Greetings From Kabul

July 2008     Kabul, Afghanistan

It is a hot, dry, windy place, with a brown hazy sky, dust tornadoes, and streets paved with rocks. Many of the houses have running water, and most have electricity most of the time. Bombed-out buildings, minefields, craters, and mangled Soviet armor here and there. Helicopter gunships rattle the rooftops, two at a time. Elderly Russian transport planes sag across the sky, then sometimes spiral in towards the airfield at an aggressive angle, just in case anyone out in the hills feels like taking a shot. It is a little unnerving to unexpectedly plummet into Kabul, while on a long-expired commercial airplane entirely full of bearded guys in robes.

The buildings and walls everywhere are thoroughly stitched with bullet holes, as if a plague of woodpeckers swept through. The Taliban allowed or ordered almost all the trees cut down in the city, then ripped out the public transit system power lines so they could sell the copper to Pakistan. That is an industrial export, I suppose. So we are back to donkeys. Never mind the mineral wealth – the economy is hobbled by the fact that this isolated, landlocked country never finished the railroad, though it is only one country away from an Indian Ocean port. It has apparently never been safe to invest here, which helps explain why I have not yet found a single product that is locally made.

One exception might be landmines. The mujahadeen added to the Soviet crop, and Afghanistan now ranks as the 6th-wealthiest in the world, in terms of unexploded ordnance. There are over 10,000,000 of them, or 40 per square mile in a country the size of Texas, which helps explain all the one-legged beggars out pegging around the intersections.

It is hard to tell how unsafe this city is. Every white guy and Afghan security guard is carrying an automatic weapon, and there are sandbags, machine guns, razor-wire, armored convoys, heavy gates, vehicle barriers and snipers, but that does not mean violence is out of control here. Maybe just the opposite. I have not been here long enough to see changes, but I hear that everything is hugely improved over the past five years. We are spending thousands of billions of dollars and hundreds of lives to date, and the (few) locals that I know appreciate it. The Taliban were hated by most, at least in Kabul.

Out in the countryside, tribes were already living the medieval life, but in the cities, people lost everything as the clock was set back 800 years. Fewer women wear the complete burkha and veil now, depending on the wishes of their owners. Open watery trenches line both sides of the streets, garbage heaps, mud-brick construction, donkey-carts, barbed wire and Afghan military police are on every street.

Boys seem to start work at an early age, wearing rags and pushing a home-made wheelbarrow or selling plastic somethings. At least girls are allowed to go to school again now. The Islamic call to prayer shouts out from every mosque five times each day, competing with the chronic din of car and truck horns. The traffic behavior is maddening: sort of a defiant mix of chaos and playing chicken. I think they curse a lot. I know I do.

I have had really good times in some poor middle eastern and North African countries before, and though those merchants and urchins are all about seeing what they can squeeze from a tourist, they are likable, even charming as they lift your wallet. Not here, maybe because they have not seen a tourist since 1977, so no charm is applied. I have not even spied any hard backpackers. To paraphrase an Afghan, this relative peace might be just a lull in the fighting, so better take full advantage, grab it now while the foreign aid and foreign suckers are here, grab it now before they leave us again.

Any written account of traveling within this country before the destruction began is thick with descriptions of how dramatically beautiful it is, and how hospitable the local tribes are. That may still be true, but my travel here is limited, and one thing permeates my experience like the chalky yellow dust of the afternoon windstorms: Kabul is the worst place I have ever been. It is so shattered, so incapacitated. Somebody asked me recently what I like about the city, or what I will miss about it. I thought, muttered, stalled and came up as blank as the wall I was staring at: Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. An empty net. In a way it is cool to be in The Worst Place I Have Ever Been, but somewhat less cool to have actually moved here.

Afghanistan ranks as the 9th-poorest country in the world, and while looking up that stat, I saw that I have logged time in countries #1, 5, 6 and 8. I cannot say that was ever a personal goal, but what makes Kabul different is an undercurrent of hostility, Islamic fundamentalism, opportunism, desperation, and probably some cultural resentment. My interpreter pins the blame on the 30-year sandstorm of violence, corruption and decay they have endured, and the memory that this was a relatively cosmopolitan destination before the civil war and all that followed.

Many of the instigators are still right here and would continue the hostilities if the price was right. There lurks here a thousand years of tribal distrust and vendettas, lying and cheating are part of the culture, and some are in the business of killing. Anywhere else, I would take the nickle public bus, eat the street food, get sick and so what, smoke the hookah pipe at the tea shop, get chiseled in the market, and slowly take good pictures.

When we must leave the house, we shuttle quickly from one air-conditioned walled compound to another, taking different routes and times. I set my arm out the window with a camera stuck to the end of it and hope for the best. Flat tire? Drive until the rim melts into an oval. Want to ask for directions? No, you do not. Drive until you see an embassy, then pull up slowly with your white face hanging out.

It is possible I am not being fair – it was not always a hostile place, but the tension is close to the surface when so many are well-armed and so few are well-trained. I try not to be too uptight outside the walls, but given a chance, they might take my passport, and how about my scalp too, so we live an enclosed, armed existence, and that is how this foreign excursion differs from any other I have taken. I carry my Irish passport instead of the American one, just in case the wrong guys stop us at a checkpoint.

Despite all that, this has been a really good thing to do, and I like the work. I hope to re-sign for a second three-month stint beginning in October. There are a lot of interesting expatriates living here, some for years, doing a whole range of jobs and living in secure houses and compounds. Mostly we are shut-ins, depending on employer restrictions or personal sense of risk, but we have good times here and there, now and then. The house is well-stocked with weapons, and work is good, but nothing worth writing about yet. I will get to that next time – this is already long-winded. Have a good summer. Go to the beach, eat bacon and have seafood that does not come in a can. Wear less clothing!

And thank the guys out there on the pointy end of the sword, roaming this rancid land and doing the dirty work for for the rest of us. Happy 4th of July.

The photo above is not mine, but these are. Don’t worry, I kept it skinny. Less is more when it comes to photo albums:


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