Two days prior to the September 11th, 2001, attacks in the United States, an assassination happened in northern Afghanistan. This event meant little to the Americans then and it means little to the Americans today. Afghans of all ethnicities, on the other hand, care about September 9th much more than September 11th, although not all of them for the same reason.
As unresolved ethnic issues continue to be ignored like they do not exist (please consult my Afghanistan archive for more on this topic), I recall my experience on the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. Below is an essay by Drew Schumann, my former colleague, reprinted with permission. Ideas, views, and driving skills are his; all photographs are mine.
In Search of Khorasan
I’d like to wish everyone a memorable Massoud Day. 9 September is an important day for two-thirds of Afghanistan. The reason I mention that, is that whether we like it or not, Afghanistan is still a largely ethnically divided country. And last 9 September (2011) was especially emotional as it marked the tenth anniversary of Massoud’s assassination, which was designed to force the Taliban to give protection to Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC.
To Go Or Not To Go?
So, among US/ISAF and other Westerners in Afghanistan, everyone was on pins and needles, and people were freaking out and warning us not to go out that day. The thing is, I knew that there would be no Westerners out and about, so I thought that if we didn’t go out, who would? After all, our jobs are to experience Afghanistan and then translate that experience to help others do a better job of relating/avoiding pitfalls.
We didn’t leave our place until noon, due to having an impassioned argument with our sponsors, who tried to keep us from leaving. Just out of our place, we encountered a very large Massoud commemoration parade. Ahmad Shah Massoud was one of the most important leaders of the Afghan resistance against both the Soviets, and later the Taliban. Bin Laden killed him with a bomb encased in a camera brought by two confederates presented as reporters Osama Bin Laden staged this assassination while under the protection of the Taliban, in order to implicate them in 9/11 and prevent them from handing him over to the US after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Pentagon and some other target in DC.
The non-Pashtuns (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and so forth) in Afghanistan see the assassination of Massoud and 9/11 as the same occurrence and continue to blame the Pashtuns and the Taliban for them both; this is part of a meme where many Pashtuns see themselves as “Master Race” and non-Pashtuns are seen as the permanent underclass. Panjshiris especially hold this day dear, as Massoud was from Panjshir, and is in fact known as “The Lion of Panjshir” among many in Afghanistan. We were heading into the Panjshir portion of town (Khair Khana) to gauge the mood of the Panjshiris on the 10thanniversary of Massoud’s assassination.
As we drove into town, car convoys of Tajiks, Panjshiris and Hazara assertively drove down the road, flagging other cars down to stop. (We were extremely aware that we were the only non-Afghans in a city of over 5 million on this day). Cars festooned with posters, silk-screened black banners with white icons of Massoud. We were surprised to see altered Afghan flags, with black, white and green colors, instead of black, red and green. Black cloth and images of Massoud are plastered on every conceivable surface in Kabul. I was first to notice the new flags, and Zok commented that this is what it was like just before things came apart in the former Yugoslavia. I agreed that the new flags were an ominous development.
We drive around the north side of the Kabul airport, along the industrial park road, where we stop and talk with some Uzbek traders. The road is completely gone, but the European military that runs the security around the airport have forced all traffic to enter there. The road will simply not support this traffic, but the European soldiery normally don’t concern themselves with planning, or consequences for their often arbitrary and always bureaucratically-driven and meaningless decisions. I am certain that gates of Hell will be guarded by a soldier from a NATO country. (Today, you cannot leave. You must only enter through gate 3. You do not have the proper pass for entry/exit.) We drove past all the old remaining Soviet industrial sites, including a swimming pool being well-used by the local children (all boys, of course) and several obvious toxic waste dumping sites.
We joined onto Route 1 and took the left turning, which enters Deh Sabz. We drive through Tara Khel, a Pashtun village. Not surprisingly, there are no references to Massoud there, as he is anathema to them as they regard him as an enemy and a butcher. Nice, but old style construction houses with large yards and orchards/vineyards enclosed. We follow the main road, thinking it will eventually hook back around west, but it continues to go north/northwest toward the village of Bagram, except the road ends up in Deh Sabz. Suddenly, though, after driving through several brick factories and villages, it ends in a turnabout at an old, decorated fortress/mosque. The old complex is being used for a government program, and there are several cars parked in front. Standing with the cars is an attractive young woman, holding a baby. She is well aware of her attractiveness and fairly flaunts it as we turn the car around.
We discuss the image the westerners have of Afghan women and how incredibly out of synch it is. An attractive Afghan woman not only knows it, but often makes sure everyone else within eyeshot knows it as well. And contrary to popular Western belief, there are many attractive Afghan women.
Once heading back on the road where we came, we found a track across the plain that looked fairly well-travelled, but not as nice as the road we were on. At the curve in the hard road where the vehicles have left, there is a police outpost. We stop and drum up conversation with the police there. They admit that our best chance of getting back to Kabul by going over the mountains, is to take this track to a fort and then to take a barely visible track heading due west. Translated from Afghan to Westerner, this means “go and find out for yourselves.” According to the police officer we are to look for another police outpost and stop there, greet them and ask for further directions.
Go and Find Out
Once on this track, we enter shabbier and shabbier neighborhoods. These settlements are sometimes inhabited by Kuchis (Afghan nomads), some of which no longer travel. These Kuchi, who are often painted as desperately poor by popular media and anthropologists, often are immensely wealthy in that they have been granted some extremely valuable land by prior regimes (often in return for exterminating Hazaras, whose land it once was) and the value of their often extensive flocks of animals.
Car v. Mountain… Again
I am already not liking the idea of taking my overweight, underpowered, top-heavy and mechanically questionable vehicle over the mountain Zok, of course, helpfully offers the advice to “go left”, and to make things worse, the high proportion of Kuchi and Pashtun villages makes me even more tense due to the high correlation between Kuchi, Pashtun and violence. My stomach, shoulder and head are hurting by now, due to stress and nervousness. Of course, Zok “double dog dares me” and we carry on. After several tentative wrong turnings and a certain amount of just bulling through various ditches and other minor obstacle, we break out into a platted out area known as “New Kabul”.
This also reveals the promised police station and the mountain we are to climb later.
We notice that the New Kabul development is marked out with gorgeous white marble, blasted from the neighboring mountains. It is a shame it will be used for such a humble task, but the marble is extremely highly visible and makes it easy to see the blocks and houses being laid out.
We finally pick our way through one last series of ravines and arrive at the police outpost. We stop, stretch our legs and chat with the police officer. He is very friendly, and welcomes the diversion, as his dog lies in the shadow of the Hesco barrier surrounding the extremely exposed and vulnerable position. I notice fighting positions dug into the ground around it, which is the first I’ve seen in this area and wonder. After the rituals of greetings and inviting to eat and drink tea, which we decline, he gives us good instructions on how to find the mountain trail we are to drive.
We get to the base of the mountains, but following the excellent instructions of the police officer, and just as we start to mount the base of the trail, a rickety old Russian truck loaded with stone is spotted descending the trail. Anxiously, we wait for the truck to get down, but it disappears in a curve. We decide to start up the trail and pull over in a mine on the way up. When we enter the mine, we encounter an elderly man living in the mouth of the mine, in a stone house. He acted very nervous until he saw that we were westerners and especially when he saw our cameraman Zok and his magic camera. He then broke out into a broad smile and greeted us enthusiastically. We chat with him, there, until the old truck cautiously made it down the mountain track past the mine.
We then hurriedly said our goodbyes, turned the vehicle around and then headed up the track again. Oddly enough, my ever building tension of nursing this somewhat iffy vehicle up this narrow mountain track has disappeared in the actual doing of the thing. I’ve been on this particular mountain twice, and both times the vehicle has crapped out on me as I wrote about in How I Almost Killed My friends part I https://hotmilkforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/theres-a-reason-some-roads-are-less-travelled-or-how-i-almost-killed-my-friends-part-1-of-a-2-part-story-2/ and part II https://hotmilkforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/theres-a-reason-some-roads-are-less-travelled-or-how-i-almost-killed-my-friends-part-2-of-a-2-part-story/ . What makes driving this path especially challenging is not only the slope, or the extreme narrowness of the path, but the slick marble base, with a fine silt of marble dust over top. The resultant mess extremely limits traction and visibility, as dust is blown up.
I start in four wheel drive low early, and keep it in 2nd gear to maintain momentum. If you don’t go fast enough, the vehicle will spin out on the slick surface, and once that happens, the end result is an uncontrolled descent, backwards, eventually a rollover and probable destruction of vehicle and passengers. The problem with 2nd gear, is that occasionally the slope becomes too steep to keep moving, so a downshift is in order, and downshifting can result in my weak clutch failing, resulting in a stall, which will also result in an uncontrolled descent, backwards, death, destruction, etc..
Each time we hit a chunk of marble, the vehicle slides sideways, threatening to push the Land cruiser off the road with Zok looking at me with large eyes. I then fight the steering wheel, and get us straightened out. We are rapidly approaching the mountain pass, and the final switchback looms ahead. I’ve spent the whole time up the hill agonizing over this moment, as I’ve stared at it, evaluated it and replayed in my mind what I need to do to make it. It’s a switchback combined with a steep pitch increase in the road. Combined with an extra slippery spot. I need to hit it hard in second, then make a downshift, a turn and a bit of a slide.
Failure to hit this exactly right would be rewarded with a stall, combined with a possible rollover into a several hundred-foot drop off. As I approached, I said a little prayer, begged my clutch to hold up, hit the accelerator, and made the downshift just so. The last bit of trail was accompanied by the tiny diesel engine screaming as it tried to pull 8000+ pounds of armored Land Cruiser up that last 100 feet of extremely pitched up marble. Suddenly, we were pitching over the other side of the mountain, and I hit the brakes, slammed on the emergency brake and as the vehicle rocked fore and aft, and let out my breath. Zok and I just kind of sat there for a moment, reveling in the idea of what we just did. Nawab apparently didn’t even notice that anything unusual had happen, which is his usual.
Our Panjshir Friends
The neighborhood children and our police friend from the prior stories surrounded us as we gingerly let ourselves out of the car. I feigned sangfroid as my entire body felt drained, and my knees shook a bit. I a bit drained as I was shaking hands and putting my hand to my chest in reverent greeting. After a bit of time to cool down, we walked around the top of the mountain pass, talked to our friends at the police outpost and took some pictures
As we did this, we noticed a funeral being conducted up mountain from us, and we saw a soccer team that routinely walked over the mountain in order to play in the valley below. I wonder how many soccer teams climb and descend a mountain, twice each time they practice?
We had brought gifts for our friend the Panjshiri police officers. We agreed to give him a ride to the main police station, so we gingerly half drove, half slid down the steeper, backside of the mountain, but this trail was not only wider, but lacked sheer drop-offs directly adjacent to the trail. Once we’d made it to the bottom of the hill, we let out our Panjshiri friend, and meandered our way back to our place. On the way, we stopped for Afghan ice cream https://hotmilkforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/zhela-afghan-ice-cream-in-shahr-e-naw-park-kabul/ and an Afghan burger. https://hotmilkforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/afghan-chips-burgar-or-are-you-seriously-going-to-eat-that/ The place we stopped at is an old favorite whose signature is to make their ice cream into tubes and stacks them. Absolutely delicious.
The Drive Home
It was a relatively uneventful trip home, listening to Kabul Rock on the radio, to include a rare duet by Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix singing FHITA. We encountered several pro-Massoud convoys of cars, though this time, some of the cars were full of armed men. No reports of violence, though.
This day was a rich day for new discoveries and information. And I think it made a counterpoint to the overly risk averse who have conducted the West’s campaign in Afghanistan. The problem with risk aversion, is that if you respond to risk by hiding on bases, what good is it to spend the money and lives to go to Afghanistan in the first place?