Lost in the Land of the Taliban
10 December 2007 | Esquire
The Taliban have been getting restless in Ghazni.
For the most part they’re content to operate as an invisible fist; a capo in the shadows able to affect his own morality on the city folk because he’s frightening and unpredictable. Accordingly, every once in awhile they do something scary in Ghazni to reassert their authority. This summer they hijacked a bus full of Korean missionaries and killed a couple of them; a month ago they tried to assassinate the mayor, and for the past week they’ve been robbing cars and burning trucks. Sixty people have been abducted in Ghazni since April, and by the end of the summer, the BBC was reporting that the Taliban “control the road and many of the villages by night and in places even by day.”
I’m going down that road into Ghazni with my friend Qais (pronounced, if anglified, as Kice), who has brought me along to meet, of all people, wool merchants. Along with a resurgent Taliban presence, Ghazni has some of the finest wool in the country. Wool gets made into carpets and carpets are a hopeful product for a country that has few legitimate exports, but Afghan carpets have to go back and forth to Pakistan to be cut, dyed, and washed, and when they’re finally exported they’re sent from Pakistan as Pakistani carpets. Aside from the general mistrust—if not outright hostility—Afghans harbor toward Pakistan, Afghanistan loses out on a rare economic opportunity. So a few years ago a big-time wool trader (if “big-time wool trader” isn’t oxymoronic) had the idea of building a wool-washing plant in Ghazni and nationalizing the carpet-making process. Qais has been sent by a USAID-funded initiative dedicated to ensuring “no carpet crosses that border with Pakistan,” to see about establishing a wool-traders association. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Qais has a sense of humor that preys on my characteristic American ignorance. When his father gave me a prayer rug as a gift, Qais told me I had better use it to pray, because if I “use it as a carpet or doormat, more sins will add up in a folder of your sins and on the day of resurrection you have to carry all those folders on your shoulders to cross the bridge, which is as thin as a hair.” I had been using it exactly as he warned against and Qais let me dwell on my impending fate for a week before letting on that he’d made it up. Having once been a journalist himself, he is quick to tell me when I’m selling out to the sensationalism foreign correspondents posted here exploit to get their bylines above the fold, and he’s recently taken to testing my integrity by feeding me irresistible conspiracy theories with the same straight face he wears when imparting his considerable wisdom. “This road was built by the Taliban because they wanted to bring poppy from Kandahar to Kabul and from there to other countries,” he says. “And when the Americans came, they kept building it because they wanted to keep the poppy trade.” “Oh yeah, Qais?” “Yeah, everybody knows.”
I can’t argue with him; it didn’t take me long to realize that he’s a lot smarter than I am. He speaks Urdu, Pashto, English, and Dari, all so fluently that when he woke from general anesthesia a few weeks ago after having his appendix removed, he groggily complained to his concerned father, brother, and I in each language, and continued cycling through tongues semiconsciously until the doctor told him to “shut up and stop shaming me in front of this American.”
As we drive through toward Ghazni city, where an assembly of wool-merchants awaits us, we pass a sedan accoutered with floral adornments and full of smiling passengers. “I really love my country. You see the wedding car? They don’t care about Taliban.” Qais is uniquely sanguine about Afghanistan and is the only Afghan I know who isn’t desperate to leave, although that may have something to do with the fact that he’s been able to. Either way, it strikes me as undue optimism that has compelled him to leave his Leggor at home after promising me he’d bring it. While he does an adequate job of convincing me that should we find ourselves looking down the business end of a Kalashnikov, a handgun in his back pocket would probably cause more problems than it could possibly solve, it’s still unsettling to venture unarmed down the stretch of road Qais calls the most dangerous in this part of Afghanistan.
We drive without incident for more than an hour, passing beneath arches that welcome us into each district, and advertise telecommunications outfits. “Keep talking with Afghan wireless,” one offers as we move further toward Ghazni city. When we pass into Salar, Qais turns back to me (I’ve been relegated to the backseat) and tells me it’s the worst stretch of road on the way to Ghazni city. He cites as evidence the freshly burnt trucks along the roadside and the assassination attempt here last month.
The driver concurs, and adds that this place has always been the most volatile. He was a policeman in Ghazni once upon a time, but he’d studied in Russia and sided with the Soviets during their occupation, so, he says, he was fired when the Americans came. He points to where the flashpoints were twenty-five years ago; the hillsides from which he and his comrades provided covering fire for Soviet tanks rolling by below; the scrub brush where the mujahideen hid with their American weapons to ambush Soviet vehicles.
He says “American weapons” with a palpable spite that is wholly inconsistent for this country; most people speak of American military technology with an awestruck reverence for the mythical power and surgical precision displayed when the Taliban was first driven out. Every Afghan has a story about a Taliban hideout they saw destroyed while an adjacent school or medical clinic remained untouched (though one must acknowledge that the bar for military precision was set just above sea-level by the indiscriminate shelling of Afghanistan’s civil war only five years before).
I’m enjoying the driver’s history lesson; superimposing today’s conflict here on the one two and a half decades ago, when we round a bend and see three men standing in the road with machine guns.
The weapons are fed by magazines taped to upside-down spares, so in the throes of a firefight, the whole thing can be released, flipped, and reloaded with no excess movement. The guns are all I can see through the window from my seat in the back of the car, where I suddenly feel fraudulent in my Afghan clothing and prayer cap. There is cool conversation in Dari or Pashto; Qais and the men exchanging words in the even tone applied by implicit adversaries when both bury emotion. Something is being worked out.
Then the men are lowering their heads to the rear window to look in; they open the door, and climb into the backseat with me.
The gunmen smell strongly of smoke and what I incorrectly identify as game; I infer that they’ve spent the night cooking lamb kebabs over open flame, though I will later learn that the smell is more likely blood. Qais is calm and appears unthreatened by the men, so I endeavor to follow his lead, though I find myself wondering if this is how being kidnapped begins, and how long I can delay disclosing inadvertently that I’m American. Salam, I say quietly.
The men have rested their machine guns butt-first on the floor, holding them loosely so that they jump each time the car hits a bump, and I notice myself staring conspicuously at the weapons, wondering what kind of jolt it would take to induce an accidental discharge. Riding next to a pair of bouncing Kalashnikovs pointing up and in my general direction, I try not to think about Pulp Fiction.
The day before, a twenty-year-old police officer named Haron was assigned a patrol around a village in Ghazni province. He had just been transferred from Shamali and was sent to the village to familiarize himself with the area. He went reluctantly; it was a dangerous assignment, and he had a new fiancée to think about. In this part of the world you don’t touch a woman until you take a bride, and Haron surely preferred his adolescent mind touring all the worldly discoveries of recent betrothal rather than consumed with the disheartening prescience he shared with his friends. But insolence is intolerable to the NATO-trained police force, and the young man had no choice but to go.
When he entered the village, the Taliban learned of his trespass. They knew there was only one route out, so they set a mine on the road. Haron finished his patrol and turned back to head home, the car’s driver-side wheel rolled over the mine, and the explosion cut him in half.
The police in Ghazni generally know better than to challenge the Taliban, so many of them operate just like the insurgency; they dress to blend in. They wear worn earth tones rather than uniforms, choosing discretion over outward signs of professionalism. Two weeks after our trip, four policemen were killed in a gun battle with Taliban fighters on the city’s outskirts. Publicly identifying oneself as police in a land controlled by the Taliban is waving red in front of a bull, so officers dress like mujahideen. Their weapons don’t compromise the disguise; there are enough guns here that carrying one doesn’t identify you as anything other than prudent.
This is all to say that when Haron’s police friends finished cleaning his blood from the road the next morning so that people wouldn’t be walking and driving over it; when they hiked up to the main road and flagged down the first vehicle that came by to take them to the hospital in Ghazni city so they could visit the explosion’s only survivor, they appeared to the car’s occupants—to me—like Taliban.
Every war correspondent at some point in their career embeds with defense forces; now, seeking the protection of anonymous civilian transport, they had embedded with us.
The meeting with the wool shavers was uneventful as far as I could tell, and the city of Ghazni like Kabul on a smaller scale. The Afghan National Army drive around looking antsy on the back of pickup trucks with quivers of RPG rounds within easy reach, but there’s not much of an official presence. Partly because the police don’t want to be seen; partly because there’s just not that many of them. Meanwhile, the Taliban’s numbers here have been growing because according to military officials, NATO operations in Helmand and Kandahar have pushed them North. The governor of Ghazni has publicly complained that he can’t fight the Taliban because he doesn’t have the manpower, he doesn’t have the money, he doesn’t “have enough ammunition, and police salaries are low, which leads to more corruption.” As a result, people here are not always what they seem. Driving through Maidan Shahr, Qais had pointed to men we passed on the side of the road, “just normal people during the day,” he had said, “but at night they put a gun on their shoulder and call themselves Taliban.”
Found in: Afghanistan