Today one of the most insightful sources of reporting from Afghanistan comes from Anand Gopal, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor. I had the pleasure of meeting Anand on my visit to Kabul last fall. Over the course of a few dinners, he shared his observations about the country he’s called home for almost two years.
Particularly fascinating were his stories about what it’s like to live and work there, including the daily business of reporting. Especially his trips to provinces in Afghanistan where most Western journalists no longer can access.
Anand was gracious enough to write what I’ll call an “exclusive email dispatch” for The Hastings Report. Click to read his harrowing stories of travel to the places where Taliban remain king, bandits rule the roads, and American soldiers pay tribute to warlords who want them dead.
We had been driving along the convoluted stretch of highway that cuts through the district of Sarobi, about 40 miles from Kabul city, when the policemen waved us down. My Afghan colleague (let’s call him Nabi) and I were on our way to cover a story in a remote part of Laghman province, and we were traveling in our vehicle of choice: a grimy, dented Corolla.
“Can you give us a lift? There hasn’t been a taxi for hours,” one policeman asked us.
“Jump in,” Nabi said, motioning towards the backseat. The policemen paid me no attention—garbed in a salwar kameez, the traditional Afghan tunic, and sporting a large enough beard to make any Pashtun tribesman envious, I am able to pass for an Afghan in most parts of the country.
“So, how’s security in these parts?” Nabi asked, trying to strike up a conversation.
“Security?” he replied, almost spitting the word. “There’s no security here. This country is hopeless. Criminals and bandits rule this country.”
“This all because the Taliban were defeated,” said the other cop. “Mullah Omar was the greatest leader this country ever had.”
“That’s right,” said the first officer. “ We’ll never see another leader like him. If God is kind, He’ll help the Taliban come back to power.”
With the growing insurgent presence, more and more of the country is unsafe for foreign journalists. Typically, journos are confined to Kabul, the northern half of the country, and a couple of other major cities like Jalalabad. The rest of the country—where the fighting is—is generally only seen through the grilled-windows of an up-armored US army humvee. The result is that most of the world never gets to learn about the real Afghanistan—where police sympathize with the Taliban, where the government works out deals with insurgents, and where the West is losing the hearts and minds of more and more of the Pashtun lands.
In my time here I’ve tried to make it a point to travel throughout the country unembedded as much as possible. I have some natural advantages—because of my appearance I can pass for Afghan. But I’ve also learned the language and have tried to learn as much about the culture as possible. In the process, a whole new world unveiled itself.
It was a cold, waterlogged morning when I went to pay a visit to the governor of Wardak, a restive province just south of Kabul. The governor lectured me on the massive strides the province was taking since he took the reigns—violence was down, he said, and the roads were now safe. “A foreigner can travel anywhere he wants nowadays,” he told me, with a beaming smile. “Even I go and visit all of the districts. The people are much safer now—ask anyone.” With this he called in a couple of tribal elders who were waiting to meet him. He asked them, “what do you think about security nowadays?”
The wrinkled greybeards looked at the governor, and then told me, “things are good now. We’re much safer.”
After our meeting, we grabbed a shared taxi—dilapidated station wagons that carry five or more passengers, the typical means of transportation for Afghans. After striking up a conversation, we casually asked our fellow passengers about the governor’s claims. “He is crazy!” one man said, laughing. “The security situation has gotten much worse.” The others nod in agreement. “Once a foreigner tried to get into our taxi from Kabul. We wouldn’t let him in… there are Taliban spotters all along the road. Some of our relatives are even in the Taliban.”
Kandahar Airfield is a sprawling, teeming megalith of a military base, built with millions of dollars and staffed by thousands of hands. But someone neglected the civilian terminal, a spartan building on base grounds that services civilian flights. When we landed there one day in early May, we walked through the building’s deserted hallways, past a dried fountain and into a vacant, dusty lot. It was dusk and there were no taxis in sight, so made a typical Afghan move—we hitched a ride.
As we drove along the highway from the airport to Kandahar city, the men in the car were speaking about how the Taliban had made life difficult in a neighborhood where one of them was from. “They won’t leave us alone,” one man said. “They keep asking us to fight.” Just as he finished, an American convoy passed by, forcing our car to pull to the roadside. The man, eyeing the vehicles as they grew smaller in the rear view mirror, said “Let’s hope they hit a roadside bomb.”
The others nodded and one said, “Inshallah,”—God willing.
One morning friend and I headed out on a motorcycle to the villages north of Kabul. I was looking into a story about water supplies and the villagers directed us to a local warlord who controlled the area. He welcomed us in and served us tea, while apologizing because he had an impending meeting. Soon enough, a pair of American soldiers walked in and warmly greeted the warlord. “Thank you for coming,” he said, his voice booming. “You know that I am always a friend of the Americans.” He then proceeded to present a laundry list of needs for his village: “We need more school supplies, and our clinic is in a very bad condition.” The Americans listened patiently and replied, “We’ll be glad to help however we can. We’ll be back in a few days.”
After the Americans left, the warlord turned to me—assuming that I was Afghan—and said, “Those Christians are here to rob our country. We work with them, but they bomb our villages and raid our houses. One day, enough will be enough.”
“You know, us Afghans,” he continued, “are pretty good at kicking out foreigners.”