Travelling West: Ghazni, Herat, Ghor, Chaghcharan, Jam Minaret, Badghis, Qala-i-Naw

The security situation in the western provinces of Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly over the last year. The first five years after the allied invasion were a time of peace and hope for the people in the west. The city of Herat is out west and Herat has 24/7 electricity from nearby Iran, functioning modern infra-structure, and showed much promise early on. But bad news started filtering out in late 2006. Stories about businessmen unable to operate or turn a profit due to the graft, corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government appeared in the press. Now Taliban fighters are active in Herat, Ghor and Badghis provinces and the brief flame of hope that Herat once represented is dying slowly but surely. Active Taliban  units attract the attention of ISAF, which means fighting, fighting means the use of tactical air support by ISAF and every time tactical air hits a compound containing bad guys the other people in the compound are hit too.

The press and the Taliban make a big deal about this collateral damage repeating over and over that our aircraft are hitting houses full of innocent women and children. It is impossible for me or any other person not on the scene to determine if these claims have merit. But I do know how the ISAF targeting system works and I also know the safe guards in place to prevent such incidents which leads me to doubt the veracity of most (not all) of these stories. Our information warriors should be using the Taliban’s propensity for going  to ground inside compounds full of women and children to our advantage but don’t.

We had a mission out west back in December of 2006 to conduct a wheat assessment survey. It was rumored that famine was about to strike in the remote villages out there and someone needed to go out and determine how much wheat was available and at what price. Readers who are familiar with the military effort here are probably thinking “wait, that is what the PRT’s are supposed to be doing”, which is true. But that would require extended missions outside the wire and that is something PRT’s do not seem to do, so we were contracted to do it for them. Long haul remote trips like that are our specialty so the Afghan American specialist assigned to this task contracted us to take him. I was gone two weeks, yet at times felt I had traveled back in time 200 years. Along the way we came across one of the most unbelievable sites in Afghanistan: the minaret of Jam.

The Minaret of Jam — I thought I was the first Westerner to see this unbelievable sight!

We had serious time and budget constraints which forced us to drive around the ring road to Herat where the assessment was to begin. That could not be safely done today and it was dangerous two years ago too but not so much during the winter months. The picture below illustrates one of the reasons why being molested by the Taliban while traveling in the winter is rare.

Snow covered Ring Road – we are in the hills just north of Ghazni

I have always believed that throwing US contractors out onto the ring road with snow plows, heavy rescue trucks, and ambulances which can call in medical evacuation helicopters would have made all the difference in the world. The Afghans living along that route would have immediately understood the intent behind such a program and ensured the security of its participants. I can just imagine the old Rescue One Squad truck like the one I rode years ago as a Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad volunteer screaming down the roads with a half US / half Afghan crew. Clearing wrecks, administering advanced life support, helping those trapped in flooded or snow bound roads. You could have started something like that in 2004 but not now.

There are no snow plows in Afghanistan (except on the Salang Pass and they were left behind by the Soviets) so a traffic jam like this can last for several days. Working with my usual team of Tajiks we weaved through this mess in about 90 minutes by cajoling people to move a little here and a little there, and at times driving through the snow on the shoulder. Afghans will always cooperate and help an international who smiles at them, is polite, and knows a few words of Dari or Pashto. Being a good Marine the first thing I learned were the swear words which helped get us clear that day. Swearing about the weather and road and lack of snow plows allowed me to fit right in.

More waiting in traffic on the way to Ghazni

We arrived in Herat the next day and hit one of the better restaurants in town for an early afternoon meal. The weather was cold that day so of course we ate outside because my team knew I would be cold and wanted to see if I bitched or moaned about it. Silly buggers did they think I spent 20 years in the Marines for nothing? I know how to play this game and acted as if eating out in 40 degree cold was exactly what I wanted to do. This made Little Daud (pronounced Dow ood which is Dari for David and a common name) glum. He had bet Big Daud and Medium Daud (there are three in my crew) that I would make them move inside and now owed a little coin to his cousins. Little Daud underestimated my Dari comprehension thus allowing me the pleasure of taking the piss out of him while I sat freezing and eating a great lunch.

Cold eating outdoors at a restaurant in Herat

 

The city of Herat – beautiful, modern, and currently failing

The Marco Polo Inn in Herat has a wing for us foreigners with heaters in the halls and rooms, sit down toilets, and TV’s playing live CNN and the BBC news casts. I would have to wait for a trip to Peshawar of all places to be able to watch Fox News but man did I like the sit down toilet and heat. Afghan buildings are not heated and this was the last I was to see of a warm room and biased crappy western news for the next 10 days so I sat on the toilet watching TV just because I could.

Downtown Herat

We headed into Ghor Province the next day planning to take two days to reach Chaghcharan the provincial capital. Like most of the country the roads into Ghor are unpaved and often hard to follow. At times they peter out into dry stream beds or divide up into three different directions. A map and compass are critical if you are going to stay on track. When in the countryside you have two choices to overnight; camp out in the mud or stay on the floor of a local tea house. We choose the tea house route.

The main road through Ghor Province

 

Afghan Tea House in Ghor Province
Dining in Afghan style – after folding up the sleeping mats it is time for chow. This tea house is 10 miles south of the Jam Minaret

Life in the villages of this rural area has remained unchanged for many many years. There are a few modern conveniences, the people have access to motor transport, some have generators, and most have radios. The irrigation systems are primitive but works plus this is one area where the US AID contractors have had great success with their field veterinary units. These outposts, run by Afghans, provide vaccinations and medicine for local livestock which are the major source of food and income. But for all intents and purposes life in these villages has not changed for generations.

Wooden Irrigation controls

 

Remote mountain village

On our second day of travel my crew and Karim awoke with great excitement and anticipation. They would not tell me why, saying that I would not believe what we were going to see in a few hours. They were right. As we moved down a valley towards the Hari Rud River up popped the minaret of Jam. The tallest complete and authentic ancient minaret in the world, it is believed to have been built by the once great Ghorid Empire, who in the late 12th century ruled over what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Rumors about of this magnificent tower did not reach the west until 1944. They were not confirmed until a French archaeologist located it in 1957. For 700 years, since Genghis Khan had rampaged through the valley destroying the Ghorids it had been forgotten to history.

The Jamm Minaret suddenly appears as you drive down towards the river – the sight is stunning and this picture does not do it justice
Detail work from from over 700 years ago

 

Remnants of the Turquoise Mountain Complex behind the Jam

None of my Afghan colleagues had ever seen the Jam and a few had doubted its existence. There was one ANP policeman guarding the site and he told us no westerner had ever been here before as far as he knew. I was excited soon convincing myself I was the first westerner to see the Jam in 40 years. After this trip I flew home for Christmas and picked up a book in the Dubai airport by a Brit named Rory Stewart. Turns out he had walked the exact route I was driving with just a dog, a back pack and walking stick. His book had an entire chapter on the Jam Minaret and the surrounding Turquoise Mountain complex. I thought I was ballsy being there with just 6 other guys. Took a little wind out of my sail that book did. Rory lives in Kabul now and is restoring an old bazaar with his Turquoise Mountain foundation and I hope to meet him some day. Walking from Herat to Kabul with nothing but a dog and a big stick in the middle of winter that is madness. But the kind of madness I can respect.

Group photo – the boys seemed excited to be here but their enthusiasm was tempered by the raging river behind us that we had to cross.

Crossing the Hari Rud River in the middle of the day was drama – the river was swollen and the ford point so deep that when we came back we hit this spot at 0200 knowing the water level would be much lower. In Chaghcharan we stayed at the house of a local judge who was related to Karim. We reported into the PRT which was manned by troops from Lithuania so that Karim could chat with the US AID representative. I don’t know how much the Lithuanians get out and about, but man did they have a gigantic, very cool looking sauna set up in their camp. After conducting our census and talking with the Provincial Governor we headed back out the next night with the aim of crossing to Hari Rud before dawn.

This is why I was so happy to see a sit down toilet in Herat. At least these did not smell given the sub zero temperatures
Downtown Chaghcharan

On the way out of Ghor one of our vehicles had a front strut weld break. Big Daud spotted a hand cranked welding machine on the side of the road in one of the villages so we stopped and asked for the owner to come help us fix the truck. That took about 10 minutes and cost all of two dollars. The weld has worked to this day Afghans may not have been afforded good educations but they are smart people.

On the road fix
Big Daud and the broken vehicle

The next leg of trip was into Badghis Province which would require us to go way up above the snow line. As you transit the lowlands you’ll see most of the houses are made of thick mud walls with domed roofs. Domed roofs are common in the lower elevations of the west and north because there is not enough timber to build flat roofs. The domes also are an efficient system in areas where there is a large variation in the daytime and nighttime temperatures. They vent the warm air at night and allow cool air in making it comfortable for the families below.

Domed style housing found in the west and north of Afghanistan

As we moved up into the Badghis Pass we hit a fair sized snow storm which required us to get the tire chains fitted.

Putting on the chains at Badghis Pass

Once in the pass we ran into a typical scene traffic jammed up due to heavy snow and trucks with bald tires and no chains. Once again the crew got out and started moving traffic out of our way.

Main road into Badghis

The capitol of Badghis Province is Qala-i-Naw and Spain has the PRT there. We stayed at the local RRD (rural rehabilitation department) office although Karim and I could probably get onto the PRT’s overnight our escorts could not and leaving them to fend for themselves is uncool. Tajiks from the Panjshir valley are not always welcomed in these parts despite the fact that the population is majority Tajik so we stick together, at all times and in all places.

Downtown Qala-i-Naw

Qala-i-Naw reminded me of an old western town like Deadwood. Mud, mud and more mud. We took a census of the wheat lot and moved out because heavy weather was coming in and we didn’t want to be stuck there.

Typical wheat lot; we found that supplies were plentiful and the prices not inflated.

The drive out was easy as we beat the storm here is a great shot of medium Daud up on the pass.

Medium Daud in the mountains

We could not make a trip like that today even in the snows of winter. I saw a news article about a BBC film crew that went to the Jam Minaret last year to film a special. They took 60 ANP policemen with them. That is unquestionably overkill, in the remote west the chances of running into AOG bands numbering more than a dozen are around zero. It probably cost the BBC a fortune too but who cares? They’re spending tax payers’ money and people do not seem to care what something costs when they are spending tax payers’ cash.

Karim getting a photo for the folks back home

There is little doubt that the region is much more dangerous then it was just two years ago, ten times more dangerous then it was four years ago and twenty times more dangerous then it was six years ago. See the trend line?

6 Replies to “Travelling West: Ghazni, Herat, Ghor, Chaghcharan, Jam Minaret, Badghis, Qala-i-Naw”

  1. So no one in the West heard of this centuries-old tower until 1944 and didn’t see it until 1957? That’s insane. I must see it. Although I will take more than a stick and a dog.

  2. I always found it mind-boggling how the PRT’s didn’t like to go out much. There is no substitute for getting outside the wire if you’re going to get something done. It’s one of our biggest mistakes in Afghanistan; staying inside the FOB’s.

    Great pictures again!

  3. It is unreal, I respect your point of view … but once googled it tells a different story …

    “For centuries, the Minaret was forgotten by the outside world until rediscovered in 1886 by Sir Thomas Holdich, who was working for the Afghan Boundary Commission. It did not come to world attention, however, until 1957 through the work of the French archaeologists André Maricq and Wiet. Herberg conducted limited surveys around the site in the 1970s, before the Soviet invasion of 1979 once again cut off outside access.

    The archaeological site of Jam was successfully nominated as Afghanistan’s first World Heritage site in 2002. It was also inscribed in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in Danger, due to the precarious state of preservation of the minaret, and results of looting at the site.”

  4. I served my last tour in the West, Gulistan to be exact while a member of a ETT. We were out there doing it alone, no one understands the Farah, Gulistan, Delarum situations and how bad its become! Good jobs guys! Mike T

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