The first landing in Kabul is white-knuckled and spectacular. Beneath us, the azure blue of the Straights of Hormuz have given way to the wind-scoured deserts of Iran, then the frozen plains surrounding Kandahar, before the Hindu Kush erupts upward like a thrusting knife that threatens to cut us from the sky. I spend the flight with my face glued to the window. Images remain with me. The mountains outcrops of Oman’s Musandam Govenorate that jut from a sea of liquid silver like so many flooded peaks. Dust-storms racing below us across the cold brown plains inland of Bandar-e-Abbas. The spectacular faulting of the landscape, of Bazman’s rugged and striated peak, vast salt lakes along Afghanistan’s southern border, and the smattering of tiny muddy hamlets somehow eking survival from wildness. As we bypass Kandahar, subdued under a riming of frozen snow, I notice an object hovering a few thousand feet below us and see the dull, unmistakable silhouette of a military drone.
Kabul Valley seems to have just one way in and one way out. Nestled in a crook of the Hindu Kush, the peaks here have not forgotten that they are the tail end of the Himalaya. They are fierce and snow-capped, and for the first few minutes, while we are still twenty minutes out, I watch them, enthralled.
Then we drop down, and the cloud rolls in.
We’re still at twenty-some thousand feet as I catch sight, through a hole in the grey, that shows a finger of rock and ice jabbing up at us, not very far away at all. As the plane kicks in the shifting air currents, I begin to pray that the pilot has good GPS. We bank and circle, looking for our path through the rock-studded clouds. When visibility next opens up, we’re slipping through a pass into the valley, and there’s a peak perpendicular with the starboard wing, another straight off the port. The pilot’s found his way in, and there’s not much wriggle-room.
In late February, Kabul is still very much in the grip of the winter air that floods down the mountainsides and pools in its wide dun basin. The ground is hard with frost, desiccated with sheaves of windblown dust. The city itself has a squat profile, walled compounds and wide avenues punctuated by minarets and guard-towers. In the harsh afternoon sunlight, the mountains that peer down are crisp and severe.
The tension here is felt as soon as we disembark the aircraft. It’s an unspoken recognition that the context has changed. No longer Kansas. This is my first trip to Afghanistan, so if arriving here has always felt heavy, I have no idea. Multiple friends have reported that since last month’s deadly assault on the Taverna du Liban, a popular expatriate hangout, there has been a particularly sombre feel in the international community. Regardless, Afghanistan is heading for a choppy season- pending elections and an anticipated drawdown of foreign troops are likely to see an increase in destabilizing attacks. The place exhales a sullen anxiety.
It’s not helped by my immediate circumstances. My choice of reading on the plane in is Washington Post journalist and Pullitzer Prize winner Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent, a gripping telling of the al Qaeda operative who blew himself and eight CIA officers up inside an FOB in eastern Afghanistan. As we stand in line to have our luggage collected, C. passes round his cell-phone. His team survived a suicide bombing here some years back, and he’s jokingly showing off images he’s snapped of the head of the hapless jihadi, neatly separated from its shoulders.
His subtext is clear. This is where we are, boys.
For all the callous joking, I like my team. C. is a gruff bear of a guy, ex-serviceman and a veteran of hard times and places both in the military and as an aid-worker, all but unapproachable any hour prior to noon, but knowledgeable, jovial and with a story for every occasion.
R. is newer to this line of work- like me this is his first trip to Afghanistan, and like me he’s a little edgy at first- but you wouldn’t know it to speak to him. He’s smart, sharp, a real pro, and good-natured to round it all off.
K. is from one of the ex-Soviet republics and a former special forces operator. He’s cool and switched on, with a sense of humour as dry as triple-distilled vodka, so that the only way you can tell he’s joking is the sharp little gleam in his eye and the suggestion of a curl at one corner of his mouth. I ask him if he’s ever been to Afghanistan before, and he looks at me a beat before replying,
“I don’t remember.”
Given that the country is about to celebrate a 25th anniversary commemorating getting rid of the Soviets, I remind myself not to stand too close to him.
Blackhawks are circling as we cross the concrete to the domestic terminal. Two of them to begin with, then joined by two more, then two more, and, finally, a pair of Mi-8s, all filling the city air with their thrumming, doing loops of the metropolitan area. I note the two observation blimps with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. Their purpose is obvious, but it’s still a little odd to see them hanging in the blue, oddly out of place above this cold, dusty city.
We stop for a cigarette break. I’m the odd one out here, the token non-smoker. We stand on the flat expanse of the airport forecourt, the air cold but the sun strong. The threat of car-bombs means that no vehicles of any sort can approach the terminals, and there’s a straggling line of arriving passengers and their luggage picking their way across to the first of many checkpoints leading into the city.
K. smokes thin little cigarettes.
“0.01 percent nicotine, 0.01 percent tar,” he tells me happily, and smokes two for every one that C. and R. light up.
I’m reluctant to board a domestic Afghan airliner- I have heard only bad things about Ariana- or, as it’s less affectionately known, Scary-ana- but the MD-11 is in decent shape (on the outside at least), and after a while circling the valley, we clear the mountain pass.
But not the mountains.
I’ve flown over the Rockies, over the Alps (northern and Southern), flown in and out of the Himalaya. I love my mountains and make no secret of it. So when I say I’ve never seen mountains like these before, I’m not being dramatic.
We fly for an hour westward in a commercial jet. During that time, the mountains don’t stop. Peak after peak, gashed ravines and wild peaks. Winter seas them blanketed in white, so only the sharpest ridgelines stand out in rocky contrast. We fly at 25,000 feet, and the crests seem to break not that far beneath us. Habitation is all but nonexistent. There are no roads, no towns, no evidence at all that people live here, or ever have. This place defines rugged. I am awestruck and spend the flight peering from the porthole.
The sun has fallen when we land in Herat, and is nothing more than a crimson smudge backlighting an outcrop several hundred feet high. The mountains have given way at what feels like the last minute to a snowless plain. We disembark into cold night air. Helicopter gunships lurk like oversized wasps on the apron.
We’re met by J. and A., our local fixers. J. has a face round as a moon, with intelligent eyes and a warm, patient smile which he shares with us often. Clean-shaven with short dark hair, he looks less like the typical Afghans portrayed in the media (most often the Pashtun from the east of the nation), and more Iranian. Herat is a border-town, with solid road links to both Iran and Tajikistan, and this difference- both cultural and economic- has made all the difference to the relative stability of this western province.
J.’s offsider A. is a small, slender man who has a constant sense of doing about him. During the week we spend with him, he becomes our go-to guy to get things happening, and he is never off his cell-phone, to the point that I’m convinced he’s running a business- or three- on the side. Hopefully in the saffron trade. A. has two wives and eight kids, the youngest of which we learn was born just a day or two before we arrived. He later informs us with a sheepish smile that he’s done with having children now.
The four westerners cram into an unmarked SUV, while the Afghans chase ahead in a red sedan with sunken suspension. The airport is twenty clicks outside town, joined by a single straight stretch of highway.
We race into the darkness, swerving around trucks, or vehicles stalled at the roadside. The Kandahar Highway has all the hallmarks of a popular target. Passengers from every flight- including expat aid workers, contractors or government officials- have no choice but to take it. It hasn’t been bombed in about six months, when an IED went off next to the police checkpoint at the end of the bridge. As J. pointed out to us in his written briefing, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a wrong-place wrong-time equation, but the odds are good these days. We don’t slow until we hit town.
Herat is Afghanistan, but not the Afghanistan portrayed in the media- of constant suicide bombings, complex insurgent attacks, and soldiers in body-armour patrolling dusty laneways. The city sits in the valley of the Hari River, where the Hindu Kush peters out into a series of serrated spurs and finally crumble to dust. From a good vantage in the city, you can see mountains on three sides. To the north, a low brown ridge like crushed velvet catches the morning light in folds in its flank. South and east, snowcapped ridges and peaks dominate the horizon, and only westward, towards Iran, is the landscape calm.
The Hindu Kush makes Afghanistan. It has carved a tough and resilient mountain people, at home in a harsh climate, and all the tougher for it. It has contributed to the rise of clans and tribes, separated by valleys and by winter snows that isolate them for months at a time and so make them fiercely independent and cohesive. And it has in effect created two nations- one to the south and east of the dividing range, and another to the north and west.
Security is tight in Herat. There are armed opposition groups in the surrounding countryside, hostile to government and to outsiders, and anybody perceived as helping them. Variations on the Taliban-allied militias have their reach even this far west, as well as local militias, disenfranchised tribal leaders and criminal gangs. The fragile government in Afghanistan is a breeding ground for this low-level anarchy, and Herat has had its share of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, the most recent of which occurred a fortnight before our arrival when two election workers were shot dead.
None the less, it has none of the obvious trappings of a war-zone. There are no soldiers in evidence on the street, no coalition convoys or overt military presence to be seen. Compounds are walled and wired, guards standing watch, but life goes on in the streets much like it would in any other south Asian city.
There is bustle and there is energy, and the economy is reportedly in a solid upswing. This bodes well for stability. The streets are full, traffic is congested, and about the roundabouts and streetsides, shops are full of household goods and thronged with pedestrians. Little red motorbike tri-shaws, the trailers oddly tipped back at an awkward thirty degrees, run about laden with passengers and boxed cargo, while battered Toyota Hi-Ace vans, tailgates open and innards stripped out to cram fares, are the workhorses of the city’s public transportation network. Off-street shopping malls house glass-fronted stalls loaded with consumer electronics, children’s clothing and kitchenwares. Life goes on.
We don’t meander and we don’t loiter. We move quickly from compound to compound, and our observations of the city itself are snatched during moments when our scanning for threats lapses. While the city might be stable, we know that there are still hostile elements here, and an SUV full of expats makes for a valuable target. We travel in unmarked, unarmoured vehicles without any form of protection other than anonimity- as it should be- but we’re not silly about it, and we know we have no real protection if something should go wrong. The atmosphere, however, is one of focus, not of fear, and the vibe we get off the city is generally good.
If there’s an exception, it’s at the Blue Mosque.
We’ve taken an hour off from work and A. has offered to show us a little of the city. We visit the spectacular Citadel, a grand sandstone-brick structure first laid down in the time of Alexander the Great and more recently restored to superb condition courtesy of the Aga Khan Foundation. We wander the footpaths and battlements, enjoying the sweeping curves of the architecture and the prominent views it allows from its higher towers. Frozen snow lurks in the shadows. We look out across flat-roofed houses pierced by minarets, and cooking smoke hangs with a dusty haze in the still air. The sky is an aching blue that leaves outlines so sharp they look as though they could cut.
On the northern edge of town we see the Martyr’s Museum, a monument to those who gave their lives fighting the Soviet invaders during the 1980s. In particular it commemorates the Herat uprising of 1979, when the people of Herat rose up against the Soviet-backed government, and were subsequently brutally repressed, with as many as 25,000 killed. Ismail Khan, now a local legend, rose to lead one of the most significant anti-Soviet Mujaheddin, and later allied himself with Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance against the Taliban until fleeing to Iran. He returned to Herat to support US action against the Taliban, and in late 2001, Herat was liberated and Khan became provincial Governor.
(As an interesting aside- the liberation of Herat from the Taliban by US and coalition troops reportedly involved covert action by anti-Taliban factions within the area, but also Iranian operatives who crossed the border in support of US intervention. Amazing.)
The Museum is a large rotunda with Arabic calligraphy adorning the tiled outer walls. Captured Soviet-era weaponry- everything from small mortars and anti-aircraft guns, to an unmistakable Mi-24 gunship- are scattered about the grounds. Inside, the main hall has another display of weapons, from flintlock rifles of the 1800s, their stocks meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl, to real [deactivated] landmines, PPSh World War Two-era submachine-guns and modern PKM drum-fed machine-guns.
Upstairs, a circular diorama, a combination of fresco wall-paintings and scale models, depicts the Herat uprising in gruesome but startlingly powerful detail. Painted portraits of mujaheddin who gave their lives fighting the Soviets line the walls, each name prefaced by the title Shaheed- Martyr.
On a hill along from the Museum sits the US Consulate, notable for being the target of a complex attack in September. Ten assailants in suicide vests and driving VBIEDs attacked the compound with bombs and firearms, killing a number of local security forces and bystanders, but failing to gain entry to the compound itself.
The attack- otherwise unremarkable in a nation that has seen dozens like it over the last decade- is notable more for understanding the intelligence behind it. Media reported that all ten attackers were killed, while apparently in reality, two were seized alive but reported killed by local forces, and now languish at the pleasure of the Afghan Government in a facility somewhere.
Afghan and US intelligence forces both reportedly knew about the attack beforehand- right down to the number plates of the vehicles involved, and the names and profiles of the attackers. The decision was made to allow the attackers to converge on the Consulate and carry out their attack, knowing that adequate defenses would prevent them breaching their target. This was preferable to attempting to thwart the attack early and having the bombers detonate in a less controlled environment or, worse, risk them escaping into the city where they would be uncontrollable. The decision cost the lives of six local security guards working at the Consulate, but such is the harsh mathematics of counter-terrorism.
Four ancient minarets stand crumbling, outlined against the crisp sky. Vast and without structure to support them, they look almost like abandoned chimney-stacks, the remnants of some industrial complex relegated to history. We get out of the cars and observe them briefly, standing next to a man selling oranges from a bicycle stall. The British allegedly used the grand structures as targets for gunnery practice during their war with Persia in the mid-1800s. The pock-marks remain. It’s sad to see such treasures so degraded and disrespected.
When we finally make it to the Blue Mosque, the al-Asr prayer is finishing, and the devout are streaming out beneath the blue tiled minarets. The structure is grand and imposing. Delicate calligraphy patterns the walls as though a thousand small birds have dipped their feet in ink and run riot. In the deep shaded courtyard, snowdrifts have frozen like mounds of crystalized salt, treacherous underfoot.
It’s one of the few moments I feel more than just wary in Herat, but outright threatened. I’m no paranoiac- I have deep respect for Islam and its practitioners, and the years I’ve spent in Muslim countries and with Muslim friends and colleagues leave me with no doubt as to the peaceful heart of the vast majority. But in a nation where a fundamentalist insurgency preaches violence against foreign occupiers and their allies, I have no doubt there are people walking past us who would happily see harm come to us- a sensation I’ve never experienced walking into a mosque before.
We four westerners glance at each other and exchange a few words to the effect of, “This is a bad time to be here,” and promptly lead A. back out onto the street and to the vehicles.
The days are gentle, cloudless with bright sunshine that leaves the sky blue like an ink-pot and shadows black like ravines. Stone walls gleam until the eyes hurt. Everything tastes fresh. I sleep well, leaving my hotel window cracked to allow the freezing night air to trickle in as I tuck down.
The mornings are bitterly cold. I join C., R. and K. as they have their post-breakfast nicotine fix, and the sun isn’t above the blast-walls yet. White smoke billows upwards. K. loves his thin cigarettes, and has A. pick up two cartons specifically for K. to take home with him.
Our last night, we have dinner at the team house. The food has been delicious throughout- meat so tender that it drips from the bone under its own weight when you pick it up, aromatic rather than spicy, all accompanied by fresh naan and yoghurt. We start the evening sharing conversation around a shisha pipe, sitting in the courtyard under blankets against the bitter night breeze and blowing smoke-rings as the air stills. The local variant has a lemon twist to it, fresh and delicious. Exhausted as our mission comes to a close, I fall asleep early.
I have a restless dream in which a familiar, rhythmic sound won’t let me settle. I come to slowly with a sense that something is not right. I’ve not been asleep long, and as my mind focuses, I hear a sharp tok-tok-tok-tok-tok in the middle distance.
Bursts of automatic gunfire, unmistakenly Kalashnikovs, volley back and forth.
I listen long enough to know it’s not happy fire. The chatter is interspersed with throatier bangs. I raise myself up at the window. Maybe a mile west, straight up the main thoroughfare, I watch the flash of a grenade exploding. That deep pop follows, and then more shooting.
I don’t stay at the window, but move to where my clothes are already laid out and dress in the darkness. I put my shoes on, pocket my flashlight and two phones, grab my bug-out bag and lie back in bed, listening.
A major attack isn’t likely in Herat, but we’re staying in one of only a couple of expat-standard hotels in the city, so it’s obviously on the target list. I try to make sense of the action, but it’s at a distance. Certainly not a threat where we are. I’m listening to see if it’s coming any closer.
The bed is in the dead space against the corner, below the window. That way if the windows are blasted inwards, the glass will fly over the top of me and I won’t be lacerated. I’d already done that calculation when I first moved in at the start of the trip, and each night as I’ve bedded down, I’ve settled right into the very corner, just in case. The way my mind works. I lie there a while, and after some time, the shooting fades.
My local mobile buzzes. It’s J.. He tells us there’s an ongoing assault on a checkpoint in District 7, but we should still be able to make our flight in the morning as the airport is in a different direction.
Whether it’s a local feud, a deliberate attack on a government position by armed opposition, or part of a bigger operation isn’t clear right now. I keep listening. With no further shooting or blasts, I eventually remove my gear and fatigue takes me into a light sleep. Car tires crunch the gravel roundabout outside the hotel, and every crackle jolts me awake again, my nerves on edge. Come five a.m. when we have to get up to catch our flight, I’m not feeling very rested.
Seven of us squeeze into the SUV as we race back to the airport. I note the driver sticks stubbornly to the middle of the broad, empty avenues- standard practice in an environment notorious for roadside bombs, but we arrive without incident. The access road to the airport is a snaking maze of guards, boom-gates and 12-foot cement blast walls that make the approach feel like a level to Castle Wolfenstein.
A sign scrawled in front of the first checkpoint reads “Switch off ECMs”- the electronic counter-measures that block radio frequencies in an attempt to thwart phone-triggered booby-traps. Military convoys carry them. The envelope of supposed safety they create is called a ‘bubble’, although allegedly, insurgents are now setting up devices with long leads that run out to receivers planted outside the bubble’s perimeter, still allowing devices to be initiated remotely.
From 20,000 feet, the pre-dawn haze clears, and I watch the Hindu Kush slip by just underneath us. They keep my attention for the full hour. I find myself fantasizing about returning when there is more stability with my backcountry skis. Some of the lines look spectacular.
It’s dusty in Kabul. The mountains are lost behind a brown murk. We clear checkpoints and meet our driver in an unmarked pickup truck who slips us through the streets. It’s a Friday morning, so traffic is light.
We spend the hours before our flight out working at the team house. Blast-film covers the windows, to prevent them flying inwards in lacerating shards should a bomb go off nearby, as one did not too long ago.
During our brief passage through the city, Kabul looks to be one long stretch of blast wall. Grey cement fronts the avenues, topped with sandbags, concertina wire and guard-towers. Armed personnel stand watch at every gate and atop many of the walls. The thin weekend traffic gives the city a slightly abandoned feel, as though everybody is bunkered down.
The haze begins to clear. The morning air is cold and refreshing. We stretch our legs on the roof of the compound, from which we can see the old fortress, Bala Hissar, dominating the city skyline. Further round, and TV Hill bristles with antennae. Squat, one-storey flat-roofed dwellings crawl up the slopes like a moss. Everything is brown with just a frosting of rotten snow lining the shadows.
My folks lived here, back in the ‘70s. While the geology of Kabul might not have changed since their time here, I reflect that they probably wouldn’t recognize the city as it is today. With the changes brought about during the Soviet occupation, its widespread destruction during the civil wars of the 1990s, and now the reconstruction in an era of deep insecurity, both the vibe and appearance on its broad streets must be a world apart.
Getting back to the airport is a gauntlet of security checks. Vehicles are searched for explosives and magnetic limpet-mines. I receive the cosiest pat-downs I’ve had since a thorough fondling I was given by Ethiopian security back in 2003. K. counts of 12 separate security checkpoints, the first beginning a good mile or more out from the airport proper, and the last being as we stand on the tarmac at the foot of the stairs to the plane.
At one security checkpoint, the gruff guard calls out to him,
“Where are you from?”
K. tells him, a little reluctantly.
“This you bag?”
The guard eyes him with suspicion for a few moments, and we all have a brief what now moment.
“You have smoking problem,” the guard says, referencing the two cartons in K.’s luggage, and we all break into guffaws.
Standing next to me as we board the plane is an Afghan family- father, mother, daughter and son. The girl is maybe five, the boy three, but what’s striking is the little girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes, compared to the rest of her family’s more typical dark colouring. She has their rosy cheeks, and she is chattering away in Dari, a cute little thing in pigtails that so clearly belongs and yet looks so thoroughly different. I presume that both parents have some Russian genes in their recent history- they are both young- but it also reminds me that the term ‘Aryan’ arose from this corner of the world, and that it’s not uncommon to find Afghans with green, grey or blue eyes. I wonder with amusement whether the bigots of the Aryan Nation ever realise that Afghanistan’s national airline- Ariana- draws its name from the same origin as theirs.
I get glimpses of the city as we fly out that afternoon, where breaks in the clouds let me peer past the towering pyramids of the Hindu Kush and into its dusty basin.
It’s been strange for me being here. I grew up on slideshows from my parents’ time here. A little faded with time, and 1970s imaging processes, I credit hearing tales of Afghanistan when I was a young boy with the start of my journey to becoming an aid worker. My parents adored the place, and they still talk about it with wistfulness, seasoned heavily with grief at what the place went through after they left.
It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years, and in my brief visit this time, Afghanistan had a disproportional impact on me. The wildness, the ruggedness, the beauty, and the resilience of the people I met, all left a mark. I both hope and believe that this will not be my last trip to the place. I truly wish that when I next visit, its people will be in a securer, more stable environment than they are now. I’m no fool. I understand well many of the complex dynamics at play in this nation that undermine dreams and efforts towards a lasting peace. None the less, that’s my prayer, and one which left my soul earnestly as I watched the last of the mountains slip away beneath me, and I said au revoir to Afghanistan.
NB: Please forgive the over-processed images. I didn’t have my full camera gear with me, only the camera on my iPhone, and a little GoPro. Bored, I played with a new filters app called “Stackables” which has jazzed them up a little, at the expense of my usual style…