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Despite the dangers, I took the risk to visit Afghanistan and it was a thrilling experience

Updated May 10, 2017 04:07pm

Our paths crossed at the arrival hall of the Islamabad airport, next to a baggage conveyor belt. No, we were not arriving passengers, but outgoing passengers whose PIA flight to Kabul had been cancelled virtually at the last minute. The reason given was bad weather, but something else seemed to be in the air.

Relations between the two neighbours were at an all-time low. Land borders had just been reopened after an abrupt weeks-long closure. It seemed that bad blood rather than bad weather was responsible for the inconvenience caused to the dozen or so passengers.

Having got the exit stamps on our passports cancelled, as well as the appropriate flight cancellation papers from the PIA office, we were directed to collect our returned checked-in luggage from the arrivals belt.

It was here that a fellow-traveller asked me why I was going to Afghanistan. Was it business? No, I said, I was going there as a tourist.

Visibly shocked, he advised me against going in the strongest possible terms. When I retorted that he was heading in that direction himself, he let it be known that he was a senior official at the Pakistani embassy there.

Unfortunately, he said, as part of his job, all too often he was called upon to rescue stranded and kidnapped Pakistanis.

With such dire warnings from a Pakistani diplomat, in addition to the well-known dangers of travelling in Afghanistan, with a very heavy heart I almost decided against going.

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It would have been my second failed attempt to visit that country, barely 300 kilometres from Islamabad, where I lived and worked for many years.

For someone who loves travelling more than anything else, this seemed an unacceptable, a rather embarrassing omission on my record.

The first time I had looked at Afghanistan was from the Torkham border, in 1979, shortly after the April 1978 Saur Revolution. The country was under lock-down and there was no question of anyone going in.

A few years ago, I attempted for the second time to go to Afghanistan. I was in Iran, and Afghanistan was my intended next stop before ending a long overland trip through Russia, the Baltics, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

I had applied for a visa at the Afghan consulate in Istanbul. The diplomat who interviewed me warned me against going because of the inherent dangers. On my persistence, however, he granted me a visa.

As fate would have it, I was taken sick in Tehran, which forced me to cut short my trip. Mission aborted, however reluctantly!

Now, when I was finally ready to board a plane for Kabul, the flight had been cancelled. Our stars, I mean mine and Kabul’s, were apparently not in harmony. To go or not to go, that was the question now.

Heedless to these multiple explicit, unequivocal warnings, I decided to go. So, with a Kam Air ticket in hand for later the same day, I was headed for Afghanistan, no matter what.

When my half-empty flight landed at a rather deserted Kabul airport, it was dark. Walking through three eerily empty car park areas, all closed off to traffic, I was able to locate my driver, Muhammad Nabi, sheepishly grinning. He led me to his rather rundown private taxi and drove me to my hotel.

There was no way of knowing if it was a hotel, for there were no signboards. By the looks of it, it could have been a high-security jail. Passing through three iron-clad security doors, I finally arrived in my room.

It was a mid-range hotel arranged by a Pakistani Pushtun who was staying in the same hotel for a ten-day workshop. He had put me in touch with his Afghan Pushtun coordinator, who arranged for my room as well as my transport.

Unusually for any hotel that I have ever known, the room rate included dinner, besides breakfast. And for good reason, too. I was advised not to venture outdoors without an Afghan escort, and certainly not after dark. Like it or not, I had no choice.

Tomb of King Zahir Shah.
Tomb of King Zahir Shah.

View of Kabul from the tomb.
View of Kabul from the tomb.

For the first two days, I went around Kabul in Muhammad Nabi’s private taxi. I seated myself on the front passenger seat for better views, no matter that the windshield in front of me was partly shattered and there was no seat belt protection either.

The main historical attraction that I wanted to see was an important landmark of Kabul, Darul Aman, conceived and partially constructed by King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s.

Its shattered façade has been publicised for decades to show the damage done to Kabul by Mujahideen infighting after the Russians left.

Unfortunately for me, it was draped in cloth, possibly undergoing some restoration.

The new parliament building with its large bronze dome, a US$ 90 million gift from India, was completely out of sight due to the high security fence. It was the target of a Taliban attack in 2015.

To add to my disappointments, the central district, where the presidential palace, defence ministry and the historical old bazar are situated, was also barricaded totally beyond view.

Every morning, from my window, I could see helicopters flying, apparently on combat missions. Also suspended in air over Kabul (and, as I later discovered, over Jalalabad) was a large reconnaissance balloon, sending aerial photos of any emerging threat.

A view of Bagh-e-Babar, Kabul.
A view of Bagh-e-Babar, Kabul.

Arc de Triomphe at Paghman.
Arc de Triomphe at Paghman.

Despite the obvious dangers, I visited Paghman, about 30 kilometres from the city, and the Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul.

Paghman is a picturesque place where the mountain meets land, with water gushing from the melting ice around, and a great picnic spot for Kabul’s residents.

It is also the site of a mini Arc de Triomphe, an imitation of the original in Paris, conceived and built by King Amanullah Khan after his European tour in 1927-28.

Amanullah was a great westerniser, whose bold steps antagonised the conservatives and led to his forced abdication in 1929. Paghman is now the abode of the rich and famous of Afghanistan.

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The Bagh-e-Babur was originally conceived by India’s first Mughal emperor himself, who is known for his love of Afghanistan and disdain for everything Indian. Himself from the Ferghana valley in neighbouring Uzbekistan, he had captured Kabul in 1504. Quite fittingly, he is buried in his favourite city.

The park is in a charming setting and, on the weekend I was there, it was full of holiday-makers strolling and having picnic lunches on the grass. Young men, walking around holding hands, probably no more than an exhibition of friendship, is a common sight in those parts.

Having been dropped off by Muhammad Nabi at the gates, I followed the crowd toward the entrance. When stopped by security, who seemed to be checking entry tickets, I murmured something. Upon which it was loudly announced that I was a kharijee (foreigner) and asked to buy my ticket and enter through another gate.

Needless to say, the ticket for kharijees was far costlier than for locals. While my looks and my shalwar kameez had allowed me to pass for a local, my tongue had betrayed my identity.

Paghman.
Paghman.

I had a good time inside the park, walking around, taking photos and asking strangers to take my photo as well. When I emerged from the park, my driver was nowhere to be found; apparently he had been whisked off by the police from where he was parked. I located him only after a desperate search lasting about half an hour.

That was the only inconvenience of my visit to the park. And a very minor one compared to what my Pakistani acquaintance had experienced in the same park on the same day. He had gone there in the company of his two colleagues, all Pakistanis, as well as an Afghan escort.

While he was taking pictures with his phone, a man in civilian clothes approached them, claiming to be an Afghan intelligence officer. He accused them of taking pictures in a prohibited area and seized the phone after returning the sim card.

The three kharijee gentlemen were totally intimidated, complying without a murmur, and their Afghan escort also remained a silent spectator. The impersonator walked away with the phone. In retrospect, I was very lucky, for things easily could have gone horribly wrong.

The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif.
The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif.

But nothing could deter me from a road trip to Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in the north, not far from the Uzbekistan border. Famous for the Blue Mosque, claimed by locals to be the burial place of Hazrat Ali, Mazar-e-Sharif has been in the news for the last three decades for all the wrong reasons.

A military base during the Russian occupation (1979-88), it was a stronghold of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum for about five years until 1997, when a rebellion by one of his generals, namely, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, forced him to flee.

The city was under Taliban rule from 1998 to 2002 and has been the scene of many massacres and brutalities committed by one and all.

Heading south from Mazar-e-Sharif.
Heading south from Mazar-e-Sharif.

Mostly infamously, when Dostum retook control of the city after the Americans drove out the Taliban in 2002, he locked up hundreds of his prisoners in metal shipping containers on the flat plains south of the city, leaving them to slowly bake to death in the searing summer heat. This story of Dostum’s cruelty is captured in a documentary called Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death (previously called Massacre at Mazar).

Even more than Mazar-e-Sharif’s infamy, I was drawn to the road that connects it to Kabul, over 400 kilometres away. It is dotted with numerous places associated with events from recent Afghan history: Charikar, Bagram, Shomali plains, Panjsher valley, Pol-e-Khomri and many more.

Approach to Salang Tunnel from the south.
Approach to Salang Tunnel from the south.

Convoys at the Salang Road.
Convoys at the Salang Road.

Above all, there is the famous Salang Tunnel, built by the Russians in 1964, enabling the only direct link between northern and southern Afghanistan.

At 3,400 metres high, it was the highest road tunnel until 1979, when it was overtaken by a margin of just one metre by the Eisenhower Tunnel on the I-70 in the US.

It was not without some trepidation, though, that I decided to take the Salang route, rather than fly to Mazar-e-Sharif. Some 2.67 kilometres long, the Salang tunnel was the scene of a catastrophic inferno in 1982, caused by an accident involving two Soviet military convoys.

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It resulted in the death of over 2,000 people, reportedly including 700 Soviet troops. More recently, in 2010, a series of avalanches at both ends of the tunnel resulted in the deaths of 172 persons.

With such statistics at the back of my mind, I was a bit anxious, to say the least. On entering the tunnel, however, I found it terrifying, for it wasn’t even a road, just a rocky surface, wet and slippery from melting ice, and choked with convoys of large fuel trucks. A mechanical breakdown or a minor accident could lead to very catastrophic results.

Then there were the hairpin bends and perhaps two dozen small and big semi-tunnels on either side of the main tunnel. Broken down trucks and trucks with flat tires littered the road. Needless to say, traffic moved at a snail’s pace, prolonging the terror.

North entrance to Salang Tunnel.
North entrance to Salang Tunnel.
Driving outside the Salang Tunnel on the northern side.
Driving outside the Salang Tunnel on the northern side.

The landscape changed throughout the journey, starting with the Shomali plains, then rising, snow-clad mountains, followed by lush green valleys with bare mountains on either side, finally culminating in the flat plains on the approaches to Mazar-e-Sharif. From beginning to end, however, the scenery was just stunning.

When we passed Pol-i-Khomri, about 200 kilometres south of Mazar-e-Sharif, my driver, Ismail Agha, a Pushtun from Kunduz, warned me that the next 100 kilometres or so was a dangerous area, with a looming Taliban threat. But the journey to Mazar-e-Sharif was eventless, although the sight of numerous Humvees and army or police checkpoints were evidence of potential dangers.

North of Pol-e-Khomri.
North of Pol-e-Khomri.

On the way back the next day, however, the situation had changed. When Ismail called up his local contacts to check up on the security situation on the road ahead, I sensed trouble from his side of the conversation.

Ismail’s demeanour changed completely. A father of nine, he looked visibly worried. Without saying a word, he made a sharp u-turn and parked the car at the nearest police checkpost, about a kilometre away.

I needed no explaining but Ismail explained to me nevertheless that there was danger ahead and we needed to wait. Fortunately, less than an hour and a few phone calls later, he felt confident enough to resume the journey.

On the same topic: Splendour falls on palace walls

Barely had we covered a kilometre than I saw Humvees on the move and heard the sound of firing. In trying to drive away fast, our car got sandwiched in a column of three Humvees, with their guns scanning the area.

I asked Ismail to break out and get ahead of the column, but our attempt to escape from a dangerous situation landed us in an even more perilous location – we now got sandwiched between two large oil tankers! Any hit on a tanker could result in an explosion and an inferno.

I again asked Ismail to overtake the tankers, which he did. The firing died down and we made it to Pol-i-Khomri in good shape. And thence to Kabul.

The view was magnificent as seen from Sarobi Gorge, a point we stopped at between the winding roads.
The view was magnificent as seen from Sarobi Gorge, a point we stopped at between the winding roads.

Kabul to Jalalabad road.
Kabul to Jalalabad road.

The following day, I made a day-trip to Jalalabad, not far from the Torkham border with Pakistan and the main Pushtun city of Afghanistan, besides Kandahar further south.

It is where both King Amanullah Khan and Khudai Khidmatgar leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as the Frontier Gandhi, are buried. Jalalabad is also the hometown of a large portion of the Afghan cricket team.

Along the road is the Sarobi Gorge, where the road rises, twists and turns, providing some very spectacular views.

Sarobi I knew as the place where the Taliban inflicted a crushing defeat on Hekmatyar’s forces in the final phase of their near-total victory over the former Mujahideen. When they were over and done with, only Ahmad Shah Masood held out in a small enclave in the north.

Visible from the road, on the outskirts of Kabul, is situated the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison. It is a massive, high security jail extending a few kilometres along the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, known for extreme brutality inflicted on its inmates ever since it was constructed in the early 1980s.

Near Sarobi Gorge on Jalalabad road.
Near Sarobi Gorge on Jalalabad road.

I avoided talking politics with my two drivers, with whom I spent many hours and was tempted to get their views on recent events in Afghanistan.

But to my straightforward question as to who, in their opinion, had been the best ruler of their country – and I named every one starting from King Zahir Shah, through Sardar Daoud, Nur Mohammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, Babrak Karmal, Najibullah, Ahmad Karzai, down to the incumbent Ashraf Ghani – I got the same answer from both, one a Tajik and the other a Pushtun.

Their favourite leader was Dr Mohammad Najibullah, who was President from 1987 to 1992, following the departure of Russian troops. Najibullah was a strongman from the Pushtun Ahmadzai tribe who ruled independently of any foreign influence or control.

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Contrary to widespread expectation of the imminent collapse of his regime after the Russian withdrawal in 1988, Najib kept the ship of state afloat and the Mujahideen at bay, until he was betrayed by his ally, none other than Abdul Rashid Dostum, in 1992, when he sought refuge in a UN compound.

A brave man he was, for when Ahmad Shah Massoud decided to withdraw his forces from Kabul to his stronghold in the north fearing an imminent Taliban takeover of the city, he offered to take Najibullah with him, but the latter refused to go. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, they seized and killed him with great brutality.

Sadly, I was unable go to either Herat or to Bamyan, for my Afghan visa only allowed me a maximum stay of ten days. But the time I spent in the country, I was glad I finally got to visit Afghanistan.

Treeless plain on approach to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Treeless plain on approach to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Road to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Road to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Valley on road to Mazar-e-Sharif.
Valley on road to Mazar-e-Sharif.


All photos by the author.


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