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Road Charging Essay

I was last in Afghanistan in December 2001. That trip began what has become nearly a decade of war for many photojournalists, myself included.

So there’s a full-circle feeling to returning here. In Logar Province, the correspondent Jim Dao and I are riding on a hot July afternoon with a bomb disposal team. A call comes in that an Afghan police truck has been hit nearby. We arrive to find the truck completely destroyed — “catastrophic” is the term the soldiers use. If the five Afghan officers inside had any luck at all, it was to die quickly. An American lieutenant had worked closely with the Afghan police commander killed in the blast. The lieutenant seems on the verge of tears but barks orders and keeps his soldiers moving.

[A slide show by Mr. Kamber, “Confronting Deadlier I.E.D.’s in Afghanistan,” records this attack and its aftermath.]

In Iraq, I saw the same conditions — local security forces driving heavily-mined roads in unarmored pickups and obsolete, aluminum-floored Humvees. Essentially a suicide mission. We wait for the bomb disposal specialist to clear the site. By then it’s night. I try to shoot in the nearly pitch blackness. Long exposures by flashlight. As I work, I think about the five officers’ families going about their lives in far-off villages, unaware of the devastation this war has just placed upon them. Is there a Taliban fighter somewhere, satisfied with his day’s work?

The next day, a call comes that another bomb has exploded. The soldiers tell me, “We can’t take you on this one and we have to escort you out of the compound.” Were U.S. soldiers killed? Are Special Ops involved? We’ll never know.

Nine Afghan soldiers and one U.S. soldier have been killed nearby in the past week — all by roadside bombs. The country is enormous, the size of Texas, with thousands of miles of unpaved roads — good cover for roadside bombs. The U.S. soldiers say the Taliban get better every week — bigger charges, better triggers.

A few hours on these roads laced with bombs leaves me anxious and exhausted. One of the lead sergeants from the bomb squad tells me he volunteered to come over here — was wounded a couple times in Iraq, went home, got his girlfriend pregnant and needed the combat pay. He goes on each mission cheerfully, bravely.

In Iraq, there were religious, tribal and regional leaders with millions of followers; people who held sway, people with whom the U.S. could negotiate. Afghanistan is harder, the commanders say. They’re dealing with angry poppy growers in one place, foreign jihadis in another, disgruntled local warlords in a valley. We’ve been here eight years already. People forget that Vietnam lasted over a decade.

I lie awake at night in an army tent full of empty mattresses, their plastic wrapping shining in the green fluorescent light. Outside, the sound of choppers thwacking the air, the same sound we fell asleep to for years in Baghdad.

I first drove into Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass eight years ago, a day after the Taliban fell. I saved a news story from that time. It reads, “The convoy was nearing Babali Uba, about halfway between Jalalabad and Kabul, when armed men approached three cars that were ahead of the rest of the convoy.”

The story goes on to say that one car sped away. I was in that car. The two other cars were stopped. Four journalists were beaten and shot to death by gunmen, probably Taliban. They were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari of Reuters, Julio Fuentes of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

We should have been more cautious that day, should have had guards, should have stayed together. But we were rushing to get to Kabul and we raced past each other in the clouds of dust, the convoy fragmenting into pieces.

A week later, Jim and I are in the town of Baraki Barak with another squad, this one doing night raids, searching for insurgents who are planting roadside bombs. We walk through farmers’ fields in the pitch-black night, cursing softly as we trip and fall in the streams and mud. An audio recorder is passed back and forth between us as we try to pick up the sounds of the raid.

[A multimedia report, “Scenes From a Raid,” was photographed by Mr. Kamber and narrated by Mr. Dao.]

With help from a squad of Afghan troops, the Americans pound on doors and take the men away to be detained. The men sit huddled and freezing for long hours in their nightclothes, some of them barefoot, before being led off to interrogation.

The Americans go through the houses room by room, rifling through closets and bureaus and peering under beds. They find little, but will go to another village the next night and keep looking. I have hundreds of photos just like this from Iraq, of U.S. soldiers — mostly small-town Southern boys half a world away from their own homes — poking through people’s kitchen cabinets in the middle of the night. That’s how the war is fought, closet by closet, car by car at checkpoints. There are no easy victories.

Michael Kamber‘s earlier post, “On Assignment: Hard Lessons in Somalia,” discussed the strategies of covering the dangerously volatile situation there.

Advantages of Electronic Road Pricing in the UK

1. Raises Revenue for the Government. If the governments gets more tax revenue it can mean either:

  • a. other taxes can fall,
  • b. the government can spend more on public transport
  • c. or the budget deficit can reduce.

Nobody likes new taxes, but whether money is collected from new or old taxes makes no difference to the disposable income of the tax payer.

2. Increase social efficiency. In a free market the consumption of cars are overconsumed. When driving people ignore the negative externalities of congestion and pollution. The social cost is much greater than the private cost. Therefore it makes sense for the government to charge a much higher price of driving in congested areas.

3. Congestion is Inefficient Congestion costs the UK economy over £20 billion a year in lost output and wasted time. This should be tackled.

4. Reduce pollution and global warming. Pollution from cars is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. Road charging should encourage people to look for other forms of transport which don’t pollute as much.

5. Save Journey Time - If you earn £15 an hour, why would you not like the idea of paying £7 to get home an hour earlier? Who enjoys sitting in a traffic jam?

Arguments against Road Pricing that are no good.

1. It is an intrusion on liberty. To drive you need countless documents. When you use electricity the electric companies measure exactly how much electricity you use. When you make a telephone call the telecom company know exactly whom you ring and charge accordingly. Why should driving be any different.

2. Govt is just using it to raise money. Is that not a purpose of income tax, VAT and every other type of tax? Raising money from a new tax enables other taxes to be lowered or spending to be increased.

3. Economic output is more important than Global warming. We shouldn’t worry about the future, the most important thing is keeping taxes low for the current motorist. Read the Stern Report.

4. Increases Inequality. This is true to an extent. A road pricing charge is a higher % of tax for those on low incomes. But so is the cost of buying a car and petrol. If concern about equality of distribution is an issue the govt can alter other taxes and benefits. A tax which increases efficiency need not be stopped on equality grounds. It is always possible to compensate the effects to others.

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