Afghanistan Trip Report II: The Road to Jalalabad

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 Jalalabad. Read also her recent report on security developments in Afghanistan in Firefight in Kabul.

Dodging trucks, donkeys, pedestrians and a police convey transporting someone of importance, my driver Ahmed slowly forces a path through the madness of Afghanistan’s traffic, as he transports me from Kabul to Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar. In an effort to travel in low-profile, I am in full Afghan garb, wearing a black salwar kameez, but I keep a full burqa on the seat next to me in case I need to quickly minimize my exposure. The only aspects of my attire that would give me away as a farangi (foreigner) are my Merrel shoes. I prefer those to the Chinese plastic low-heel shoes that most Afghan women wear. When I am out on the street, the shoes are a dead giveaway that I am not Afghan, but I tell myself that if I were to be kidnapped during the two-hour drive to Jalalabad, I’d rather be kidnapped in comfortable shoes.

The roadside images alternate between shacks and modern looking buildings, men peddling carpets, tires, and vegetables and women in burqas with throngs of children. Outside of Kabul, I no longer see the Western garb of Kabul girls — jeans and tight jackets “legitimized” by a headscarf. In the brown dust and against the brown-gray mountains, an orange tarp shades a row of shacks contacting colorful wares for sale. This is a brilliant splash of color in an otherwise monochromatic landscape. As we enter a small town, I take off my sunglasses, which allow me to see in the bright Afghan sunlight but ruin my Afghan disguise. I want to avoid calling further attention to myself in the stalled traffic.

Outside my car window, I see piles of almonds and walnuts displayed in the town’s outdoor market. They remind me of yesterday’s breakfast and one of my favorite places in Kabul. Even though the café’s garden of bougainvilleas and roses is not in bloom yet, the restaurant’s Kabuli breakfast of eggs, humus, and walnuts was as wonderful as ever. Warblers were climbing up and down the branches of the café’s trees, looking for insects, while a boy on a nearby rooftop was flying a white kite. I went to the restaurant to meet an Afghan journalist whose family once lived in the militant-rife eastern province of Paktia and at one point in Iran, but have recently moved to North Waziristan. Landless and poor, he and his family have been displaced repeatedly by the many conflicts which plagued Afghanistan in recent decades. In 2002, they were drawn back to Afghanistan by the promise of peace and economic prosperity after the U.S. invasion. However, the promise failed to materialize for them, as it has failed throughout much of Afghanistan. The family ended up ensnarled in a land dispute in Paktia, forcing them to move again, this time to North Waziristan. Sadly, their new location was quickly overrun by the Haqqanis, Chechen and Arab jihadists, and the Tehrik-i-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP).

My journalist friend has crossed the North Waziristan-Khost border twice in recent months to visit his family. It is a dangerous crossing – risky he said, given the fighting between the Taliban and a local malik with his own militia. Although the Pakistani government encourages the formation of such anti-TTP militias, it largely fails to protect the elders who dare create them. Hundreds have been slaughtered by the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to which North Waziristan belongs. The journalist said that people in the area where his family lives were fed up with the militias. They have become abusive, extorting money from the local people. Even so, that did not mean the locals liked the Pakistani government any better – they have been neglected by it for decades, failing to provide essential economic support and social services. I asked him if the drone attacks against the militants made the people hate the United States. He answered that the drone attacks did not bother the local people, which surprised me. What angered them more, he claimed, were the militants who killed locals, claiming that they acted as informants, guiding the U.S. drone attacks.

The road to Jalalabad cuts its way through the Koh-e-Paghman mountains and follows the Kabul River. It is yet another waterway that flows to Pakistan from outside of its borders. The other main waterways originate or flow first through India, increasing Pakistan’s fear of encirclement by hostile neighbors and of being deprived of its already insufficient water supplies by thirsty or blood-thirsty neighbors. After the unusually heavy rains of the past month, the rocky and normally gray-brown mountains are covered in delightful yellow, white, and orange wildflowers, smatterings of wild red poppy and pink bushes. I am reminded of wildflower tourism in Colorado; alas, one can only dream of that in Afghanistan. Perhaps one day, tourism will re-emerge in Afghanistan, from the breathtaking mountains and valleys of Wakhan, blue mosques of Herat and Mazar, and the symbolic Torkham Gate to the wildflowers of the eastern mountains. As we travel on, birds fly across the road, and I wish once again that I had my binoculars with me. I gave up carrying them to Afghanistan about six years ago — just try explaining to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers and the Afghan National Police (ANP) officers what a female farangi in a salwar kameez is doing with binoculars. “You’re doing what? Looking for birds? What birds – you mean planes, right? You are with the Taliban?” And a burqa is way too clumsy for bird watching. I’ve tried it, and believe me, it is pretty much impossible to focus the binoculars on the bird through a burqa’s mesh visor.

While wildflower spotting in Colorado is wonderful, it does not have Afghanistan’s wonderfully painted trucks that haul goods and contraband from Pakistan and provide a major lifeline for the otherwise unemployed locals. Despite Afghans’ resentment of Pakistan’s incessant meddling in its affairs and continuing sponsorship of the Taliban, many eastern Afghan communities, including in the major transport hub of Jalalabad, rely on the trade with Pakistan as their main source of economic activity. Assorted vegetables and fruit are exported from Nangharhar to Pakistan, along with opium and heroin. Consumer goods of all kinds are imported into Afghanistan. The trucks decorated with bucolic images of lakes and trees are both a source of amusement on the road and a major traffic menace — in a country that already treats road traffic as the ultimate game of chicken and Russian roulette combined.

Nor do Colorado’s roads have the caravans of Kochi people trying to squeeze their way on the one-lane highway. The van in front of us, topped with loads of bags and five Pashtun turbaned men who bravely cling to the roof, seems especially determined to run the Kochis over. These poor and often-oppressed nomads, in their stunningly pink, purple, orange, green clothes and long hair braids, are now moving with their sheep, goats, and the occasional camel from the hot Jalalabad area to Kabul’s outskirts or the Shomali plain.

The people of this region often become embroiled in land disputes — one of the pervasive characteristics of post-2002 Afghanistan and one of the key sources of conflicts. The Taliban exploit these tribal land disputes by positioning themselves on the side of the losing tribe or promising to correct land grabbing by powerbrokers. From Kabul to the arid plains of Balkh to the fertile lands around Jalalabad, land grabbing is intensifying, my Afghan interlocutors tell me. In interview after interview, people complain about being dispossessed from land through fake deeds, by bills of sale listing people long deceased as recent sellers, or simply at the barrel a gun. Government officials wrongly designate land as public and then sell it for high profits to their cronies. “Afghans are not used to investing in bonds or stock,” one Logar malik tells me. “In land is money and prestige. And those in power just steal it.”

Land and house prices have been collapsing all around Afghanistan — recently shrinking by as much fifty percent, Afghans tell me. The price collapse is attributed largely to the tremendous uncertainly and fear of the 2014 transition and reduction in foreign troop presence, but the drop is also connected to the widespread land grabs and speculation, both of which go on unchecked. The pervasive lack of titles also makes it difficult to get credit for land development. For many farmers in Nangarhar, the only people who will lend them money are the unofficial moneylenders who demand guarantees in opium – this is one of many reasons why people feel compelled to cultivate poppy. USAID is trying to improve land cadastres in Afghanistan, including in Nangarhar, but it is slow going and often stirs a political hornets’ nest.

In Sarobi town, I try to persuade my driver to stop at one of the stalls hawking Kochi clothing so I can buy myself a Kochi shawl. Ahmed, however, is vehemently against the idea of stopping and me getting out of the car, even though there are many ANP officers around. He thinks the area is too dangerous. The Sarobi district, where the French ISAF contingent fought some tough battles against the Taliban and suffered difficult casualties, does not have a reputation for tranquility in the eyes of my driver. He is probably too cautious — I hardly think that I would be kidnapped or that we would be hit during a ten-minute transaction over the shawl, even with the obligatory bargaining over the price. And I doubt that even the notoriously corrupt and abusive ANP would dare extort us for a bribe in so blatant manner in the midst of so many people. But then again, there is always the option of radioing ahead to the next checkpoint behind a mountain curve that a juicy a source of “tolls” is coming their way. I decide to respect Ahmed’s judgment and forgo buying the scarf. After all, he is taking substantial risks transporting a lone female farangi around Afghanistan.

As we enter Jalalabad, I pull my headscarf tightly around my head. I just never got the hang of fastening it even remotely as well as Afghan women do. Mine inevitably loosens and starts slipping down. I adjust the headscarf since it is once again important to keep as low a profile as possible in the dense Jalalabad traffic. A major business hub, second perhaps only to Kabul, the city has become notorious for kidnapping and extortion. Ransom charges for relatives of prominent businessmen go between $200,000 and $300,000, a source in Jalalabad tells me, looking around furtively to make sure that he is not overheard. Prominent powerbrokers are often behind criminal gangs. Sometimes they are high government officials — several from Jalalabad are notorious — but they always enjoy immunity. Even when murder, kidnapping, and extortion charges are levied, they escape prison terms. Crime is wildly on the rise in the city, my source complains. I ask him if the police are trying to crack down on it, but he just laughs. The government is often behind the crime; it is weak and corrupt, he maintains. When I later interview an official at the police headquarters in Jalalabad and ask him what the key priority of the ANP in the province is, he tells me it is to win the trust of the people. I inquire what the police in the city can do to accomplish that. He replies that in Jalalabad, the police already have the trust of the people.