HAD TO MOVE
My travel essays have gotten so big they needed their own site.
To read the rest of the journey go to: https://afghantravels.wordpress.com/
All the best, Jason
This section of my blog will be dedicated to stories about my travels to nearly every valley, plain, city, and village across the nation of Afghanistan. I was privileged to meet Afghans from every walk of life and to travel with great men and women from numerous other countries as we partnered to help the Afghan people. For many this is a very different side of Afghanistan.
Up the Salang Valley, November 2002
Many of my early travels around Afghanistan were part of an effort to understand the infrastructure problems that the Afghan National Army (ANA) would face to see how the U.S. and its allies could help them deal with their future problems. This journey in November from Kabul, the Capital city tucked in the mountains, across the plains north of the city and up the Salang Valley to one of the highest tunnels in the world was no exception. First, we were trying to learn about the extent of the landmine problem in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Second, we wanted to see the road system that crossed the mountains dividing the Northern militia strongholds from the Central and Southern part of the county. The road link between Kabul and the northern cities was vital to the new Army and the new government. The Salang Tunnel was the key to that route. (photos from the travel team)
The main party for this trip included Marin Strmecki an OSD advisor on Afghanistan, LTG Retired Crocker who was helping develop a training program for the Afghan Army, MG Karl Eikenberry the officer charged by the Secretary of Defense with developing the new Army and coordinating the entire security sector reform process. Our guide was a gentleman from the British HALO Trust demining NGO named Gerrard. His team was working up and down the plains and valleys north of Kabul and he was one of the best-suited people to describe the status of the demining operations in the country. Our usual patient and daring team of security personnel, drivers, and interpreters were also along for another adventure. None of them were very excited about entering a minefield on purpose or driving a road that kills hundreds yearly in due to avalanche or suffocation near or in the tunnel but they were amazing as always.
You may recognize The HALO Trust logo or name from the late Princess Diana’s partnership with them to bring awareness to the number of landmines buried worldwide. Today Prince Harry is a patron of The HALO Trust and the team is still very active today in “getting mines out of the ground” in over 16 countries. To date HALO has removed over 12 million explosive devices from the ground which means they have possibly stopped the death or maiming of at least 12 million living beings.
We started our trip out of Kabul where there was no snow on the ground and the temperatures were around 40 degrees.
As we neared the Bagram Airfield area we approached our first minefield undergoing de-mining. We had already passed through miles of red and white stone lined roads. Red painted stones marked the areas that still retained mines while white painted stones marked areas that had been cleared.
The HALO Trust team took us into the villages where some people were starting to move back into the cleared portions. We saw many people with missing limbs, as well as animals that had found hidden explosive devices over the years. The villages were part of the front line of major battles that had been fought near the mouth of the Panjir valley over the decades. It made for one of the most daunting minefields I have ever seen as an engineer officer. It was literally a 3D minefield. The mines were embedded in the mud walls, on trees, and of course in the ground. But the ground had been re-seeded with mines over the years so even if you cleared them down 12-18 inches you may still find a lower level of mines from an earlier minefield at the 24-36 inch level.
These de-miners were some of the bravest men I would see in Afghanistan. They were Afghans trained and paid by HALO Trust to reclaim lands that had been lost to years of warfare.
After touring the mined village and pasture we moved to a disposal site where the mines we sent down a long conveyor belt to a machine that literally chewed and shredded them (hopefully without detonating them).
We also got some demonstrations of the various low cost modifications they did to standard construction equipment to turn it into de-mining equipment. It was sobering to think about how many villagers in this country had lived for years in these villages dodging the mines and explosives as they went through their daily routine of gathering food, raising livestock, washing clothes, and walking to nearby villages to shop, trade, or work.
After we spent a few hours in the minefields and talking to the de-miners our team packed back in the vehicles and started to climb up the mountains towards the Salang tunnel. We left the crisp cool of the brown plains and entered valleys that contained rushing clear cold water. The houses were built into the sides of the earth and there was plenty of green to be seen in the gardens surrounding the homes.
The snow started to thicken after we crossed a series of makeshift bridges that used military equipment to span the valleys. We always inspected the rickety bridges to assess how an 18-wheel truck would navigate it as we would soon be hauling tanks from the North into Kabul for refit so they could be used by the new Army. Below most bridges were the remains of previous bridges and vehicles that unsuccessfully navigated over the structures. This area was near the Panjir Valley made famous by one of the leaders, Ahmad Sha Massoud, who led a faction against the Soviet Union and then held out until the U.S. arrived against the Taliban government. His activities during the civil war in Afghanistan are a topic for another time. Massoud was assassinated by AQ just days before September 11th 2001 but his allies would partner with the United States during invasion.
The roads, as we travelled further northward and higher in elevation began to twist and turn up the valleys and with only a few concrete guardrails along the miles, were very dangerous.
As we neared the Southern end of the tunnel we ran into the traffic backed-up waiting to enter the tunnel that was not yet open to two-way traffic. We were waiting in an area that was notorious for annual avalanches that wiped dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people off the 11,000 foot roadside. We could only hope that our timing was good.
The tunnel was state of the art when it was built with the assistance of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It is 11,200 feet above sea level and the trek through it is 1.6 miles long. Most of the tunnel is 20 feet wide and at its highest points its 16 feet high. When we entered the tunnel we discovered two things, it had no lighting and no ventilation. That is when our guide started to describe the deaths by suffocation that often occurred when a vehicle breaks down and blocks the tunnel. The other cars stuck in the tunnel don’t turn off their engines so the tunnel quickly fills with dangerous gasses that cause people to pass out and die. It was at that point a call over the radio ensured that all the military drivers keep their protective masks handy in case of stoppage.
We moved slowly through the pitch black tunnel without incident as we traveled North. Once on the other side we all quickly rolled down the windows to get some fresh winter air. We turned around our caravan at the next available spot and joined the line of trucks and vehicles heading South through the pass. We would be awhile so everyone got out stretching their legs and breathing some clean air.
It was one of the most breathtaking views I had seen so far in Afghanistan.
As the trucks started to move slowly forward we remounted our vehicles and the drivers prepared to drive and slide downhill through the tunnel that was a bit icy.
This time we were not as lucky as the vehicles stopped as we neared the center of the tunnel. Our drivers donned their protective masks as the gasses built up in the tunnel and started to make everyone groggy and nauseous.
The drivers avoided any major accidents as we passed safely to the south side of the mountains without passing out.
The trip back to Kabul was a reverse of the northern route and we ended the day with a dinner for the team. The Salang Tunnel is still active today and after much construction is a bit safer for drivers. Nearly 7,000 vehicles pass though the mountain daily shaving off 200 miles of driving to go around the mountains separating much of Northern Afghanistan from the capital region. It may not be one of the wonders of the world but the Salang Tunnel is an unforgettable piece of the earth that is invaluable to the Afghan people.
Into Nuristan, September 2003
I accompanied MG Karl Eikenberry on our usual weekly ANA recruiting trip and central government awareness campaign. On this visit Afghan Minister Nuristani and American Charge de Affairs David Sedney were in attendance.
The mountains rose up below us and the typical shades of brown common in Afghanistan transformed to an evergreen green. Three Russian helicopters chopped steadily through the thin air carrying its passengers safely into the altitudes that lesser aircraft dared not venture. We were on another ANA recruiting trip but this time would be different.
Nuristan means the place of light. The inhabitants were enlightened about the ways of Islam by a very forceful Afghan king only a century earlier. The land used to be known as the land of the non-believers or Kafiristan. When I started to plan the trip to Nuristan I fondly recalled the stories Newbey captured in his humorous travel adventure book a Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Later I would discover the meticulous writings about Nuristan by one of the world’s greatest adventurers known usually for his travels in Arabia. Newby and his companion actually bumped into the famous British explorer Wilfred Thesiger while they were wandering in Nuristan. The Nuristani people described by these early Western intruders had changed very little by early Fall 2003.
I could not resist hanging out the porthole of the aircraft by a buddy held my belt tightly—the scenery below me was breathtaking and I needed to capture the images with MG E’s camera. The mountains below on which the lush pine forest grew were around 16,500 feet (5000 meters) high. The tall and thick forests were surprising to see as most of the country I had seen in my previous travels was either rocky, sandy or covered with small orchards or crops. This area seemed untouched and uninhabited and based on Nuristani culture they liked it that way.
The helicopter came close to the mountain tops and we could see wooden structures that must have been communal homes based on their size. Like my grandfather’s old farmhouse that also contained a summer kitchen, skinning room, canned goods cellar, hay barn, stables, and the outhouse I was imagining what all the rooms in those structures contained. The construction was simple and sturdy. Cut into the sides of the mountain they were made of timber, stone, and mud. Outside the homes were some small fields for crops and areas for grazing their livestock. Some were nicer than others and it seemed that some might be abandoned during parts of the year.
We approached the village that would host our Army recruiting discussion we started to see the Nuristani people for the first time as we circled down towards the Landing Zone. The pictures tell the story but we were all caught off guard to see them formed up into ancient military formations, cavalry, archers, and spearmen appeared to be awaiting an inspection by Askunder (Alexander the Great—who they were still talking about in Nuristan as if it was last week he passed through).
As we glided over a raging clear mountain river remnants of new construction and preparations for this event lay strewn around the village. We touched down and were greeted by the elders and escorted to the village square where they had prepared a demonstration of their martial capabilities.
It was surreal. As we approached the square on a narrow shaded path through the surrounding trees, boulders and corn we saw a few men (no women on this trip) baking and cooking behind the two story building. In front of the building was a raised platform that contained the chairs our party and the elders would sit on. Surrounding the dirt square were the locals some were standing, others sitting and many perched up in the tree branches ready to watch the show.
As we walked by the militia we stopped to shake hands and take photographs of these men. It was our chance to look into the eyes of the men we wanted to recruit. It turns out many of the men’s eyes were surrounded by wrinkles. The intent of the talks would now change to convincing these men to send their sons to Kabul to join the National Army that was in its infancy.
As strange as the Nuristani dress seemed to us (the drum corps wore blue hats with a knock off Nike swoosh) our delegation must have seemed stranger. We were a mix of US Military, Afghan Central Government leaders, International community diplomats, Afghan military and coalition military officers. No one in Kabul turned down their invitation to go on this awareness trip.
One memorable sight for me was the faces of the children. If you had changed their clothes and dropped them off on the streets of New York City no one would give them a second glance. The supposed genetic code left by Alexander’s Army in this part of Asia seemed more fact than myth to me.
After we were seated on the stage the militia leader gave orders and his men started to perform close-order-drill for us. Unit by unit they displayed their weapons and skills. First came a unit of spearmen then the drummers followed by another unit of spear bearers. The first unit of spearmen wore a traditional hand-made jacket we came to call the Nuristani hunting jacket. They were made of itchy wool and each displayed a different patchwork of quilted colorful rectangles that may have represented their family or lineage in some way. They seemed to be the vanguard of the force but the jackets could also be found on the backs of the cavalry who were mostly armed with sabers while some carried flags. Next came the archers carrying their bows and arrows and wearing a hard-to-miss orange uniform. Finally a third unit of archers paraded past.
After the review they formed up in the middle of the square and had a seat. To see a military unit take a seat on a parade field is out of the ordinary for the West but our speakers usually keep their comments short so standing is not to unbearable. This was Afghanistan. Here the people knew better than to challenge an Afghan speaker’s ability to talk forever—especially if that Afghan has a microphone in front of him. This is not meant to disparage their culture but to explain the importance of oral communication to the Afghans. Great leaders must be great speakers and the larger the crowd the more impressive he should be. I likened them to the great southern church orators that can pack thousands of people into their mega-churches—you better bring you’re A game every Sunday in the South or your congregation will move to a more motivated preacher.
While there were no calls for “can I get an Amen?!” the crowd was entertained. First a local leader spoke to the masses. Next a group of young boys sang and recited. Minister Nuristani explained the mission of our delegation and then Dep Minister of Defense Atiqullah Baryalai spoke. Finally MG Eikenberry got up to give his normal pitch to the Nuristani elders. After he spoke I grew bored of the speakers and the hot sun so I wandered off to see the village. I inspected the kitchen where they were preparing food for the feast that was surely coming.
From the outdoor kitchen I walked down to the river we had flown over to get some cool water. The water felt freezing to me for September but the altitudes this water was flowing down from are something we rarely see in America. The Rocky mountains would be swallowed up out here in the foothills of the Himalayas.
As the speeches started to wrap up and people talked and took photographs inside the house people were busy spreading meats, cheeses, rice and bread on the plastic tarps on the floor of the meeting house.
After we filled out stomachs and stories were told we started to make our way to the helicopters for our journey back to Kabul. Earlier I was invited to try out some of the Cavalrymen’s mountain ponies so I set a plan in motion with my interpreter team.
Earlier in the afternoon as I was test-driving their steeds one of the young Soldiers ran over to pass a message from General Eikenberry. In a nutshell he told me to stop horsing around during the speeches because more of the Nuristani people were interested in watching me ride than listening to the 7th and 8th speakers of the afternoon. I jumped off the horse and wandered back to the crowd but my plot was in motion.
I had asked if the Cavalry chief would let us use his horses for the senior delegates to ride back to the landing zone. I assured him that all of his guests were capable riders. As usual I was bending the facts a bit to ensure the locals would get to see a memorable moment.
As the delegation left the communal home they were met by Nuristani horsemen holding the reins of their ponies. The local chief told them that they would be riding back to the helicopters.
Major General Eikenberry immediately found me smiling nearby and asked if I had anything to do with this. I replied with a smirk that I surely did.
As he got on the horse he whispered to me that I would be leading the caravan back to the birds and that if he fell off I would pay. We had gotten to know each other pretty well and it wasn’t the first time I surprised him to keep him young.
So off we went down the trail and no one experienced any major injuries to person or ego on the trip.
At the helicopters we partook in some manly feats of martial skill with bows and arrows. Which the Nuristani were much handier with.
Then they surprised us with gifts as they wished us farewell and asked for us to return. They gave us wheels of cheese that were about 18 inches across. They fitted us with homespun Nuristani wool jackets that we later found out were taken off the backs of the militia-men. They promised to send their sons to join the new Afghan Army and police forces.
Nuristan will long live in my memories as I can still remember this trip 12 years later as if it was yesterday. My woolen Nuristani jacket still hangs in my guest room closet and I race back in time every time I see it.