Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

The northern regions of Afghanistan are the safest areas in the country. A majority of the population in these provinces are Tajik or Hazara and were not known for supporting the Taliban. We routinely travel in the north without body armor or rifles and have, on occasion, left the side arms at home out of respect for the local leaders and populace. All my trips into the north have terminated in the fabled city of Mazar-i-Shariff where our main client JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has an office and several programs.

The trip north starts by crossing the Shamali Plain (Shamali means “windy” in Dari) which saw much fighting during the Soviet invasion in the 80’s. As a point of interest, the main road from Kabul to Bagram airbase used by our armed forces today was built by the Soviets so they could stay out of the Shamali plain as much as possible. The Soviets fought hard and often all along the main road to the north. After the Northern Alliance and our SF teams drove out the Taliban in 2001 there has been no fighting or attacks on the international or Afghan military on the plain or anywhere else along the route to Mazar-i-Shariff.

Shamali plain just north of Kabul

In 2006 an American army convoy caused a fatal traffic accident where the roads above terminates inside Kabul. They opened fire on the crowd that gathered at the accident site sparking an entire day of rioting in Kabul. Unruly and agitated crowds are a staple at Afghan traffic accidents which occur frequently and tend to be gruesome given the speeds at which Afghans drive and their propensity for stuffing extra women and children in car trunks or on roof racks. Firing into the crowd that day (I saw it live on Tolo TV) is a symptom of the big base big army mentality that infected our efforts here as soon as the regular army took over the fight. The solider I saw unleash his 50 cal into the Afghan crowd at point blank range was scared. He was scared because he did not understand Afghanistan or its people and he thought the crowd was after him and his fellow soldiers. This was four years after we first set foot in the country. Today, some seven years into the fight, a majority of the soldiers are just as clueless about the Afghan people and their customs as the knucklehead on the machinegun that day. But I digress.

Istalif Pottery

Halfway across the plain is the town of Istalif which is famous for its pottery. With a little haggling and good humor you can buy any of these pieces for just one dollar although after haggling and completing the sale I always give a tip. Haggling is fun but a couple extra dollars thrown in at the end of the deal is fun too. Afghans seem to enjoy foreigners who are of good humor and fair.

After getting through the Shamali you have to climb up the Salang Pass which is 12,723 feet up into the Hindu Kush Mountains making it one of the highest roads in the world. Here is a view going up the pass and looking back towards Kabul.

Kabul side of the Salang Pass

The Soviet Union built a tunnel through the pass back in the 60’s which is 2.6 kilometers long and scary. The road bed is pitted and often filled with slush, the evacuation fan system stopped working decades ago, it is dark, and the Afghans have no ability to deal with vehicle accidents or any serious injuries. In 1982 an explosion in the tunnel caused the Soviets to block both ends as they thought there was an attack in progress. Those trapped inside kept their vehicles running to avoid freezing, the resulting buildup of carbon monoxide and smoke killed as many as 700 Soviet troops and over 2,000 Afghans.

Northern entrance to the Salang Pass

Once you’re through the Salang tunnel it is a steep drop down into the valley floor where one can find the best fresh fish in Afghanistan. Here is my favorite seasonal fish stand seen from the road above:

Approaching the valley floor on the northern side of the Salang Pass

Like I said it is a step grade down the north side of the Salang.

My two new friends and I enjoying fine Afghan dining al fresco

The guys sitting behind me in the picture above are truck drivers who wandered over just in case I ate like an Afghan which is to automatically share food and drink. I have been here long enough to understand that so the three of us tucked into the excellent fish and engaged in conversations with a mix of basic Dari, American slang, and sign language.

The drive from the Salang Pass to Mazar is pleasant and fast over good roads. The largest city along the route is Puli Khumri which has little international presence but also few AOG (armed opposition group) incidents. One of the more interesting aspects of driving around the country is to discover how the industrious Afghans can be with found objects. The picture below demonstrates that point well and is also the best use of old Soviet BTR’s I’ve yet to see.

Fuel station a few miles south of Puli Khumri built on top of old Soviet BTR 72’s that were stacked into the river, covered with dirt and rock, compacted and leveled – one way to get a land title in Afghanistan is to create your own land.

From Puli Khumri it is about three hours of  driving through one small hamlet after another. It is not a good idea to move off the main road in areas where there are no villages or towns. Every natural choke-point has an old Soviet command post and the terrain around them could still be seeded with anti-personnel mines. Most of these areas have been cleared but the sign below provides a warning that remains applicable today to the smart traveler.

A warning from HALO trust (de-mining NGO) in Dari and English explaining the land off of the main highway in this pass contains an active mine field.

The Afghanistan state-controlled media back in the Soviet days called Soviet soldiers Quay Dhost which means “friendly forces”. When we rolled up to Afghan police checkpoints we’d smile and introduce ourselves as Quay Dhost which generated a look of surprise followed by a big belly laugh.  Afghans love jokes and funny foreigners who make an effort at speaking Dari.

I took this picture at an old soviet check point on the main ring road in 2005. It was gone when I was last up north in 2007.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a small city famous for the Blue Mosque which is supposed to contain the remains of Hazrat Ali, who was a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic scholars believe the real grave of Ali is in the Imam Mosque in Najaf Iraq.

 

Checking out the Blue Mosque in Mazar

I have read and also heard from the locals that the Mosque was buried to prevent its sacking by Genghis Khan in 1220 and not uncovered until the 1480’s. I have no idea how the locals could have done that back then but I also don’t know how the Egyptian Pyramids were built so maybe it’s a true story. For us foreigners this is as close as we can get to the Mosque which is fine because the real treat when visiting the North is checking out the Kala Jangi fortress which was the scene of a big fight on 25 November 2001.

There is also work and in Mazar and that means looking after Ms Tani san of JICA who runs the women empowerment program. The picture below is of Tani san issuing a critique to one of her woman’s groups who have been slacking on keeping the cows and barn that the people of Japan provided them clean and functional.

JICA’s Woman’s Empowerment Program in action. The woman huddled in a school circle are catching hell for being behind the maintenance of their new cattle barn

While she is in the villages the police guard and I hang out with the males of the village often  sitting in the closest field for a little nan and yogurt. If we check up on five villages that’s five lunches of nan and yogurt and sometimes kabob that you can’t not eat because it’s impolite for guests to refuse hospitality. The life of an independent international security operative often looks like this:

I’m going to get fat if I keep doing this. The cold mint yogurt tea is damn good though and I’ve never tasted anything like it.

The eggplant we are eating with the nan (bread) is called Borani Banjan and is absolutely delicious; greasy as the day is long but delicious. Next stop will be the Fortress but it deserves a post of its own.

Afghanistan Travel Series

One of the advantages of working outside the wire is the ability to travel. Internationals can move freely through most of Afghanistan without taking elaborate or expensive security measures. It is always a good idea to be armed due to the extent of armed criminality which plagues the land. One reason that internationals are rarely targeted by criminals is the universal belief among Afghans that we are all armed and capable with those arms. That is not always true but it is the conventional wisdom.

My oldest daughter Megan came over last summer and worked for us when we had a few bomb and drug dog contracts. She is an excellent dog handler/trainer and like her father thrives on travel and adventure. Here she is with her friend Sarah, formerly of the Australian Army and at the time the Kabul coordinator for ANSO (Afghan NGO Safety Office.)

Megan and Sarah exploring the Panjshir Valley

The picture above was taken in the Panjshir Valley where the girls had gone to visit with the families of Sarah’s driver and her interpreter. This was not considered by myself or any of my colleagues to be unusually risky. My daughter is very capable with a sidearm after taking multiple four day handgun courses at Front Sight in Las Vegas when I was on the staff there. Sarah has a few years of experience and is very capable too but the reason they were perfectly safe on this trip is the Afghan people.

Megan and I at the Taj in Jalalabad

One of the facts of life on the ground here which has not translated well in the media coverage is the acceptance of internationals by vast majorities of the Afghan people. Without their active support the various international organizations involved in the reconstruction fight could not stay here or operate. Afghanistan is a poor country with little infrastructure, a spotty track record of central government control, and no ability to extract the valuable natural resources (which are considerable) that have been identified to date. The people have little and expect little which is why they respond so positively to internationals who have come to help them. This includes the international military. There are few places in this country happier than an isolated village who just had a platoon of Americans roll in with plans to stay for awhile.

I took this picture of a kid who was working a one person vehicle maintenance stall on the Shamoli Plain just north of Kabul in the summer of 2006

The more the average Afghans interact with internationals and specifically the international military, the more they like us. We have tens of thousands of troops deployed here but a vast majority spend their entire tour behind the wire on gigantic military bases. These bases are called FOB’s (forward operating base) but when there are restaurants, American and Canadian fast food stands, coffee shops, gigantic bazaars and massage parlors it is hard to think of a base as being forward or operating. The words rear and supporting are better descriptors.

We cannot continue to rely on technology to solve tactical problems. When you do that you end up with the MRAP a vehicle so tall it will rip out the electrical wires from every street it drives down if it moves off a main road into a village or town. It is also so heavy it cannot maneuver well on the local dirt roads, or cross local bridges, or climb the many mountain passes in Afghanistan.

MRAP’s – not as useful as one would think. Not good on narrow canal roads or inside villages due to their width and height

Yes it will protect the troops inside from most of the mines and IED’s used by the AOG but as a student of history I know it is easier and cheaper to defeat new technology then to develop it. The AOG will develop IED’s big enough to defeat this improved armor. All the players in the game know that.

There will be additional posts covering the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. They include lots of pictures which I hope all enjoy. Many of the places pictured are no longer safe for internationals. It will be decades before another westerner is able to photograph them again. We are losing terrain to the bad guys and with the terrain go the people. In a counter insurgency fight the people are the center of gravity, we cannot allow this current trend of ceding terrain to the Taliban to continue or we will lose. It is that simple.

The Caves of Little Barabad

We recently took a trip across the river into Beshud District to the village of Little Barabad to photograph the old caves that line northern shore of the Kabul river.

When we show up at this village we often pick up and escort of local kids – the tend to segregate by gender and here are some of the girls from Little Barabad

The people of Little Barabad are Kuchi tribesmen who are dirt poor from a different tribe than the Shinwari’s who live up the river in the village of Big Barabad. Because the elders from these two villages can’t agree on anything Little Barabad suffers and cannot spend their NSP (National Solidarity Program) monies to build a well or make other infrastructure improvements. The NSP money comes from the World Bank and they have $2,000 for each household but that money can only be spent on projects which collectively benefit the village and the only recognized village in this area is Big Barabad

The San Diego sister cities project is scheduled to be build a foot bridge over the Kabul River which would allow the kids from Little Barabad to attend school. There is a large school just 300 meters away on the Jalalabad side of the river but it is an hour’s drive by road. The people of little Barabad do not have a vehicle or much of a road for that matter so their kids are not able to attend school.

San Diego and the La Jolla Rotary Club have been very active in Jalalabad which is a sister city to San Diego. How that happened remains a mystery but believe it or not they (both the city and its Rotary Club) have dumped a ton of money into Nangarhar University and Jalalabad. Here is the current method of crossing the Kabul River and the reason why a foot bridge will be such a God send. When you look at this float keep in mind the river is swift and none of the people in these parts know how to swim.

Fording the river Afghan style

One goal of today’s trip was to get a proper picture of my new SOMA FM tee shirt to send into their web site. Inshallah they will post it so getting the pistol in frame was important. From looking at my fellow donors at the Soma FM site I’m sure to be the only one who even owns a pistol. Soma is based out of San Francisco so I’m sure they’ll find the pic of an armed American to be innately disturbing. Guns = authority = bad to them. To me guns = keeping authority in check and small = good. Plus there is a war going on here and even though it is easy to avoid drama one must be prepared. Be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them. That’s a Marine moto that is worth remembering in this line of work.

Some of the boys who escort us around the area
Chai with the locals

The village kids love to have their pictures taken and always enjoy it when we come by to hike up to the caves. We hook them up with a bottled water and a dollar each for being our guides. See how blond the kid in the middle of the photograph above is? You see that a lot of that in Nangarhar Province. The Soviets kept it pretty quiet when they were here and even had an R&R camp in Jalalabad. They also let their troops off the base and into the bazaar where they could support the local economy. I go to the bazaar all the time myself and the local merchants seem to enjoy it when an international stops in to chat them up and buy junk.

Many of the locals think our troops are cowards because they only see them in armored trucks racing through the town and pointing weapons at anyone and who they feel gets to close to them.  The Soviets flooded the bazaar when they were off duty and I believe our troops and the Afghan people would both benefit if our military adopted the same liberty policy as the Soviets. Getting close to the locals is a good thing and the basic tenant of our counterinsurgency doctrine. Judging from all the blond and red headed kids we see in Jalalabad some of the Russians got a little too close to the locals which is a dangerous game to play in Pashtun lands.

The cave complex. Our speculation is they date from the Buddhist era around 178 AD
Little Barabad is really a collection of compounds belonging to one extended family. They have goats and sheep, three cows, plus a little corn and wheat but that is about it.
Last July the caves were full of bats.

The bats were “nishta” or all gone this time because they seem to occupy the caves during the heat of summer. We will have to wait until next year to get a good picture of the bats. Inshallah we will still be able to move freely then…Inshallah

Kabul Re-up Run

Today the Bot and I had to run to Kabul for a re-up. We started our journey by striking a pose for our sponsor. Well not a real sponsor but they sent us some hats, bumper stickers, steak rub, and a generous assortment of candy so we feel sponsored. Here is Shem (a.k.a. Shem Bot a.k.a. Bot) and I at the start of the day with our signature La Rue Tactical hats. We’ll have to do this again as I have been told by the resident expert that this picture lacks technical merit due to failure to use proper lens filters.

 

The drive was smooth and fast. We rent SUV’s and switch them up frequently so we do not stand out on the road. We stop at all checkpoints and chat up the ANP (Afghan National Police) who appreciate that we speak some Pashto and are polite. In this country a little Pashto or Dari and a big smile will win you a ton of goodwill from the local officials and people.

 The problem with traveling in low profile mode is running into an ISAF or American military convoy can cause drama. I was shot at by the American Army in downtown Kabul back in ’07 while driving a brand new Armored Land Cruiser with diplomatic plates identifying it as belonging to the Government of Japan. A rear gunner in a five truck convoy thought I got a little too close to them as they were exiting a traffic circle. I may well have strayed too close but it never occurred to me that the young trooper would not recognize a large brand new armored SUV as being on his side. The startled gunner unleashed a good 6 round burst into the hills above my truck (where about 3000 people live packed into squalid mud huts.) I was out of the drivers door and running down the road yelling at this idiot before I realized what I was doing. That startled the five hundred or so Afghan pedestrians who stopped and watched this unfold in utter amazement.

That was an embarrassing incident, getting too close to the convoy was sloppy on my part, getting shot at was bad, bolting out of the drivers door without even letting the vehicle stop was very bad but it elicited one of the more memorable quotes from my favorite Japanese client. He was a senior diplomat who I consider a great man and who I was very fond of and proud to work for. When I came back to the truck he looked at me shaking his head and muttering Tim san I do not understand how you people beat us. It is a funny story to tell now but it is also still a problem; our military is not learning how to operate here.

 We were jamming up the Mahipar Pass passing a slow moving truck when up pops the American Army in MRAPs and the Bot swears the turret gunner has his pistol pointed at him. The kid did have his pistol out but as the more experienced professional I opined that the chances of him even hitting the car from up on top of that giant armored vehicle were remote. Plus the soldier was switched on and lowered his pistol once he saw we were expats. The Bot took no comfort from that and unleashed a torrent of invective (as us high-speed writers say) which seemed to calm him down.

 Here are the guilty bastards (I say that in good humor mind you) as they moved further down the pass note the futility of attempting to keep all civilian traffic away from you which the military tries to do on all their convoys. Only once have I seen a convoy of obviously very experienced soldiers (French) who moved with the traffic and let the local vehicles get mixed in with their convoy. That is good solid thinking on their part.

As you can probably tell the pass is a long series of hairpin switchbacks and one can always count on a old truck to be broken down and blocking one lane in the road. The fuel truck in this photo is broken down which is why the buses are stacked up behind it. I have spent hours sitting on the road here because a truck broke down and blocked one of the four tunnels. Here is a good shot of the Mahpair pass;

After that bit of minor excitement we were off to Kabul to shop for proper pasta, some seafood, beer, wine, and spirits. We hit our favorite Italian place for a proper sit down lunch and spent the next few hours running around Kabul sans body armor and long guns. The Kabul PD gets crappy with expats for having full kit while transiting the metropolitan area. That is fair enough Kabul – is not currently a place where you can expect any problems unless you are driving in American or ISAF armored vehicles. There is no real reason for body armor or long guns, they upset the local citizenry as well as the authorities, so we go with the concealed carry route.

 Here is what the ole Haji ride looked like after our last stop in the greater Kabul area:

It was smooth sailing back to the Taj. We made it from Camp Warehouse to here in 85 minutes. There was little traffic on the road, no ISAF convoys thank god (they can double or triple your trip time and often jam up traffic for 5 to 10 miles behind them because they move so slow) and the weather was perfect. The Taj is now stocked and ready for the arrival of Baba Ken the leader of the Jbad geek squad. One of the wonders of the third world is the number of young men in these places who are scary proficient with computers.