Just Short of the Line
by Frank Light
The national highway that led east from Jalalabad continued south of and parallel to the Kabul River until, some sixty kilometers later, each approached the border with Pakistan. The river then bent north before easing down to its junction with the Indus. The road veered in the opposite direction – southward – and then snaked through the Khyber on to Peshawar. Before entering the pass, a traveler would first have to process through the two border towns – Torkham on the Afghan side and Landi Kotal on the other.
I had taken that route in the Peace Corps, on winter break to Swat way back in 1971 and then on summer vacation to Southeast Asia later that year. I took it again as far as Torkham when Jalalabad’s resident Special Forces team, an Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA as everyone called it, let me come along when they drove out to meet the border commander there. That would have been the summer, late summer, of 2003. I was with the State Department. War, weather, wear, and load weight had transformed the asphalt that once smoothed the journey into a rough and tumble ride. Destroyed tanks, unmanned firing positions, and painted stones marking roadside minefields – white for cleared, red for hot – spoke of the violence that had waxed and now waned. Farther back from the highway, adobe villages revealed their abandonment through splintered lintels, chipped and eroded corners, collapsed roofs, and the absence of motion – neither animal nor human – and color – neither vegetable, mineral, plastic, or cloth. Anything of value had been scavenged. Returned refugees lived there until recently, our interpreter remarked. Taking what it could get, the UN put them on land nobody had ever done anything with. Nor could the refugees. So they moved on, many to Jalalabad, capital of Nangrahar province and the largest town in the East.
The settlements that the road ran directly through, villages in existence well before the refugees returned, were still going strong. Men and boys stopped what they were doing, which didn’t seem to be much, to stare. We waved. Boys waved back. The men were above that. One started to respond and then caught himself. Women in powder-blue chadris turned obliquely to see what the men were looking at.
Chadris didn’t used to be so common. Now they were de rigueur for women in Jalalabad and traveled villages such as these. As for the men, you used to see more mustaches than beards. You’d see hair over collars and completely clean-shaven faces. Not anymore. It wasn’t so much the Taliban’s legacy. It was a sign of the times, for which the Taliban had been merely the leading – and sharpest – edge.
Between those villages and the green belts where the old Russian irrigation ditches lay, only a few ragamuffin kids – bare feet, smudged faces, threadbare clothes or none at all for the smallest – were out and about. They stood slack-jawed, arms by their sides, at the sight of our passage. It was too hot for anything more. What was barren then remained barren today.
The last village in the plains had more SUVs than the countryside could have supported with legal crops. Undoubtedly others were housed behind the traditional adobe compound walls where new roofs the color of eggplant glistened under the morning sun. Gunmen lounged around two washed, silver Land Cruisers with tinted windows and a dirty but recent-vintage pickup with a lightbar atop the cab. They were parked in front of a modest building that served as district headquarters. We were in Mohmand Dura, a gerrymander-shaped district that stretched all the way to Torkham.
After that the road pushed up and to the south through a treeless badlands leading to the border. Finally we came to a string of auto repair shops, gas stations, money changers, and tea houses that was Torkham, a transient town of few saving graces. Nearly every building – most of them shacks, sheds, and shanties – seemed temporary, done on the cheap. Our desert-brown, three-vehicle convoy swerved around a line of blue buses, mostly red motorbikes, black, silver, and white SUVs, yellow-and-white taxis, sedans, pickups, vans with exteriors more primer than paint, and bright, gaudily-decorated trucks of every color, emphasis on yellow and red. We braked just short of a boom gate that a guard lifted when okay for a traveler to pass. This was the border. Far more vehicles waited in line than we’d seen in the two-hour drive to get here. Men stood around smoking cigarettes while music played from car cassette players. Our arrival led the young gate guard to straighten his posture, as though expecting an order.
I hopped out as soon as we stopped. Riding in the bouncy backseat of our hillbilly-armored pickup, head and shoulders of a massive sergeant impeding my view to the front, his blond beard so bushy I could simultaneously see both its left and right fringes from behind his thick neck, a side-mounted machine gun further obstructing our vision already obscured by the smeared windshield and dust from the lead vehicle, the temperature over a hundred and climbing, had made me queasy. The ground under my feet gave me back my bearings, and I inhaled deeply. The air wasn’t bad if you stayed upwind of the idling traffic and smokers.
Despite a shared topography and function, Torkham and Landi Kotal were as different as East and West Berlin before the wall came down. On the Afghan side, the men with guns didn’t wear uniforms, or least not complete or consistent ones, and their happy-go-lucky bearing reflected their come-as-you-are attire. On the Pak side, well-postured soldiers in clean, spiffy outfits almost pranced when they walked, as though on a parade ground. Whitewash brightened the concrete around them. Further back, across the road that led up from the Khyber, boys in orange salwar kamiz sat on a green, grassy yard shaded by trees. They chatted. They had books. You might think they were posing for a photo shoot.
The rocky ridges and hilltop redoubts to the left and right reminded us that this crossing point stood at the head of a pass storied not for its scenery but for the wildness of the tribesmen who roamed its approaches. In recent weeks border forces had exchanged fire both north and south of Torkham. The day the news hit Kabul, a mob ransacked the Pakistani embassy. Each capital blamed the other.
That was one reason to visit. Another: Jud the ODA captain wanted to know what the border guards were doing to keep out Taliban and al-Qaeda. Even when they made an arrest, the confiscated arms and ammunition never went to any accountable destination.
He and most of his team – six today, if I counted right; the others had things to do in Jalalabad – were, like me, quick to get their feet on the ground. Afghan roads required a chiropractic stretch, both before (if you remembered) and after the journey (when you were reminded). Shoulders rolled. Necks rotated. The youngest hopped up and down. All the while they were sizing up the neighborhood in the awareness that they themselves were under scrutiny. That came with the job. For starters, they were American. Second, they dressed more like Afghans than the Paks, who were also watching, or like other American soldiers in country. They had beards, sunglasses, scarves, floppy hats, or no hats at all. These guys were big, most of them, alert and very comfortable with their M-4 rifles and gear you didn’t see anywhere else in the East. Same for their vehicles, which were straight out of “Rat Patrol,” a TV show from my youth. It pitted our boys against Rommel, the Desert Fox. Lead and rear vehicles each had a mounted .50 caliber machine gun, the lead’s up high so it could shoot over the cab, the rear’s gun and gunner facing backward. Supersized shark’s teeth had been painted on the front fenders of the lead gunship, white on brown. The guys cracked jokes. In one sense they cared what you thought. In another they didn’t. In sum, they exhibited the casual, competent, and dangerous air that every militiaman aspired to.
Those aspirations, even more than the regular pay, allowed the ODA to pick and choose among the many applicants for the Mobile Reaction Force (MRF) it trained and directed. About a hundred in number, six of whom accompanied us today, including two for each .50 calibre, the MRF (pronounced murph) constituted the one elite Afghan force in the East. Not only were they practiced in tactics and weapons, they were disciplined and brave. Two of them seemed to know one of the border guards. That helped break the ice.
The MRF backed our vehicles into a small, low-walled compound near the boom gate while Jud chatted with his team sergeant and the rest of the team took up wait positions in the compound or on the street. In Afghanistan, any foreigner represented a target of opportunity. But these guys were high value. They had snatched suspects from their homes, raided drug labs, and shot it out with desperadoes on the back roads of Nangrahar. All of which made enemies. They liked that. It lent clarity to their work. And they kept it in perspective. Despite macho mannerisms compounded by testosterone, the absence of women, inspirational war stories, the snake-eater mystique, brushes with danger, and a kinetic, counterterrorist mission, they never crossed the line to my knowledge. They weren’t the type to shoot first and ask questions later, to call air strikes on a compound when a surprise visit would do.
They were National Guardsmen who had other jobs in the other lives they lived in the States. Comments heard in the Pentagon and before that in Vietnam could lead a layman like me to dismiss them as weekend warriors, backups for the professionals who did this as a career. Old thinking. The drop-off if any was too little to notice in a province like Nangrahar. Most of them had trained together for years; every member was freefall qualified. Led by a lanky, low-key captain and a savvy, avuncular team sergeant, they kept their arrogance if you could call it that in check. The MRF gladly risked their lives to be so well led.
The team had one failing. As far as I knew, it was common to all the ODAs in country. They didn’t pay enough attention to the villagers and rural development, activities Special Forces could be really good at. In Vietnam that soft stuff kept their A-teams’ heads above water. I had talked to Jud and the team sergeant about that. There was only so much they could do. Their squad-sized team constituted the only Western combat force in Nangrahar and Laghman provinces, though they rarely visited the latter. As directed from Bagram, they coordinated with a former resistance fighter named Hazrat Ali. Now officially a General, Ali focused on real and perceived threats in the one province – Nangrahar – where his “Eastern Corps” was based.
As the team members spread out, grinning border guards moved toward us from their command post, a concrete bungalow in the compound where our vehicles were parked. In contrast to the rest of Torkham, the building had a timeless feel. The guards didn’t know we were coming and had never seen us before but knew enough to wave in Westerners with guns.
Their commander came out to ascertain our mission. The bright sky made him squint and curl his lips into a smile. Welcome, he said through our interpreter. It was polite, more curious than warm. You Americans never come anymore, he added.
Jud, the team sergeant, and I followed him inside. The commander wore a dark, unbuttoned vest over gray salwar kamiz and plastic sandals. No hat, weapon, or insignia. He had shaved a day or two before, about when he last trimmed his mustache. Stooped and slightly taller than me, in his late thirties, I’d guess, he could have passed for a schoolteacher in the offhand manner he conveyed both authority and an interest in others. Compared to the Paks, he was a slacker, but commanders on this side of the border came out of a different culture. Some were wild and wooly with pirates’ leers. Others, such as this fellow and Hazrat Ali, exuded a Zen-like calm.
Yet my first impression of a man at peace with himself and the world gave way to the suspicion that he might seem both more relaxed and vigilant than he really was. Afghans had to be smart in ways that Americans didn’t. Anyway, he took the captain and team sergeant as serious men, and he seemed to like the mental challenge of our questions. If there was any defensiveness or calculation to his words, he kept it out of his body language and tone of voice.
He said he turned over all suspects and their weaponry to Ali’s militia, as close as eastern Afghanistan got to a regular force in 2003. Ali’s men worked some checkpoints alongside the border guards. They also worked independently, to what purpose the commander couldn’t say. He claimed similar ignorance of customs receipts, very little of which made it to Kabul. Washington kept pressing on that. The national government had no other domestic revenues. The more it collected, the more we could scale back our financing of the Afghan budget. So the theory went. But like Ali’s men, customs ran its own checkpoints. Only now that he mentioned them did they register with me. We had driven around several. It wasn’t as if they had signs or uniforms. Well, maybe they weren’t customs. I remember the guards standing around open car trunks; they’d smile if we smiled first.
The Paks also inspected. Proximity required cooperation, but the opposing commanders were not close. Procedures varied, and a traveler had many hoops to pass through. As in much of the world, it was the lower middle class that got squeezed. The poor had nothing worth confiscating. The rich had friends.
Six thousand persons crossed in both directions every day; 80% were Afghan. 300 trucks. Sixty cars, most of them belonging to “NGOs,” the non-government organizations that played a critical role in Jalalabad’s economy. Western governments paid them to do what government employees used to do – carry out assistance projects. Having seen the new SUVs these NGOs zipped around in, the fine houses they rented, the esteem in which the UN held them, an esteem matched by the resources entrusted to them and by the Western desire to foster indigenous NGOs, enterprising Afghans rose to the challenge. Every hustler worth his salt formed an NGO with a catchy English name. Afghan Development Trust or whatever. At best, these upstarts fronted for-profit contractors who could put up a small building or spud a new well. At worst, they were out-and-out frauds. Anyway, the commander told us, his guards couldn’t check every one. High-end SUVs always passed without inspection because they might contain VIPs, meaning a man with attitude, title, guns, or money, all of which could be (and often were) found in the same person.
As we sat on floor cushions sipping green tea, the commander told us he grew up in Sultan Por, at the other end of the province, where I’d taught English at a high school known as a lycée my first year in the Peace Corps. It was the Russians who destroyed it, he said, not the mujahedin as others had told me. Looking into his cup before raising his eyes, as though considering whether to share this with us, he said he could forgive the Russians but not the Paks. Not after five years in a Taliban jail. In Kandahar, far from his family. He had been a schoolteacher, at the technical school in Jalalabad, where he refused to teach the Taliban curriculum. They were outsiders, a creation of Pakistan, he said, meeting our eyes. Pakistan continued to support the movement, and its soldiers who had recently encroached, first to the north and then to the south of Torkham, refused to pull back. They stopped advancing only when Afghan guards put them in their sights. Not that the Afghans presented much of a threat. Unpaid for months, some were selling their bullets to feed their families. They had no radios. No binoculars. American, German, British, and French officials had separately visited but nothing ever came of their promises.
His deputy joined us as two boys from a tea house brought in chicken, rice, unleavened bread wrapped in a cloth, and grapes. The way he plopped down and picked up a gravied, scrawny breast, you could tell the deputy was more an eyes and ears man than a doer. Why get sweaty, dirty, and possibly shot at when others would do it for you? If not exactly for you, for your boss or your boss’s boss. He claimed his cousin Haji Zahir, commander of the eastern border guards, was doing his best but couldn’t fund all 20,000 men on his own. Most of them, he conceded, were tribal militias who would muster if summoned, per Afghan tradition. The 1400 on active duty needed urgent support, including at Torkham. The government paid for 800 only. Whatever the number, they had no vehicles, not even a satellite phone like the one of mine he had been eyeing.
They considered themselves on the front lines, and totally on their own. The police hunkered down in the towns and district capitals, and except for a handful of Ali’s men at highway checkpoints, the army such as it was didn’t go near the border.
The commander acknowledged his mandate did not extend past Torkham. One of Haji Zahir’s generals had responsibility for the borders outside of town. Three dirt roads crossed to the north; only animal tracks ran to the south. That’s where the opium is smuggled, the deputy said, lifting his brows. He rubbed his fingers together. Too many hands in Torkham, he said.
That’s where we should concentrate our efforts, the commander added. Not in Torkham, a town without families, nor in Sultan Por with its rebuilt lycée, but in the remote districts that had no schools at all, no health care, not even mosques. Only mullahs, he added with a grin. Those people hate the Taliban, he asserted, but that could change. He snapped his fingers. This fast. Their district governments are corrupt, and Kabul does nothing for them. So they send their boys to study at madrassas in Pakistan. The sons return as holy warriors for the Taliban, killing police, teachers, elders, Americans, and even women in the name of God. What else can they do? he asked, his voice rising. They have no education, and they can’t all be mullahs. American bombs transport them to paradise, the Taliban say. More come to take their place.
On the ride back I was thinking how he had a point, that the war would be won or lost in those lonely districts where Westerners never went, that schools mattered more than guns in the long run and maybe even in the here and now, when we pulled to the side of the road. Places like this, I was thinking. The road and our halted convoy were the only signs of civilization. I knew people were out there, though. I learned that in the Peace Corps. Suddenly I realized everybody but me was peering up at the craggy hills that overlooked the road from the north. Their weapons pointed that way, and a hawk slipped overhead, riding a gust from the west. Some motherfucker’s taking potshots, the sergeant in the front seat growled when I inquired. He had swiveled his gun, an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon as I recall, so that he was looking right over the barrel.
Funny, I hadn’t heard a thing. There’s a message in that, I said. I’d only know what it was if he asked.
Message is, the sergeant answered for me, going to be one sorry fucking haji he shows his smiling face.
The sniper laid low, giving us nothing to act on, so we drove away.
But we had a plan.
* * *
The first village south of that point, maybe an hour’s drive beside a dry creek bed, was named Goroko.
Why go there? a visiting cabinet minister complained. It’s nothing but smugglers.
He was right, and that’s why both Civil Affairs Teams, or CATs, from the Jalalabad Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) where we were based went there a week after the ODA excursion to Torkham. One did not lead to the other. Except in extremis, the Army never acts quickly. The previous PRT had gone to Goroko for reasons unknown to the current one and recommended a follow-up visit by civil affairs veterinarians, a vetcap in military terminology. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Early in the morning of the appointed day the vets helicoptered from Bagram to Jalalabad while one of the CATs collected faculty as well as students from the veterinary school in town. The Afghans were excited to get out and apply their training. The Americans, Reservists like the rest of the PRT, looked forward to treating the camels, donkeys, goats, and mules they rarely if ever saw in their Stateside practices. Bagram also sent medics, including females, so we could treat the people as well as their animals. That would be a medcap, meaning medical civic action program. The visitors came with holstered pistols, as the Army required everyone in uniform to carry a weapon. They left the rifle-toting to the PRT. The Afghan guards preferred rocket launchers.
We were all excited. This would be our first overnight expedition, and coincidentally the weather had changed. Thunderstorms billowing out from the subcontinental monsoons often lit up the Spinghar Mountains to our south and the hills above the Khyber at night. The evening before, the only time during my stay at the PRT, those storms pushed on to the Nangrahar valley in which Jalalabad lay. Rain turned dust to mud and mud to puddle bottoms. The floodplain, as we discovered en route, had a low absorptive capacity. The water that was so desperately needed rushed away, to Pakistan, I suppose. Our convoy forded several stretches of shallow but fast-moving drainage, and of course the creek bed leading back to Goroko was no longer dry. The clouds lingered, keeping us in shade. That and the gain in altitude made for a cool day. Meanwhile, tires on the van we rented for the Afghan vets kept going flat, turning the trip for straphangers like me into a leisurely one.
After proceeding south through a land without villages or people, we came to an official-looking building; that is, one made of concrete. Schoolhouse, I figured, though it was empty and the summer holiday was over. Soon after that our convoy dipped into the creek bed, the ford made easier because the terrain had more rocks that mud, and then up the other bank to our first sighting of Goroko, low and spread against the hills behind it. Up there lay the border with Pakistan. The hilltops rose as you looked south, where they curved west and up to form the Spinghar. Last night’s rain darkened them and the rocks on the ground even in mid afternoon when the sun finally appeared. We could still smell the rain, the things it did to the earth. As more often happens in the spring, it made me think of new beginnings.
We drove past a shop, the only one we saw, into the village center. Through our interpreters we had arranged to stay in a smuggler’s open-air compound. Our three Toyota pickups and the rental van fit inside, leaving room to set up our cots near a wall beside crates of Chinese padlocks. Blue-wrapped truck tires were stacked against another wall. A toilet in the front corner, just a fetid hole in the earth, had a roof where our guards could look out, and a high, thatched eave sheltered the padlocks. Not counting the vets, medics, and me, we had nine Americans – two four-man CATs minus one of their number on leave, the PRT’s non-commissioned officer in charge of security, plus a female cook who wanted to see some of the country – and almost as many Afghan guards.
We unloaded the vehicles, and then some of us set out on foot to look at where the vets would be working – a large, rock-strewn field between two parts of the village. It backed up against an abandoned compound. Boys tagged along and girls, too, if they were below the age of puberty. A few older boys wearing the same orange outfit I’d seen in Landi Kotal squatted in a line some 100 feet away from us, watching. That first day the men also kept their distance. They were waiting to see what we were up to.
Starting slowly the next morning, gaining momentum as the villagers realized we came not with survey forms or advice but with real medicine, the vets treated thousands of animals, the medics hundreds of people, almost all of them for the first time in their lives. Believers after a few hours, the elders asked for a clinic. Who would staff it? we asked. No outsider wanted to live in a place like Goroko. Surrounded by rocks, it was the only Afghan village I’ve ever seen without fields. No farmers. No officials. Pack animals far outnumbered people.
The elders pleaded with the Afghan vets to come on a regular basis. The Afghans weren’t interested unless Americans accompanied them. We brought security, medicines, meals ready to eat, and chocolate muffins. The American vets had a grand time joking with the kids, sizing up the camels, swapping notes with Afghan counterparts, and sleeping in the great outdoors. But they had other missions in other places.
We didn’t settle in like the Peace Corps did or like the A-teams in Vietnam. Given our numbers, it was the right approach. Better to do a little for many than a lot for a few and none for the rest. We spent two nights and three days there.
The nights had a cool, clean, country feel. The clear air and high compound walls made the stars seem closer than the storms flashing in the western Spinghar, distant enough that you could hear them only when nobody was talking. Sound and light traveled well in a place like that with so little of either once the sun went down. If a dog barked or a donkey brayed anywhere in the village, we knew about it. In the wee hours the clatter of hooves on stone, harness bells in counterpoint, signaled the first pack trains of the day. Occasionally we heard far-off gunshots, a few singles, a double, once a burst with a follow-up. They were never close to our patrols, and, as is typical in Afghanistan, we never found their cause. Target shooting, an elder tried to tell us. Sure, at midnight. Anyway, nobody got hurt. The villagers made sure of that. They knew we had carrots, we had sticks. Our last night the two brothers who owned the compound hosted a dinner for those of us willing to forego our prepackaged meals for an evening. They railed against the Taliban for trying to take over the smuggling for themselves. Yet the Taliban’s retreat didn’t make things better. Not at first. The subcommander of the border post on the smuggling route exacted a heavy tribute. Goroko’s elders complained to the Governor, and the subcommander was called back to Haji Zahir’s base camp. The replacement Zahir sent didn’t bother anybody.
Why is that? I asked. Is he lazy?
The brothers shook their heads. Youthful exuberance enlivened their manner. Mid-thirties, I’d estimate their age. If life had its ups and downs, they were now in the up phase.
My questions had the brothers literally scratching their heads. They looked at each other and laughed as if they’d never thought about it. He’s honest! one of them blurted in Pashtu.
More honest than you?
They looked at each other again. One wore a watch, the other a ring, but their attire was more Goroko than Kabul or Peshawar. Yes! they exclaimed in unison.
Goroko came into existence because Pakistan, which had imposed tariffs to raise revenue and protect local industry, let goods bound for Afghanistan enter duty-free into Karachi. It was a charade. Everybody knew Afghanistan could not afford the imports, certainly not in those quantities. Smugglers redirected them back into Pakistan. The cost of the extra mileage plus payoffs must have been less than the tariffs.
Every day 4000 animals left Goroko for Pakistan. Truck tires on horses, axles on camels, detergent on mules, TVs on donkeys – the caravan went on for hours, threading through an abandoned village and then dropping out of sight en route to the high ridges ahead. Nobody from the PRT had ever been out that way.
Our last morning I hitched a ride with a motorized patrol going for a look-see. A jovial Afghan guard sat behind the wheel. Our no-nonsense security honcho, a sergeant first class, rode shotgun. He had served in Special Forces before joining the Reserves, and in the States he worked as a security consultant. Like the ODA guys, he had used his own money to upgrade government issue, acquiring, for example, the latest laser sight for his M-16, a walkie talkie, an armored crotch protector, and knee, shin, and elbow pads. Many in the PRT thought he took himself too seriously, and his deep, institutional voice, combined with the build and bearing of your typical phys-ed teacher, grated on their nerves. He saw himself as performing a service and if resisted, it was because the other soldiers didn’t like his knowing the art of war better than they did. None of that affected me. I was the tenderfoot, the sarsaparilla kid, only older. Much older. I took any help I could get, and we were both outsiders.
A staff sergeant from one of the civil affairs teams covered the driver’s side from the back seat. Having done a couple tours in the regular infantry, he took security almost as seriously as the sergeant first class. He expressed concern our first night in Goroko when I called home on my satellite phone. He was afraid the Taliban might intercept it and hear mention of our location. I assured him I’d never do such a thing (as if the Taliban had the capability and as if any in shooting distance didn’t already know we were here). Still, everybody liked him. Maybe it was his country twang, his lack of guile, his non-threatening, compact build. He had lent me his personal armored vest until the PRT commander got me a better model from Bagram.
The PRT’s senior interpreter sat uncomfortably in the middle. No jokes today, no shaggy-dog stories. This wasn’t his kind of mission. He knew everybody who was anybody in Jalalabad, nobody here. He had had it easy so far on this trip, since the CATs’ interpreters stayed close to the vets, and the medics brought their own.
Two Afghan guards rode in the back of the pickup, their faces wrapped in scarves to ward off the dust.
The abandoned village that the track led through had been recently burned. A land dispute, the interpreter thought. Or a drug raid – he had heard conflicting accounts. Or, as Philip Smucker reported in al-Qaeda’s Great Escape, U.S. bombers could have done it: he described Nangrahar’s governor taking journalists to “Gluco,” a bombed-out village “on a well-known smugglers route.” Pashtu rs and ls can sound interchangeable to Western ears, as also happens with the vowel sounds for o and u.
The track descended into a gulch that grew into a canyon perfect for ambushes. Technically perfect, but politically incorrect. Pakistan’s economy depended on the contraband as much as Goroko did. Nobody, Taliban included, wanted to call attention to the area.
Deep in the canyon our patrol came upon a group of men, no firearms in sight, who were widening a narrow stretch of the road with staves, picks, and shovels. The road had been chiseled out of rock. Step off the one side, you’d drop a hundred feet. The other side you bumped into the canyon wall. They were hacking at stone. Dust coated it and filled in the cracks.
Their leader turned out to be the new border-guard subcommander, name Baghshah Gul, which translated as King’s Garden Flower. For 20 years he had been a driver for the Governor’s brother, the former Governor. He must have stayed behind last year when the brother went to Kabul and was gunned down, along with driver, his first day on the job as Vice President. Baghshah Gul pushed out a stoic smile as though asking can you believe? Haji Zahir paid him regularly so he had no cause for complaint. The former Governor had been Zahir’s father.
The smugglers say you’re an honest man, I said. I felt like Diogenes.
He laughed. His men laughed. I’m not sure they took it as a compliment.
I told them that in the course of helping Goroko, we decided to see where the villagers went every day.
Pack trains trod below us, at the bottom of the canyon. A steep climb awaited them. Mules on switchbacks a hundred meters to our front were already higher than us. They did it every day, with few men to guide them.
Bagshah Gul stopped smiling long enough to say he had a request. His detachment stepped closer, not wanting to miss any of this.
Dynamite! he responded, taking my hands. His detachment, sweaty and dirty, murmured assent.
Ah! Rolling my eyes upward, I lifted my hands from his. The State Department doesn’t do dynamite, I confessed. To tell the truth – and I didn’t say this to him – we didn’t do anything you’d see in the countryside. All talk. No walk. I asked if he’d gone to Haji Zahir with his problem.
He smiled at my ignorance.
The Governor? I asked.
Nobody has any, he replied. He’d even gone to the NGOs. And the UN.
The sergeant first class promised to see what he could do from the military side. Although party to the conversation, both sergeants kept scanning the canyon walls above us. Like deserts everywhere, the setting was beautiful in a desolate way, interesting in its caves, boulders, outcrops, fissures, and ravines that would spill into waterfalls when it rained. All signs of the storm had disappeared. There wasn’t a cloud in our slice of the sky. The sun hung high in the middle.
I asked about bandits.
Baghshah Gul and his team shook their heads. They were a jolly crew. Nobody lives here, he explained. Just two villages: his own, where he’d know about it if somebody did something wrong, and Goroko, where they’d be robbing themselves.
I was about to mention the destroyed village we had driven through when the sergeant first class asked him about Taliban.
Maybe in Pakistan, Baghshah Gul responded. Not here. Not anymore.
Were any local? I asked.
Not anymore, he repeated in a way that made me think he might answer that differently if his detachment weren’t in earshot.
He offered to escort us to the border to look out over the infamous Durand Line. Named after the British Foreign Secretary for India in 1893 when it was imposed, with a stipend to facilitate the Afghan king’s acquiescence, the boundary with Pakistan ran for some 2600 kilometers, from Nuristan in the northeast to Nimroz in the southwest. It rarely hewed to physical features, such as rivers or divides, and markers were few and far between.
The two sergeants grinned and looked to me. Now that would be an adventure. We’d have to go on foot. The switchbacks were too narrow and steep for our Toyota. Ours was the only vehicle we saw that day.
I declined, not wanting to cause an incident. You never knew where those pesky Paks would show up.
They haven’t crossed in months, Baghshah Gul assured us. Not in his sector, anyway. He said there were pickets every few kilometers along the border, and smuggling to the south and west dwarfed what we had witnessed that morning.
Ridges in that direction rose like buttresses toward the Spinghar Mountains. A generation ago his village had migrated from the lowlands at their base, he said, driven out in a dispute over land. He invited us to their new site at the foot of the pass. No school, no clinic. A familiar story. As always, we were running out of time. Too bad. An honest man was hard to find. And as usual, we were just scratching the surface. But I had asked to sit down with Goroko’s elders before we left, and our patrol wasn’t supposed to travel this far. We’d have some explaining to do if anything happened.
I’ll tell our embassy what you’re doing, I promised him as our driver, under the sergeants’ close watch, began to turn the vehicle around. They’ll tell Washington. Maybe Karzai.
Baghshah Gul cocked his head, dubious.
I’ll tell the Governor, I pledged.
He smiled in a way that said he didn’t care who I talked to unless it got him some dynamite. He enjoyed our company, though. Who else would visit him there? As State Department rep, all I could do was take notice, pass it on, and – in his case – express a foreigner’s admiration for trying when it would be so easy to give up or give in. Like most Afghans, he appreciated the attention. I doubt it had any effect, however. Not any that endured.
Our interpreter led us to three men on a rope bed under a thatched roof by a warehouse at the end of the village. They remained sitting as they shook hands with the CAT captain, the interpreter, and me. We visitors took seats on the rope bed opposite them, and I realized this was not a council of elders, as we’d been told to expect, but a delegation for handling outsiders. I recognized one from the group that had asked for a clinic the day before. He offered us water from a metal cup that rested on a lid over an earthen jar. We declined, as we did his perfunctory offer of tea. They had no teapot, and the nearest house was a couple minutes walk. All three wore white skullcaps, clean, pale-gray salwar kamiz, black shoes, and no socks. The one we had met and a black-bearded guy, too young for an elder, were large men with the overlapping features – prominent nose and forehead, sunken eyes and cheeks – of father and son. The elder had a few more pounds and a less resentful, more self-satisfied expression. He did most of the talking. Between them sat the oldest and smallest. He looked to be fierce, a scrapper. In an Afghan version of the Peter Principle, the most combative personalities often rose to positions of diplomacy.
The talkative one – I’ll call him the patriarch – asked if our interpreter worked for the Governor.
The Americans, he replied. The Taliban had soured him on Islam. He wore neither hat nor beard, and he had no interest in making the pilgrimage. These guys, he added.
We’ve met, the man said. Before Goroko. He couldn’t remember where or when.
The interpreter shrugged.
Are you Afghan? the youngest asked in a manner that could have passed for hostile. At least our interpreter had on the same gray salwar kamiz and scuffed, black dress shoes as our hosts. But he spoke like an educated man. He had been a medical student in Jalalabad when the Taliban took over. Their backward, authoritarian rule drove him to Peshawar, where he acquired the street smarts you often see in urban refugees.
What do you think? he countered.
We’re here to support your government, I interjected.
We all waited for the interpreter to translate.
I tried saying it in Pashtu.
What’d he say? the youngest demanded.
That got the interpreter back on track.
What government? the youngest demanded in the same annoying manner. He might have been showing off for his elders.
Karzai? the patriarch asked. He was trying to be helpful.
Exactly. That got us talking about the constitutional convention that would set the stage for presidential elections in the new year. Our hosts looked forward to all that, though they had no idea what it entailed. They just knew they were going to vote. After a while conversation turned, as it always did, to the Taliban. They insisted Goroko had no truck for those Kandahari bullies who had made them grow beards.
Are razor blades that expensive? I asked. They knew where this was going. Look at you, I pursued it. Each of you has a beard!
We had a good laugh over that.
They were Shinwari Pashtuns, resettled here in a Mohmand area some 25 to 30 years ago by the government for reasons they no longer knew, or would tell us, except to insist it had nothing to do with the move of Bagshah Gul’s village. They posed no complaints against Karzai but noted his government did nothing for them. Nobody did.
NGOs built some wells, I remarked. I had seen two when we walked around.
Not deep enough, the men replied, especially now the water table was down. The NGOs never came back.
Can’t you do it yourself? I asked.
No drills, the youngest complained.
No cement, the oldest added.
I asked about that concrete building we had passed on the drive in. Looked like a school, I commented.
Not our village, they replied. Besides, it had no teachers.
Couldn’t people chip in and hire one? I asked.
They had no concept of that. It’s the government’s job, the patriarch declared. Earlier he had mentioned seeing Karzai in Kabul and the Governor in Jalalabad. His compound stood apart from the village, the one building west of our meeting place. He must have owned considerable land because, he said, he owned not a single pack animal. He didn’t work with his hands and he didn’t answer when I asked what he did for a living. Whatever it was, he did it with his voice. They pay teachers in Jalalabad, he persisted. They have books in Jalalabad. They have schools in –
What about the boys in orange? I interrupted. They weren’t Buddhist monks.
They go to school in Landi Kotal, he answered.
I saw them there, I reported. Just last week.
Were they behaving? the patriarch asked.
Studying, I replied.
All three were pleased to hear that.
It’s not a madrassa, is it?
Lycee, the patriarch responded. Their fathers have to pay.
I asked if madrassas were free. Madrassas were religious academies. Students studied the Koran and not much else. Well, they didn’t study it like I once studied the Bible. They memorized it. It prepared them for the next life, maybe, not this one.
The men grunted in a way that meant yes.
Some boys go to those?
The men nodded. Some fathers have no money, the patriarch explained.
Throughout Afghanistan elders knew to accentuate their plight. That way they might get something. For the same reason they downplayed insecurity. No Taliban here. Those gunshots you heard? Hunters. Or a wedding. Or target practice. The one shopkeeper had no idea the old newspaper photo nailed to his wall was of the Taliban. He thought it was mujahedin.
You good with Pakistan? I asked, adding that I’d heard some complaints.
Pakistan no good, the youngest growled in English. The other two nodded.
You send your boys to school there, I noted. The captain remained silent. He wanted to observe my interaction with the locals. Earlier in the week I had talked to him and the other CAT captain about assessments in which their teams interviewed villagers from a checklist prepared in Bagram, complete with questions on leisure activities, commuting, favorite radio stations, and projects they’d most like to see done. No matter how absurd the query or how emphatically we played down our plans for anything tangible, the fact that we rolled up with our guns, guards, and radios to ask them anything raised expectations for assistance we had no plans to provide. I think the captain had the idea I’d work from a script, as though State guided its employees the way the Army does its soldiers.
Our hosts smiled. Contradictions that bothered Americans amused Afghans. Our persistence amused them even more.
Same tribes both sides of the border, I remarked.
You sell your tires there. TVs, tea, soap, whatever.
Opium. I thought I’d mention it.
No! No! No! More smiles. Fierce laughter, too. That was their story and they were sticking to it.
You buy their cattle.
They’re not Afghan, the man in the middle blurted.
You could take that as a positive in a weak and divided land. Civil war had wreaked death and destruction for the last 15 years. Ten years before that the Soviets intervened to back one faction against another or, to put it more accurately, against all others. Throughout Afghanistan’s history nationalism had reared its head only when the land was invaded. Put negatively, our job was to avoid becoming the next casus belli.
I recounted for our hosts what a patient told one of our medics the day before: Americans had killed her husband with an air strike, in the fall of 2001 while he was on the road to Jalalabad. A mistake, she claimed. He wasn’t Taliban. He was looking for work. She said she bore no grudge. Things happen, she knew.
Is that true? I asked.
The youngest nodded. The others stared, mouths open. They didn’t know me well enough to go down that path.
In a perfect world, I’d follow up next visit. Knowing that wouldn’t happen, at least not for me, and telling myself the perfect can be the enemy of the good, I pressed the point. Is that how the people feel?
The youngest looked out on fields of stone, the oldest at the earth by his feet, the patriarch at the roof, our interpreter at them, the captain at me.
I was wrong about the roof being thatched. I saw it was made of slats from shipping crates. Colored strips of plastic tied the slats together, giving it an old-fashioned, shaggy look.
At last the patriarch spoke. We welcome your presence, he said. You chased off the Taliban. His colleagues nodded. He knew he had to say more. Stay as long as you need to get the government up and running, he concluded. Although it was unusual to sit down with a group this small and no onlookers present, they weren’t telling us something we hadn’t already heard.
I started to respond.
Not a minute more, he clarified.
It might take a while, I noted. It’d been less than two years since foreigners gathered in Bonn to create this government. It’d be transitional, everybody agreed, until it got itself a constitution.
How long? the patriarch inquired.
Would you like us to come back? I countered.
Yes! the youngest responded. His elders kept silent.
In how many months? I asked.
One! the youngest exclaimed. He wasn’t so much welcoming as he was on the lookout for opportunity. About 35 years old, I guessed. Feeling conspicuous, he glanced at the others. Like me, they seemed to be thinking who invited you?
I let it play out.
A month, the patriarch confirmed.
When you can, the old man in the middle added.
Bring the vets, the youngest elaborated.
And the medics.
Build a school.
And clinics. They were getting into it.
I raised my hands to quiet them. We have a saying in America, I pronounced when they gave me the chance. God helps those who help themselves.
That gave them pause. The oldest two smiled like the man who knew too much. I think they realized I wasn’t going to do diddley.
We’ll leave, I added, as soon as you don’t need us anymore.
Or sooner, everybody was thinking.