| ||As Trade Is Rerouted, a Border Town Booms|
The Wall Street Journal
By Yaroslav Trofimov
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SHER KHAN BANDAR, - Nur Agha, a truck driver from Tajikistan with a jaw full of gold teeth, went from store to store clad in his latest acquisitions: an Afghan checkered scarf, a safari jacket, and a baseball cap.
"There used to be nothing here, nothing at all," he said, pointing to rows of well-stocked shops and teahouses stretching through this dusty Afghan border town. "And now, there's everything."
The main crossing point between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Sher Khan Bandar—a few years ago just a village of fly-infested mud houses—is booming these days.
The change started in late 2007 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a modern 2,200-foot(670-meter) bridge across the Pyanj River, linking the two countries. The Corps built a border and customs complex the following year.
The former backwater soon turned into a commercial hub as the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan began shifting its overland supply routes from Pakistan to a northern network that runs through Central Asia.
Sher Khan Bandar's real stroke of luck, however, came in November, when Pakistan shut its border to coalition supplies in response to the accidental killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. airstrikes. Since then, the Northern Distribution Network has become the coalition's only land route into Afghanistan.
Talks between the U.S. and Pakistan on reopening the southern supply route broke off on Monday. It is uncertain when they will resume.
"The Pakistani move has had a great impact on us," says the Sher Khan Bandar crossing's commander, Afghan Border Police Col. Najibullah Raghestani. "There is more business, more traders, and as a result, more money being spent here."
It isn't clear how long the boom will last, with most North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces due to leave in 2014. But for now, as many 400 trucks come into town every day, almost double the figure from two years ago, Col. Raghestani says. This figure includes an average of 50 vehicles a day carrying food and other supplies for NATO forces, according to customs statistics.
Tanker trucks don't usually cross the bridge: Fuel is fed across the border through a special pipeline, into a storage facility on the Afghan side where it is picked up by separate Afghan convoys.
It isn't just NATO traffic, which is exempt from Afghan customs payments, that is rising. Customs revenue from civilian cross-border trade soared to $24 million in the Afghan solar year that ended in March, from $15 million the year before, Afghan officials say.
"The entire life of the people has been changed," says Mohammed Anwar Jekdalek, governor of Kunduz province, where Sher Khan Bandar is located. "The Pakistani road closure has created opportunities and jobs."
Truck drivers—most of them from Tajikistan, with others from Kyrgyzstan and further afield—usually spend three to four days in Sher Khan Bandar as they clear border formalities and pick up their return cargo—these days, Pakistani cement, potatoes and vegetables. And, while here, they spend.
In Sher Khan Bandar's shopping strip, where many stores and snack bars are packed into dressed-up shipping containers, signs abound in the Cyrillic script used in Tajikistan. There is a towering new mosque, a steam bath that doubles as a hair salon, and DVD shops selling the latest Indian soap operas and counterfeit Hollywood blockbusters.
"Everyone here is expanding," says Hajji Ghafour, a 45-year-old merchant whose container-shop is brimming with Pakistani-made leather shoes, which are popular with Central Asian travelers. He says he now sells $300 of goods a day, from $20 last year.
Across the street, 28-year-old Sharifullah, who moved to Sher Khan Bandar from a nearby village, was making ice-cream the old-fashioned way, his muscles bulging as he swirled thick cream inside a bucket packed with ice. "It's getting better every day," he grinned, looking at the long line of trucks that snaked its way from the border.
Some of the truck drivers plying this route, such as 55-year-old Tilo Toshev of Tajikistan, have been ferrying supplies through Sher Khan Bandar since the Soviet war in the 1980s. Back then, trucks had to cross the river on a ferry, and Sher Khan Bandar was a river port whenever the Pyanj was deep and calm enough for navigation.
This province used to be a Taliban stronghold. In 2009, insurgents captured two tanker trucks carrying fuel for coalition forces from Tajikistan about an hour's drive south of here, killing the drivers. A subsequent U.S. airstrike on the tankers killed some 90 villagers.
Kunduz, however, has become more secure in the past year, in part thanks to the establishment of pro-government militias.
Central Asian drivers plying this route say that, for them, fear is a luxury. "Are we afraid? If you're hungry, you can't afford to be afraid," quipped Mr. Toshev.
His co-driver, Abdulhaleq Sadykov, added that he felt a welcome guest of the Afghans. "No one would harm us here, no one would pick on us," he said hopefully, as he relaxed in a carpet shop. "We are like brothers."
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com