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Afghanistan Trip Report IV: Crossing the Salang

Editor's Note: The following article is one of a series of reports based on Vanda Felbab-Brown's fieldwork in Afghanistan in April 2012. Here she describes a trip from Kabul to northern Afghanistan and the security and political situation there. Read also her recent report on the progress of Afghan security forces in Firefight in Kabul, on governance problems in Afghanistan in The Road to Jalalabad, and on the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops in The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership.

The pristine white snow on the Hindu Kush mountains sparkled against the clear blue sky of a gorgeous crisp morning. At 5 a.m., my driver Ali, interpreter Mahmoud, and I had just left Kabul to drive to Baghlan. (Ali and Mahmoud are not their real names. Being known to work with Westerners can be brutally costly for Afghans – it makes them favorite targets of the Taliban.) The journey started off with a foreboding or perhaps an auspicious augur: Barely on the outskirts of Kabul, our old and rather beat-up Toyota Corolla would not start after being tanked up for the journey. The most common type of automobile in Afghanistan, a Corolla is great for keeping a low profile; and the more beat-up, the better since it is less likely to alert potential kidnappers or the Taliban that it is carrying a female foreigner. But despite my fondness for a means of transportation that disappears anonymously into the flow of Afghan traffic, the car’s struggle to start up right after being fed gasoline raised some doubts in my mind about its ability to cross the Salang Pass. Nonetheless, after some minutes of our fiddling with the engine and locals’ helping to push the car, it did kick back to life and off we went north to the mountains. I was heading to Baghlan to interview Afghan residents there about the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and other militias that abound in the area and have a critical effect on security and governance.



The Bumpy Climb: Logistics and Security North of Kabul


The provinces of Baghlan and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan have become strategically important to ISAF because one of its main logistical supply routes to Afghanistan -- the so-called Northern Distribution Network -- passes through them. Long neglected by ISAF and Afghan security forces and left to the rule of the former Northern Alliance powerbrokers, some of the northern provinces of Afghanistan have become a powder keg of ethnic tensions and an important mobilization area for the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami. Although the north has some of the most peaceful parts of Afghanistan, it also has areas, such as Baghlan and Kunduz, where the Taliban manages to recruit not just the minority Pashtuns who live there in enclaves among the Tajiks, but also Uzbeks and even some Tajiks among the many who feel disenfranchised by the post-2002 political dispensation there. That does not mean that many of the northern alienated groups or criminal bands that call themselves the Taliban do necessarily firmly align with the Quetta Shura or closely follow Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s maneuvering. Just like in southern Afghanistan, for many, the Taliban label is a flag of convenience and their alignment fleeting and loose, hiding varied resentments and ambitions. But it does mean that insecurity can be locally intense in the north. So intense, in fact, that along the supply road through Baghlan and Kunduz, there were daily attacks in 2010 and 2011, compromising a key strategic access. It is also a foreshadowing of the ethnic fighting between the dominant Tajiks and the groups that feel marginalized in the north that could come after 2014. With the exception of some Afghan government officials, the potential for civil war and ethnic infighting after 2014 was foremost on the mind of all Afghans with whom I spoke in the north. Most are deeply afraid of the future and skeptical that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be able to fill the security void created by the drawing down of ISAF forces and their far smaller and circumscribed presence after 2014. “After NATO forces are reduced, people will be so insecure that they will not even dare to leave the shoes outside of their door,” one of my interlocutors put it.


Following a November 2011 firefight between Pakistani and ISAF soldiers and Pakistan’s closing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for NATO trucks in retaliation, the importance of the Northern Distribution Network only increased. The road between Kabul, Kunduz, and ultimately Central Asia, on which I was setting off, is currently the only land supply route for NATO. After milking further financial payoffs and possibly other concessions out of the United States, Pakistan is likely to ultimately relent and reopen the land routes through Baluchistan and Khyber-Pashtunkwa for ISAF supply trucks. After all, its own trucking industry, an influential lobby in Pakistan and one of the few sources of employment for impoverished Pakistanis, is losing a lot of money as a result of the border closure. But until the Pakistan land routes are reopened and while only the northern access is available, NATO officials point out that in order to remove ISAF military equipment from Afghanistan in conjunction with the military drawdown schedule and the 2014 transition, a container would have to leave Afghanistan every seven minutes 24 hours a day, seven days a week from now on until 2015.



Although the road is logistically vital for ISAF, it is in terrible shape. Much of its asphalt is gone, and in large parts, especially on the northern side of the Salang Pass, the road is a few-hundred-kilometer long obstacle course of enormous puddles after rains, mud traps, and dirt “gorges” from which a car cannot climb out. Although the road was constructed to have one lane in each direction, Afghan drivers tend to approach it as a four-lane highway, madly passing each other on all sides and jostling with big supply trucks for the right of way on the cliffs of the Hindu Kush. If a car breaks down or collides with another, the whole road can be absolutely paralyzed and all movement halted for hours. Not surprisingly, the road and cliffs are littered with the corpses of trucks and cars: in parts every 100 meters or so there are remnants of a vehicle that drove off the mountain or toppled on its side on the edge of the road. Many of the wrecks are fresh. Others go back to the 1980s when the mujahideen loved to attack the road and blow up the Soviet oil supply trucks that then – just like now – crawl their way between Central Asia and Kabul. In 2005, the road, including the Salang tunnel itself, was paved with money from the Turkish government. By the winter of 2010, the road had disintegrated, but the tunnel was repaved. However, since the road carries about four times the weight a highway is supposed to withstand and, in addition to constant traffic, is subject to snow and freezing temperatures in the winter, sun and heat in the summer, and intense rain and snowmelt in the spring, the asphalt from 2010 is gone again. Discussions are under way for repaving at least parts once more, at the cost of over $60 million.


I can only hope – though I expect to be disappointed – that some of the money will be donated to building a few washrooms for women along the road. Although there are rest rooms available to women at the foothills of the mountains (not to be entered by the faint-hearted or those who cannot switch off their sensory inputs), once the road starts climbing through the spectacular sharp peaks and gorges, there are no more washrooms and no privacy of any sort whatever. For the Afghan men, that is not a problem as they simply relieve themselves along the road. But the on-the-side-of-the-road option is socially unacceptable for women who in Afghanistan, just like throughout South Asia, suffer from serious toilet-facilities discrimination. Despite the risk of dehydration and altitude sickness at the Salang Pass which lies at the height of 3878 meters, I had thus learned not to drink before setting off on the road. When I was crossing the Salang in the fall of 2010, I was stuck in the tunnel for about five hours and almost caused a heart attack to the Afghan driver and interpreter when after being on the road for more than eight hours, I finally broke down and had to go in my burqa on the side of the road. Although I violated a social taboo, a security incident by enraged Afghan men that the driver and interpreter had feared was avoided and neither I nor our party were attacked for my misbehavior. Perhaps the lucky outcome was because the tough-looking posture of my companion, a U.S. male journalist dressed in local clothes, scared off any potential social-more vigilantes. But the Afghan drivers along the road were certainly mesmerized by the sight of a woman having to relieve herself there. In turn, I was amazed by the fact that during the entire five hours on the Salang, I was the only woman who broke down, even though many Afghan women were crunched in backs and trunks of the Corollas along with their children and goats. Not one had left the car during the entire time. Being an Afghan woman requires being tough.


But whatever the bumpy Salang road lacks in comfort, it makes up in the stunning imagery. You may lose your kidneys and life on the road, but your soul will be inspired by the snow-capped peaks, the brown mountain sides coated with fresh grass and wild flowers in the spring, the fertile valley along a river that supports wheat and vegetable fields, local men on donkeys and women in burqas.



Stuck in the Mud: The Travails of Governance in Northern Afghanistan


The picturesque high view from the mountain road gives way to sharp details in the valley. The state of the road does not improve as one approaches Pul-e-Khourmi, the provincial capital of Baghlan, and the number of beggars, including female, increases greatly. Pul-e-Khourmi looks more like a neglected Afghan village, rather than a provincial capital. Indeed, mismanagement by local government officials and powerbrokers and poor governance dominated my conversations with Afghans in the province. Just like in Nangharhar and many other parts of Afghanistan, people complained about nepotism in the awarding of government positions and contracts, the incompetence of government officials, private prisons of powerbrokers, pervasive impunity, and land theft. Just like many other Afghans, Baghlanis feel that they have no way to make their voice heard other than by transforming themselves into supplicants to the powerful ones. The mechanisms of accountability are few in fact, because people cannot elect their local officials, all of whom are appointed from Kabul.


But unlike in Nangharhar, for example, the complaints about poor governance and nepotism in Baghlan are overlaid with charges of ethnic discrimination. In the Pashtun areas, such as Nangharhar, there are of course also major communal rifts -- within the Pashtun tribes and subtribes – and the Taliban adroitly exploits them. But here in the north, where the mix is Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras, and where the former Northern Alliance dominates, the complaints about communal discrimination seem particularly full of acid. The Pashtuns complain that government positions, especially in the security forces, are dominated by the former Northern Alliance, and that Pashtuns do not have a fair representation. Ninety percent of the police in Baghlan, for example, are indeed Andarabi Tajiks. Even the Pashtuns who are in governing positions in the north are viewed with suspicion and dissatisfaction by many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, and seen as being approved by and subservient to Marshall Fahim, the first Vice-President of Afghanistan, and one of the most prominent northern powerbrokers. In turn, many of the Tajiks feel that the Pashtuns are getting their just comeuppance and that the Tajiks now deserve a large share of the resource pie after all the brutality they suffered during the Taliban era and the sacrifices they made in fighting the Taliban. The divisions between the communities in central Baghlan are visceral: the Pashtuns live west of the river, mainly in less fertile, rainfed areas, and the Tajiks and Uzbeks east of the river and in the more fertile, river-irrigated lands.


However, just like elsewhere in Afghanistan, the realities are complex and many different trends are taking place at the same time, hardly all of them negative. The abusive and incompetent governance that prevails in Afghanistan is the Achilles’ heel of the stabilization effort. But a younger educated generation is rising and often indicates willingness to rise above ethnic factionalism and communal patronage. One of the people I interview in Pul-e-Khourmi was a young female lawyer. Dressed in jeans, a black blazer, and fancy headscarf, she was articulate, full of energy and determination to help her country. In good English, she told me about a recent success she and the attorneys she represents had in Baghlan. For a long time, the local National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Tajik-dominated intelligence agency of Afghanistan, kept people in Baghlan in detention incommunicado, often indefinitely. She led an effort to persuade the local NDS office to allow defense attorneys, such as herself, access to the detainees. Not only did she succeed and hence significantly improve human rights in the province, she managed to do so without alienating the NDS people in the area. Since detentions by NDS are often highly skewed toward the Pashtuns, the main recruiting pool of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami, her intervention also helped ease some of the ethnic tensions in Baghlan. And she is just one of many impressive and inspiring young Afghans I have met on this trip and during my previous ones. The question – as yet unanswered – is whether the security situation in the country can be stabilized enough that those who rise above narrow communal patronage can achieve positions of influence and whether the current narrow, exclusionary governance system can be opened up enough to allow their voices to have prominent impact on policies.



Tea in the Midst of Poppy and Bandits


Friday morning, I did not have any interviews scheduled because the morning is time for


prayer and the day for family and relaxation. Just for fun, I decided to drive to a neighboring province, Samanghan, to have a picnic at Takht-e-Rustam, a place where the Afghan equivalent of Homer, Firdousi, wrote his tragic epic poem about Afghan kings, Shahmama. When I shared the plan with a risk-management officer for a development organization in Pul-e-Khourmi, one of the few Westerners into whom I ran in Baghlan, he looked at me gently, with an expression that silently said, “Well, the Koran teaches that Muslims should be kind to the mentally ill,” and aloud stated: “You know, this is Afghanistan. People don’t come here for fun.”


But of course, as pithy as the statement is, it is also not entirely true. Historically, many Westerners came to Afghanistan for fun – whether to trek on yaks in the Wakhan or to get high on Afghanistan’s famous hashish. (Many Afghans continue to fondly indulge in the habit to escape the ravages and stress of war and grinding poverty, seeing it as a far less harmful vice than smoking tobacco.) And even today, soldiers and international civilians do come to Afghanistan for the fun of it – they sign up not just because of patriotism or the financial and career opportunities that such a deployment brings, but also because of the adrenaline rush of being in a war zone.


On that sunny Friday morning, the Takht-e-Rustam hill seemed far removed from a war zone. The hill was brightened with wild poppy and other meadow flowers. There was music in the air – from a live band that played traditional Afghan songs to the soundtracks of boomboxes to which Afghan men danced. Many families were having a picnic on top of the hill and surrounding meadows. Some women even ventured out to the picnic without a burqa. Their kids would get a huge kick out of seeing a female khariji (one of the expression for Westerners, denoting something akin to “alien”) in Afghan clothes sitting on the grass, sipping tea, and munching on walnuts, sheer pera (a Mazari sweet with pistachios), and wild sour rhubarb that locals collect in the mountains and sell along the road. The scene was quite idyllic, so full of promise of what Afghanistan could be if security were improved and sustained.


But even during those idyllic moments on top of the hill, I could not quite fully drop my guard and kept carefully watching the young men on motorcycles who in turn were watching me with a great deal of interest. Energetic local youth enticed by a Western woman breaking the social burqa rule or a lookout for the Taliban or bandits? I had been warned that there were bandits along the road and that their activity would pick up on Fridays since the Afghan National Police (ANP) presence at checkpoints often thinned out on Fridays. The police too would decide that Friday was time for prayer and rest rather than dull endless waiting at a checkpoint, only occasionally punctuated by life-threatening danger. But even though we got somewhat lost on the way back from the hill amongst the alleyways of Afghan villages and field tracks away from the main road, we ran into no danger. The mood was light, and we were singing along to a blaring soundtrack of Afghan pop we played in our Corolla.


During an interview later in the day, I learned that in the villages of Western Baghlan, some of which we had been driving through, the Taliban still today prohibits music. Even now, the locals are so afraid of the insurgents that they respect the order, eschewing playing music even during weddings, one of the most important events in their lives on which no expense would normally be spared. Nevertheless, I was told, even with such annoyances, security in Baghlan was much better now than a year ago. “We can’t play music today, but last year, before ISAF came and ANSF were increased here, there were firefights and security incidents here almost every day. Now the insecurity is pushed away from the main roads, there are fewer kidnappings too. Central Baghlan last year looked like northern Baghlan and Kunduz still do today.”


And it was further north, past Baghlan Jadid, we were heading in the afternoon to interview members of the Afghan Local Police. A local powerbroker promised to facilitate access to the ALP for me. But before the ALP interviews, it was time to procure some lunch. The choice was between eating in a restaurant in Pul-e-Khourmi, a safer area but one where I had already been seen, or in Baghlan Jadid, an area far less safe, but one where the local miscreants were not anticipating the presence of a Western woman. When before, accompanied by my driver and interpreter, I ate in a Pul-e-Khourmi restaurant overlooking a mosque and a market, I attracted considerable attention, at times bordering on consternation. Afghan restaurants are often not frequented by women, though some have a closed off family section. After much discussion weighing the risks, my interpreter and I finally settled on going to the more dangerous town but one where I had not yet been seen, preferring to minimize my exposure in any one place.


Unfortunately, the restaurant lunch plan did not pan out. The powerbroker failed to meet us as promised and the time spent waiting for him generated far more exposure than was safe – for lunch or just hanging around. However, with a typical Afghan generosity and hospitality, one of my interlocutors from the previous day came to the rescue, not only by inviting us to lunch in his home, but also by making a series of phone calls that ultimately set me up with members of the Afghan Local Police and the Taliban to interview. (For details, read the next article in the series The Afghan Local Police: “It’s Local, So It Must Be Good.” Or Is It? Hint, hint, here in Baghlan and northern Afghanistan, the ALP and the Taliban are often one and the same.)



The Tough Slog to Kabul and Release from the Mountain: A Better Future?


The drive back to Kabul turned out to be far worse than the drive north. What had taken us about seven hours going north became almost double on the return. It had been raining for several days, and the normal road puddles had enlarged into miniature highway seas. Transformed into instant amphibious vehicles, the Corollas would have to cross them at a fifty-degree tilt, desperately grabbing on the firmer edge of the road with at least one wheel, even as water reached midway up the door on the other side. Local boys and men would sit along the road in the rain and watch as entertainment the cars struggle to plod their way by. Within minutes of our departure from Pul-e-Khourmi, the rear window of our car was so covered with mud, that absolutely nothing could be seen through it. But it did not matter. Ali, normally a truck driver who as a matter of course would cross the Salang with a six-wheeler, did not feel the need to look into the rear-view mirror one single time during the fourteen hours back. Nor did he seem particularly concerned that the nonfunctioning AC did not permit him to clear the front window of fog: A Jedai knight in his own right, he somehow managed to sense the vestiges of the road enough not to drive us off into the abyss. As we climbed higher, clearing the front window became irrelevant anyway since it was snowing and so foggy up in the mountains that the normal Afghan game of chicken on the road became a game of chicken of the blind. The road had narrowed down to essentially one and a half lanes where swerving to get out of the way of oncoming downhill traffic became a matter of split-second decisions with less than a car length.


Anticipating that we may be stuck closer to the peak for hours, we stopped at a roadside shack to stack up on water and biscuits. During that ten-minute break, we witnessed a house being swept away by the rain from a side of the mountain, one of many precariously clinging to its steep slopes. I do not know if any people had been in the house during the brief moment when nature destroyed or how many died or were injured. It was just one micromisery in the sea of pain that Afghanistan can be.


The higher we climbed, the slower and more precarious the going got. The road became lined for kilometer after kilometer with parked trucks, many of which had not moved an inch for four or five days. In the final stretches before the pass, we too would be grounded in a traffic jam for an hour before moving ten meters forward. With the real possibility that we may be stuck on the mountain for the night or even longer despite the fact that we set off before sunrise, thin on supplies and running down our gasoline, bored and frustrated, and in my case also unable to get out of the car for security reasons so as to not draw attention to me, my brain would conjure up images of a Taliban attack. After all, these grounded NATO supply trucks full of gasoline would, if hit, make a splendid fireball. Alternatively, I thought, it would be really easy for kidnappers to pull me out of the car and march me off somewhere. Much better to think of other mountain activities – such as the fact that some of the expats in Kabul come to the Salang in the winter to ski.


But unlike a year and half ago when I had taken the Salang road and also was stuck on the mountain for many hours, the police at the top of the mountain were doing a much better job and handing the stalled traffic this time around. They were diligent in chasing back into line the trucks and cars that tried to cut in front, even hitting them with sticks when words of warning did not suffice. They were efficient in stopping the crawling traffic in one direction to let the other side go through for a while. And during all the long hours on the mountain, I did not see one of them ask for a bribe.


When the mountain finally released us on the other side, the road descended from the shrouded peaks of snow and bare rocks into a beautiful sunny valley of aspens and blooming redbuds and cherries along an azure blue stream. This is the Jabal Saraj area where picturesque mud and stone houses are terraced on the slopes, but look neither as poor nor as precarious as the shacks on the other side. Jabal Saraj would make a brilliant trekking area – OK, one would have to avoid the mine fields indicated on the sides of the road and up the hills.


As we wind our way down toward Kabul, hundreds of kids just released from school mosey up the road. Boys start playing soccer on the side of the brook. Six preteen girls separate from the throngs of others, cross a wooden bridge across the mountain stream, sit down under the blooming cherries, and pull out their school books to read. This particular Afghan community has come very far from the days of the 1990s civil war and the Taliban brutal order. But will the progress last beyond 2014? 


SERIES: Foreign Policy Trip Reports | Number 39