KHOSH GOMBAT, Afghanistan In the cabins of their "jingle" trucks flamboyant with tinsel baubles and painted tiger patterns as they move NATO's war supplies, Habibullah thinks he and other drivers are becoming a forgotten front in an Afghan war growing more vicious.
From a dusty truck park midway between Kabul and the Pakistan border, and under the constant thump of helicopters from Jalalabad airbase over the road, Habibullah moves food and military materiel across the Taliban's eastern heartland, from Nuristan to the former al Qaeda cave stronghold of Tora Bora.
"We worry about our fate when NATO leaves, because the Taliban also call us the infidels. For them, we are not just the enemy, but also traitors," said the soft spoken 23-year-old, who contributes seven trucks to a cooperative with five owners.
It is a thankless and increasingly deadly job, and one so mired in graft that the drivers see a fraction of the cash paid by U.S. military paymasters, with the rest skimmed by middlemen or even going into the hands of insurgents for "protection".
Only this week, three of Habibullah's trucks were attacked and burned by Taliban amid the rugged mountains of Nuristan, a virtual no-go zone for NATO soldiers after heavy past losses and now garrisoned by a handful of Afghan troops and police.
A truck belonging to another company was torched and the driver shot dead across the border in Pakistan, while 22 fuel tankers were blown up in the north by insurgents there as they moved fuel and equipment.
"One of our drivers was killed. We brought his body back to Jalalabad," Habibullah said. "His wife came and grabbed me by my collar, tearing my shirt and shouting 'you killed my husband'. I had to give her some money. The Americans don't help with that."
Another driver, Lalajan, sits on a crimson carpet in a container filled with the rattle of an ageing fan against the oppressive heat and says Taliban raids are mounting this summer, as foreign combat troops look to leave the country by 2014.
The NATO-led coalition this week acknowledged that insurgent attacks had risen 11 percent in the past three months compared to last year, with a spokesman blaming a severe winter and crop failures driving poor farmers into paid Taliban ranks.
"We have between us lost 15 trucks this year so far. We had one truck break down and we sent others to help. Then out of the blue the Taliban appeared," said Lalajan, his heavily bearded face furrowing as he sits cross legged with his 4-year-old son crawling over his lap.
"I asked them, I will give you money not to attack my trucks, but they said my money was haram (forbidden). The leader burned them," he said.
No less disruptive are the frequent border closures on the Pakistan side, including a seven-month shutdown enforced on NATO traffic last November after 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed in a U.S. airstrike.
The main Torkham border crossing only reopened in July, but Lalajan said there was still an immense backlog and some days only a few trucks could pass a border gateway which last year averaged around 160 each day.
POCKETING THE DIFFERENCE
Adding to security fragility, Lalajan said, was that Afghan drivers working from distribution hubs in Afghanistan like Bagram airbase north of Kabul could not obtain insurance, as drivers coming from Pakistan were able to.
Local drivers, except for those working for the largest transport companies, were also forced to rely on brokers who sold on contracts to smaller firms and pocketed the difference, often as much as half the job's entire worth.
For the majority of contracts paid by the military, worth around $8,000 on average, middlemen pocketed $4,000 for doing nothing other than having good connections.
Drivers then received around $300 per month in salary, but pocketed $1,000 extra in danger money for each 10- to 15-day delivery to military bases in the riskiest areas.
"The middlemen often hold our money for sometimes months, investing it in other things. Sometimes when we go to claim, the company has disappeared and we get nothing. The Americans don't care about that," Lalajan said.
Laghman province, which is home to the truckers, is one of Afghanistan's poorest, with 67 percent of people living in poverty and 78 percent underemployment, while seven in 10 people do not get adequate food each day, according to World Bank data.
Asked which road he feared most, 40-year-old driver Mohammad Qayum said the valley route to the most far-flung U.S. base in the northeast, Forward Operating Base Bostick near the Pakistan border in north Kunar, was the most dangerous.
Bostick, in a natural mountain amphitheatre visited by Reuters in June, is a frequent target for Taliban rockets aimed down at the first battalion of the U.S. 12th Infantry Regiment.
"Last year, two of my trucks were attacked going to Kunar. My nephew was inside and was burned to death," said Lalajan, nodding agreement with his friend.
Smaller cooperatives like his with 70 trucks say margins are so tight they cannot make the security payments to protect convoys and which critics say often end up in the hands of the Taliban, helping fund the insurgent war effort.
"For bigger companies that get first-hand contracts, for them it's possible. They can have 60 trucks in a convoy and can pay some money to avoid attack," he said. "But for us there are lots of Taliban groups. Which one would we pay? The attacks have been mounting."
Habibullah said the only thing keeping drivers in jobs vital to the NATO war effort currently were danger bonus payments, but even they were losing their lure as the Taliban intensified their fight and foreign troops wound back their presence.
"We don't have any faith that the government will reach any deal with the Taliban. If they reach a deal, these attacks on us will still continue, because in the eyes of the Taliban we are kaffirs (infidels)," he said.
"We think for drivers like us, as has happened with some translators, foreign borders should be opened to us. We should be allowed to leave Afghanistan."
(Additional reporting by Rafiq Sherzad in JALALABAD and Katharine Houreld in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Nick Macfie)