Saturday, September 20, 2008

Letter from Afghanistan

(c) Roger Leo

KABUL, Afghanistan – Once upon a time, visiting less-developed parts of the world seemed like time travel; the perspective of age now makes it seem more like peeling away the glossy outer layers of the 21st century that overlie a more basic existence. The most ancient aspects of life in Afghanistan are just as much a part of the modern world as New York, Boston or Central Massachusetts, hard as that may be for travelers from the West to believe.

Anyway, this was not to be a lecture on comparative culture, more a letter home to friends. So let's begin.

First, here's a travel tip: Never connect through Charles DeGaulle Airport outside Paris. It is a nightmare. Crowds, too-small facilities, lines, bus transfers from terminal to terminal. Who knew? The first leg of the chosen route from Princeton to Kabul went from Boston, through Paris, to Dubai aboard Air France. Air France served a barely edible pasta meal, then recovered with a very tasty chicken dinner; even so, it was a long flight. Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf, lived up to billing: wealthy, lively, energetic, exotic. Nightlife showed no signs of slowing down as the cab made its way to the airport at 4:30 a.m., and the flight to Kabul aboard Pamir Air, an obscure carrier that does a lively trade between Afghanistan and its neighbors.

Kabul airport was much as first seen in 1969. One difference: New stainless-steel barriers led travelers to glass booths in which Afghan immigration officials checked passports and visas, by computer.

A construction boom is under way in Kabul. New buildings are going up throughout the city. Some are three- and four-story office buildings, some are homes or apartments. This burst of activity follows on a prior wave that saw the creation of several dozen wedding halls – four-story cube-like structures encased in reflective glass.

Streets are potholed with craters tire-deep. They (the streets, not the potholes) are filled with cars, trucks, buses, donkeys, horse carts, bikes, handcarts, pedestrians, motorbikes and camels, and flocks of sheep and goats being driven to market. There is one traffic light in Kabul. Drivers weave through the streets, tooting for right-of-way, alert to everything around them.

Children fly kites everywhere.

The city is at 5,876 feet above sea level, and feels like it. Afghanistan has a population of about 32 million, 3.4 million of them in Kabul, which has grown by more than a million since the American invasion of October 2001.

The city is sprawling north over the Kotal Herhana pass that separates it physically from the Shomali Plain. This rolling region is called "the Garden of Afghanistan" for the rich farms that reach to the foot of surrounding high mountains. Grapes are ripening there now. It is August, hot and dry. A years-long drought is rolling through Afghanistan, moving from region to region. Dust obscures the view beyond a certain distance. In clearer months the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush are visible, peeking over nearer mountains.

A few factories belch black smoke into the air. Kuchis – nomadic people who move their flocks from the southwest in winter to northerly high pastures in the summer – have pitched tents at the edges of the Shomali Plain.

The road north from Kabul reflects the recent history of Afghanistan. That history includes 10 years of war following the Soviet invasion in 1979, another 12 years of war among the mujahedeen and Taliban, and seven years of war since the American invasion. It has been blown up and rebuilt, wholly or in part, many times. It passes between ruined mud-brick homes that were bombed by the Taliban. It veers around Bagram Air Base, built by the Soviets and now an American base. It is lined with isolated shops and farm stands selling seasonal produce. New gasoline stations have been built alongside it just outside Kabul. Farther north it passes through a series of village bazaars, different from Kabul in scale but not character.

The city has grown quiet each night of this visit, beginning a few hours after dark, which falls around 8 p.m. That has lasted until about 3 a.m., when dogs, roosters and mourning doves begin to bark, crow and call. Around 4 a.m. the muezzins at several nearby mosques begin the Muslim call to prayer. Sleep becomes difficult.

There are lots of little girls, so there must be Afghan women, but for the most part they are not evident beyond blue-shrouded figures moving quietly through the city streets.

Life seems peaceful in Kabul, but many say this is illusory. Thirty years of war have inured Afghans to fear. One professional Afghan who works in animal veterinary medicine said, "I died 100 times in the last 30 years. I have no life; what I do now is for my children and my family."

Half the country – the south and east – has fallen back under Taliban sway. Girls are again finding education difficult or impossible. Road bombs, ambushes and kidnappings make travel to many areas dangerous. One young Afghan man who works for a communications company, said, "Be very careful while traveling outside Kabul." He was kidnapped three weeks ago on a main road in Logar Province, east of Kabul. He was held until his company paid 500,000 Afghanis, or about $10,000.

Security was evident around the city for several days leading up to Aug. 18, Afghan Independence Day. The holiday celebrates the departure of the British in 1919. Afghan police and army patrols were set up at every major intersection and rotary in the city, and were stopping many cars for quick searches and document checks.

As night fell Aug. 18, Taliban forces launched two major attacks. One was in the Sarobi District 30 miles from Kabul, against a patrol of newly arrived French peacekeepers, part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force. Ten French and 27 Taliban were killed and more wounded. The only signs of that fighting in Kabul were explosions heard at 3 a.m. Aug. 19, likely from U.S. air strikes in support of the French. The other incident was an attack against Camp Salerno, a U.S. base in the Province of Khost, east of Kabul, by 15 Taliban suicide bombers supported by 30 others with automatic weapons. Ten of the suicide bombers were killed before they reached the perimeter of the base; five were killed at the wall. Three Americans and six Afghan National Army soldiers were wounded.

One British resident of Kabul who works as a security consultant described how suicide bombers are smuggled into the country from Pakistan: "The Taliban pays Hekmatyar (a renegade Afghan warlord) $250,000 apiece to get them in. He in turn pays each of the mafia-style gangs on the road from Pakistan to Kabul, and they pass the bomber along one to the next. The final stop is a pickpocket gang in Kabul. Those guys scope out a high-visibility target, and if it's safe, report in by cell phone. They disappear, the bomber comes in, and bang."

A development worker who has spent five years in Afghanistan detailed realities of life here. "In much of the country, there's no education, high illiteracy, no health care, no infrastructure, no roads, no electricity," he said. "These are tough people. I've worked and traveled in over 57 countries and this is the most fascinating country I've been in."

(This article was published in The Landmark Aug. 28, 2008.)


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