This was how Afghanistan looked and felt like in 2003
The USA has just signed a peace treaty with the Talibans, reported by the news services on 29 February 2020. The news took me back to my Afghanistan years.
This ancient country was my workplace, on and off, between 2002 and 2010, as I was trying to start our company’s consulting business in this newly opened market. The name Afghanistan only brings to mind wars and conflicts. However it enjoyed a brief watershed period of relative peace after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 to 2005, and a respite from the incessant wars ravaging it for two decades. In Autumn 2003 I was on my third visit there to start a project for the rehabilitation of a road in the remote north-east. The euphoria of the defeat of the Talibans at the hands of the US-led NATO forces and the Northern Alliance was still in the air, along with the feeling of freedom from the oppressive religious rule that the Talibans had so ruthlessly imposed.
Hamid Karzai was in control of the affairs in Kabul (although how far his authority went outside the capital city was in question), basking in the glory of support from all the Western powers and the United Nations General Assembly. A large amount of foreign aid — funds, equipment, advisors, and consultants — was flowing in.
Kabul was an enjoyable place to be at that time. The Chicken Street and the Flower Street were bustling with foreigners — mostly Anglo Caucasians including some from the NATO forces — happily picking up rugs and antiques at bargain prices from the stores lining up on each side, with locals sipping endless cups of Kahwah (Afghan tea). Business was good and everyone was happy. Crammed and rickety sedans with smiling drivers were busily plying on the streets of Kabul working as taxis. We could go anywhere within the city with minimal concern about our security.
Frolicking children were seen everywhere on the streets; going to school, playing or just watching the world go by. Restaurants catering to expatriates on and around the posh Wazir Akbar Khan Road, named after the Emir, were crowded with NGO workers, consultants, embassy staffers, security professionals, and intrepid travelers. Everything was open to visitors, including the Darul Aman Palace, although heavily damaged by artillery shelling and years of neglect. Life was good and so was the public mood. At least there was a clear sense of relief from the wars, religious policing, and the nights of fear.
I traveled in and out of Kabul since June 2002. The following year, my company was contracted as a consultant for the rehabilitation of the Taloqan-Faizabad Road under the Afghan Ministry of Public Works (MPW). It was a 170 km winding road through a heavily mountainous region connecting two cities in the North, Taloqan in Takhar Province in the Northwest and Faizabad in Badakhshan Province in the Northeast. I was leading a team of a few engineers; one Aussie and two young Afghans from the MPW to assess the damages on the road along its entire length. Our task was to carry out a reconnaissance survey, a visual assessment of the extent of damages, and come up with a plan for the rehabilitation works.
On the narrow and winding mountain road leading from Taloqan to Faizabad, we met several heavy Russian built Kamaz lorries inching their way through the high cliff of soft rocks on the one side and a deep vertical drop on the other. The villagers nearby evidently lived on sheep herding, agriculture, and poppy. Faizabad was once famous for pistachio plants covering the mountains. With the war raging for decades and several years of drought, many of them had been chopped down, exposing the soil to erosion and landslides. Donkeys (along with sheep) appeared to be the most common animals around. They often stood lazily on the road, indifferent to the world around, trotting away with a honk or two. Donkeys were (and I suspect they still are) the means for practically every kind of traveling and transportation for the locals; shopping, social visits and carrying provisions, water or firewood. Life around here didn’t seem to have changed much over the last millennium except for the remains of tanks and other pieces of artillery beside the road, the warning signs for mines and the four-wheel-drive vehicles — mostly Russian UAZ and some Toyotas — whizzing by.
Faizabad stunned me at first sight with its picturesque beauty. Perched on a hillside, with a roaring Kokcha river running at its feet, gardens with fragrant cumin plants, and a clear blue sky — a picture-perfect place except for the poverty of the people, dusty roads and the ramshackle houses. It was October, winter was just about to set in and night-time temperatures were already hovering near 5 degrees C, while days were under 20. The River Kokcha came down from the hills and divided the town into new and old parts.
Kokcha originates from a lake in the Hindukush mountains near a small place called Skazar in the far North-east of Afghanistan and flows for 360 km before falling into the Amu Darya along the borders between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The mines of the famous lapis lazuli are located in its valley and during the decades of war successive Afghan insurgent groups made generous use of this precious stone to fund their campaigns. The ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamian civilizations, and later the Greeks and Romans, extracted lapis lazuli from Kokcha valley mines.
We lodged at the Marco Polo Club for the night, presumably the most prestigious accommodation in Faizabad, a one-storied building with about 10 rooms, located on the hill slope just above the Kokcha. There was just one primitive toilet, separate from the building and a couple of meters downhill. We were told that it was owned by the local commander. The sleeping arrangement was pretty basic, just a thick carpet on the stone floor and heavy blankets. The staff at the club (pronounced ‘kloob’ by the locals, similar to ‘book’) treated us with a sizable meal of large Afghan bread fresh from the oven, sizzling kebabs and chilled grapes. We were, however, more concerned about our personal safety, as the place was full of armed men, each carrying an AK47 type weapon and we were a few unarmed foreigners accompanied by some nationals from Kabul, presumably carrying US Dollars and satellite phones, making us perfectly legitimate targets. As we sat over the meal, cross-legged on a rug, the owner of the Club turned up to join us, introducing himself as Mullah Faiz, our host in Faizabad, apparently beaming that these ‘important’ people had come to his place. From his polite gesture and courteous manners, we realized that there was nothing to fear because we were his ‘guests’, the most honorable position a stranger can hope for in an Afghan household.
That night I didn’t sleep at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, not known to me yet, my wife, back in Dhaka, didn’t either. BBC TV had the previous evening aired the news of a shootout somewhere in Afghanistan and she was frantically trying to call just to make sure I was safe, unaware that I was contactable only through a satellite phone. I got to know about this when I called her just before dawn. On that crisp morning, I, however, didn’t fail to notice the beauty of the Kokcha roaring down below as I watched it in awe from the fragrant garden of cumin plants.
After breakfast we called on the local MPW office, hoping to meet the head and seek his support for our work. To our pleasant surprise, it was the same Mullah Faiz again! We exchanged pleasantries, shook hands several times in true Afghan style, sipped several cups of kahwah, and bade farewell. Our host happily assured us of all necessary support and protection for the work. All the time, Mullah Faiz was counting through his prayer beads made with local stones and I couldn’t help notice its beauty. Big mistake. He instantly offered it to me as a gift. Totally at a loss, I somehow managed to pick up my wit and accepted it with enough solemnity saying “I am deeply honored by this kind gesture and will give it to my father”, which I did on return to home.
Faizabad is the capital of Badakshan province and its commercial and administrative center. It includes the funny finger-shaped area in the north-east that was once a no-man’s-land but assigned to Afghanistan by the British during the Great Game era (in order to create a buffer between British India and the Czarist Russian Empire). The town is on an important trading route with Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan.
Taloqan-Faizabad Road Project, for which we were engaged as the consultant, was initially taken up as an emergency rehabilitation project aimed only at stabilizing the existing road surface and the bridges. Later on, the Afghan government decided to upgrade the link and widen the road with a better all-weather surface to act as a permanent and reliable connection with the north-eastern border town. The work was divided into two and the first 70 km from Taloqan to Keshem assigned to us, with the rest to the US Army Corps of Engineers. Today I am happy and proud to say that the works were completed on time and it now serves the much-needed linkage between these two towns. The journey from Taloqan to Faizabad takes under 3 hours, previously a day-long trip, that too uncertain during times of snowfall, flood or landslide, not to mention the associated hazards.
Judging from the wilderness of the area and the unique character of Faizabad, I am pretty sure one day it may become an attractive adventure tourism spot for people to visit not only the town itself but also the great Pamir Plateau. And a drive through the mountains to Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjian Uygur Autonomous Region in China, leading to the Silk Road centers will be a trip of a lifetime. But that will need stability and peace in the region, which is unlikely to come by anytime soon, even after signing the recent peace deal. There are already signs to indicate that this deal may not fulfill its stated objective of bringing about peace (“U.S. signs a peace deal with the Taliban, but is the war in Afghanistan really ending?”, NBC News on its Think magazine, 4 March 2020). But we will talk about that on another occasion.
Note: All photos were taken by the author.
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