorials of plastic flowers peek from rock piles marking long-forgotten traffic accidents in a land where death is rarely a stranger.

Along the shoulder of the potholed road just past the last Kabul checkpoint, truck driver Latif adjusts decorative fabric strips hanging from his side mirror. He’s been here three days, sleeping in his 18-wheeler, guzzling too much tea, waiting for the rest of a convoy to coalesce and head for a NATO base in eastern Ghazni province, along the so-called death route to Kandahar.

Analysts with fancy titles debate Afghanistan’s security outlook after 2014, when foreign combat troops complete their withdrawal. But Afghan truckers doing their thankless yet increasingly deadly job along this industrial stretch have little doubt. Many said they can feel the situation worsening by the month.

Latif, 29, who, like many Afghans, uses one name, points to the hills a few hundred yards away. They’re filled with the Taliban, he said, this close to Kabul. Let’s not talk too long. If they see us with a foreigner, they’ll kill us.

A light drizzle turns into tiny daggers of rain, so Latif and two other drivers retreat to the back of a car, the windows steaming up from their heated mutton pilaf as the discussion turns to the life — and life expectancy — of a road warrior.

Hundreds of millions of foreign aid dollars spent on Afghan highways since 2002 were aimed at knitting the landlocked nation together. Instead, the Taliban, police and thieves compete for control of the roads, the drivers said, with truckers the target of attacks, kidnappings and extortion.

Latif estimated that convoys he’s been a part of were hit 400 times in a dozen years, sometimes two or three times per trip.

Two years ago in Ghazni, a particularly brutal assault killed 15 security guards, three policemen and five soldiers in his convoy. In the rush to escape, he and other panicked truckers drove over a friend’s body, killing him if he wasn’t already dead. It’s nothing to be proud of, he said, but that’s their reality.

“I know they’ll kill me,” he said. “That’s all anyone thinks.”

Fewer escorts

Convoys once traveled with several armed escort vehicles, but now cost-cutting often means only a single escort protecting 100 or more trucks. The drivers, already a superstitious lot, barrel down the road as fast as possible, hoping to outrun rockets and jostle their behemoths into “lucky” spots in the convoy, leading to dents and busted mirrors.

Taliban spies are everywhere, they said, calling ahead with descriptions and license plate numbers. “I’m sure they’re watching us now,” said Haroon, 22. “We feel presold.”

Far worse than being attacked is getting captured, the men agreed. A couple of months ago, Haroon’s convoy was headed to a base in Ghazni when 18 drivers became separated. They were later found strangled, their eyes gouged out, their severed heads left on the road as a warning against working with NATO.

Of course they’re scared, the men said, but they don’t have much choice. Latif supports 15 family members with his wages of $200 to $500 a month, depending on distance and danger, which is half what he earned two years ago. Demand is falling, he said, now that NATO’s mission is winding down.

He has no insurance or death benefits. There’s no truckers union, and the bribes to be paid come out of his pocket. On rare trips home, he tells neighbors he’s a shopkeeper so insurgents don’t kill him.

“It’s like Russian roulette,” Latif said. “If you work, you risk death. If you don’t, your family dies of hunger.”

And if you die, your relatives might never know it with certainty, he added, particularly if the Taliban steals your ID and their attack leaves you unrecognizable.

In many ways, analysts said, Afghanistan couldn’t function without its truckers, who carry virtually everything the population consumes.

“When you go to the edge of Kabul, you see that security is not some abstract concept,” said Graeme Smith, Kabul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank. “Those who make their living on the road — truckers, bus drivers, traders — are among the bravest people in Afghanistan.”

Survival strategy

A few hundred yards from Latif and his friends, fellow driver Baryalai Haidari, 32, is parked in a bare-bones truck stop. He has a different survival strategy: He avoids NATO shipments, NATO drivers, NATO convoys, even if it means less money, and he never moves at night, when insurgents are busy planting their roadside bombs.

“We slip through during the day while they’re snoozing,” he said.

Haidari considers most NATO drivers young, stupid and reckless, sitting ducks who are best avoided. But he agreed with them on one point: Corruption has gripped Afghan society like advance-stage cancer. Take the Kabul checkpoint, he said, pointing to a makeshift barrier near a chirpy “Goodbye!” sign. Officially, the toll is 50 cents. In reality, it’s $12.

“Police are the biggest thieves,” agreed driver Shagha, 24, mincing through the mud in a white tunic. “When they see a NATO convoy, they think we’re an ATM machine passing by.”

Nor is the rapaciousness limited to vehicles, said Ghazi, 34, owner of a truck stop that’s little more than a muddy lot with a few beds and a makeshift toilet in a white shipping container. Business used to be good until a warlord arrived just up the road and paid police to route all the trucks into his yard, locals said, allowing him to corner the market and raise rates.

“Now honest people can’t make it,” Ghazi said.

Few choices

As he speaks, a 16-wheel Mercedes tractor-trailer belching exhaust arrives from adjoining Wardak province. But before it can reach Ghazi’s lot, a policeman steps into the road, points his AK-47 assault rifle at the driver, forcing him into the rival truck stop.

Its amenities are no better than Ghazi’s or others in the area, but drivers have little choice, locals said. Attempts to speak with drivers or workers in the bustling lot are frustrated by a police “commander” in a dusty, ill-fitting uniform who bars entry to the “restricted zone.”

Watchdog civic group Transparency International rates Afghanistan worst in its 176-country survey of corrupt countries, tied with North Korea and Somalia.

Mohammad Tariq Ismati, a deputy minister at the rural development ministry, said that though corruption is a problem, it’s not unexpected at this stage in Afghanistan’s development.

Those doing the miles see it differently. “The officials drink people’s blood,” said Amruddin, 35, a driver of 16 years. “We get it from all sides. No one cares about the ordinary Afghan people.”

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