Originally written February 18, 2008
Sorry I have not written in a while. I have been traveling almost non-stop and this is my first chance to sit and write. This is a long one.
On 11 Feb, we took our first trip to Kabul. The first thing we did was assemble for our mission briefing before we left. It was light hearted but professional as we were briefed on the threat situation. Mainly safe with the greatest threat from an accident but the most dangerous being a car bomb. We discussed the actions if something were to happen and then we got ready to go.
It got very real, when we locked and loaded our weapons and started to roll out the gate. The first thing I noticed was that a short distance away we passed the ruined buildings from the Soviet invasion of 1979. The ruins were fenced off and there were mine signs prominently displayed. The Soviets mined lots of places here and never bothered to take them and, unlike our mines, they do not self-detonate after a time. So, there remains a huge demining effort here that will last for a long time.
The road we took was generally OK but there were huge pot-holes that caused us to slow way down and even cross to the other side in order to keep driving. This was normal so we saw everyone doing the same and you just had to be careful not to get into a head-on with anyone as we drove.
The second thing that I noticed was that there appeared to be walled compounds dotting the landscape. It turns out that whenever the Afghans buy property, the first thing is they build a wall to mark their property. They don’t build anything in it until they have enough money so some of these walled areas remain unoccupied for generations. Some appeared very old and most did not have anything in them. Sometimes there was a small mud dwelling but mostly empty.
We drove through the Shamale Valley that once was fertile and even a vacation spot. I could see it because of the very high mountains that surrounded the valley – it reminded me of the Alps in Germany. Sadly three decades of war have destroyed the valley. The Soviets destroyed the irrigation system, mined the area, and forced the Afghan people to go on the run. Now, it appears that very little grow, just bits of grass sticking out through the snow. An Afghan saying is that: Afghanistan is where God comes to cry. And I can see why they say that.
In the valley, the government has started a Pashtu resettlement village. It seems like a strange place to have a resettlement village because there is nothing around it. It was explained to me that this location was good because it was far enough away from the Dari population near Bagram to prevent any tribal fighting that still takes place. There is growing Afghan feelings of nationalism but there is still a strong sense of tribalism that exists as well as the concept of honorable revenge for slights and insults.
Along the road we also passed little piles of rocks with flags stuck into them. These are the martyr graves. It is unclear from which war. It could be the Soviet invasion, the Northern Alliance fight, or something else. The more prominent the martyr the fancier and the better care the grave was maintained. The common colors are: Green for faith or Islam, Red for sacrifice, White for purity, and Black for martyrdom.
Despite the vast expanses, the Afghans are not hesitant to walk or to work. They will walk for miles in freezing weather to try to get jobs. Even working for the coalition or Americans, despite the ongoing threats of death by the insurgents for working with the “infidels.” Like many, they are willing to risk their lives everyday in order to try to make enough to provide for their families. The love for their families drives them – it is inspiring. Almost everyone seems to be in horrible poverty. Many of the children are lucky to be in poor sandals while many are bare footed in the snow. Yet, they still play and give us a smile and a wave as we drive by.
Kabul is a city of contrast. I was told that it has a capacity for 1.4 million but over 4.3 million live there. Lured by the chance for jobs, many of the villagers come to the city. But there are not enough jobs. So you see this wide range from people riding in Toyota trucks and land cruisers (Toyota is by far the most common car here), right next to people pulling handcarts or riding horses or donkeys. People searching in garbage to survive along with guys selling cell phone cards tied together like colored ribbon. Small billboards with western dressed women advertising drinks right next to women in full length blue burkhas (many of the Afghan women wear blue; some criticize them for it because they are not pious enough. But the blue is pretty.).
Then there are the traffic circles. It is a wild ride. People all rushing in to a single convergence point, trying to force their way in, cars, wagons, people, all coming in and just as we are about to crash – someone gives just a little and you get in. Little bumps happen all the time and it is so common that people don’t even stop.
And after our visit, we took the trip back. It seemed faster the way back. I don’t know why – it just always does. That’s when they pointed out the Mosque that a suicide bomber came out and blew himself up 10 minutes after the team passed it a while ago. No one got hurt – except for the bomber.
The second time we went to Kabul we went a different way. Very different this time. We passed a lot more villages. The roads were generally better and the people more prosperous. A lot more buildings and a lot more trade. Signs of an irrigation system and plowed fields. People selling tires, drinks, meat hanging on hooks. There was even guys with little wok-style skillets and propane stoves prepared to cook something up for you. Afghan fast food. They sell this unleavened bread that looks like naan that is pretty good as well as tangerines. And wood and trees. This time as we went through Kabul you could see sections that had specific commodities, here was where you went to buy wood and wood stuff, here was the produce section, here was the meat section (including live chickens).
It kind of all reminded me of the pictures I saw of Korea right after the war. The devastation mixed in with signs of recovery. Hope among despair. Smiles from a dirty face.
From Kabul, we took a C-130J flown by the Italians and we landed in Kandahar, then Farah, before we arrived in Herat. Taking the “local” was not fun with all these stops. The interesting thing was that it was cold everywhere but Farah. There when the ramp dropped down, we felt a blast of heat and it looked like a desert with the guys in short sleeves. Then we took off again and arrived in Herat – where it was cold again. Strange.
Herat is smaller than Kabul but the roads seemed better. There were also a lot more motor cycles and scooters as well as Tuk-tuks (like the ones in Thailand). While I was there, the weather also seemed better. All in all, I think I liked Herat better but I have become fonder of smaller towns as I have grown older.
When we were done, we got a direct flight from Herat to Kabul. No stops this time! Same C-130J with the same crew. What are the odds? Do the Italians only have one C-130? Hmmm.
So now I am back in Bagram. Reflecting on the experience thus far.
In a way, the two roads to Kabul really represent the future of Afghanistan. Neither road is easy.
The first road is the one if we leave the Afghans to their fate. Without our involvement, NATO will most certainly pull out and the Afghan people will be left to fend for themselves. After three decades of war, a population that is young and largely illiterate, desperately poor, and no real means to recover – we would be condemning many of them to a painful death. The Afghan people are tough and I am sure they are willing to walk this long road by themselves but how many will die along the way? How many will die because we, the nations with the means to help, turned our backs on their suffering and walked away. If Afghanistan is the place where God comes to cry, how will God judge us if we turn away?
The second road is the road of what can be. Afghan business, trading of goods, safety from insurgent violence, a means to feed themselves and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. The Afghan people are a proud people that want to fight for their own future. They fought the British, they fought the Soviets and they won. They do not want the US to be here forever but do want our help to get them back on their feet. And we can help them.
It is the best chance that the Afghani people have ever had. In the end, maybe we can all do a little bit to change Afghanistan from the land where God comes to cry to something else. Something better because we can. We are God’s hands in this world. If are his disciples and we love Him, then we should feed His sheep.