Kabul to Lashkargar

April 14, 2006

Kabul to Lashkargar 

Kabul under a film of dust

When we landed in Kabul, Steve put the driver in the back and drove us through the crowded streets. There was a thirty minute ride ahead of us, alternating between racing and jamming in traffic. As we drove away from the airport, there were fewer Coalition soldiers about, and on the hills surrounding the town a dense warren of mud and stone houses that could have been erected thousands of years ago, although many insist that Kabul was once a little paradise.

When we arrived at his office, there were no guards in sight, but when Steve beeped the horn, the gate swung open, revealing an Afghan man in plain tan trousers, a blue short-sleeve T-shirt, and a watchdog that really was just a puppy, in a cage. The office where about a half-dozen Afghans work is in a private residence; a large two story house with five considerable rooms and a working kitchen on the first floor.

Steve is the founder and sole owner of CADG, the Central Asia Development Group, a company with wide and various interests in Afghanistan. A miscellany of employees, from cooks and cleaners to civil engineers and construction project managers work out of the Kabul office. Samples of the 85 different Afghan agricultural products available for sale or export, are on display on the wall in one of the main rooms. Bags of pistachios from Mazar and mung beans from Kandoz vie for space and attention with the two types each of rice and corn, three kinds of apricots, six classes of cotton, twelve varieties of raisins, thirteen kinds of walnuts, and the single small bag of the only kind of clover one finds growing in Afghanistan. Although there is no gaping hole in the display, Afghanistan’s most lucrative agricultural export product is missing. There are no poppies on the wall.

There’s lots of money in the addiction-business, and opium injects more liquidity into Afghanistan than all those 85 other products combined. Afghanistan is the Opium Poppy King, producing nearly all of the world’s supply. Continuing the trend of the past several years, the 2006 crop is believed to be the largest in the history of the world. This, I am told, is closely related to the coincident rising tide of violence in this country.

Over our two days in Kabul, I got more background information from locals and from Brits, one of whom had spent more than two decades in Afghanistan and surrounds. Both nights we drove downtown to meet people for dinner. The restaurant menus were in English, the prices in dollars. The first night I had fresh tuna that was flown in from Dubai. Later that night Steve cleverly managed to back his Land Cruiser into a parked SUV. The Afghan driver, who had been sleeping, came to high alert and jumped out the door, but the telephone number exchange was civil and matter of fact.

Once all our meetings were finished, we drove to the Kabul airport and boarded the twin engine Beechcraft 200 that would fly us to Lashkargar. Steve wanted to be at the airport early. He’d gotten the flight manifest and wanted to talk with a couple of passengers he knew. Four of the nine passenger seats were empty as we taxied by F-16s and other aircraft, then lifted into the sky. There was one stop in Tirin Kot, where the manifest showed that several passengers would board the plane. Steve knew a couple of these passengers and joked that making this ring flight was the best way to meet his staff and get caught up on business.

We flew over hundreds of miles of Afghanistan. Watching the landscape below, one recurring theme emerged: Liquid water equals people. Habitations were confined to and clustered around the natural flow of water. I saw no random patches of green or communities out in the deserts like we might see in more advanced countries. The people here moved to the water, but did not move the water to the people, which provided one of Steve’s largest agricultural advantages in Afghanistan: he had installed Israeli drip-irrigation systems in many places.

Habitations like this are common and predictable. Liquid water equals people.

Clusters of people collect along the banks of rivers, but outside of these threads and knots are vast areas of sun-scorched sand and rocks, seemingly barren of any sign of life.

Bushes growing in this river bed indicate water does not flow often. In the high resolution of the photo, there was no sign of habitation.

The Spiral landing fills the windshield with earth, making it appear we are crashing

Our first stop was in Tirin Kot the capital of Uruzgan Province, a location that journalist Nick Meo said I might not come out of alive. As we approached the airstrip, the pilots put the aircraft into a sharp spiral, avoiding the normal long approach that would expose us to ground fire. We landed on an airstrip that Steve’s company had built, and while passengers disembarked, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs and stepped out onto the airstrip. Steve called over a couple of Afghan guards, and warned them to be on the lookout, explaining that times are very dangerous. Then he said that an entire American combat battalion had deserted the US Army. Hundreds of soldiers disappeared, he said, as the Afghans’ eyes grew bigger. Then Steve said, “The soldiers deserted with all their equipment and joined the Taliban.” Every time he tells Afghans this, they all seem to believe him, right up to the point where he says, “And they joined the Taliban,” at which time they always burst into laughter.

Soon the Beechcraft had lifted us back into the dusty sky for the final leg to Lashkargar, the capital of Helmand Province, the navel of earth’s heroin production. Whereas the poppy in Uruzgan Province was not blooming and therefore difficult to spot from the air, much of the poppy in Helmand was flowering, and easy to see from the sky. The vast amounts of poppies under cultivation were astonishing, and had I not made photographic proof, I might be reluctant to say just how much is here.

Poppy fields next to main roads are common, and there were vast amounts in the immediate vicinity of PRT Base (Provincial Reconstruction Team) run by the Americans.

As the Beechcraft drops lower, the poppy fields become more obvious, the farmers sowing it brazenly practically right next to the air strip. Farmers do not like uncertainty, and the fact that it is impossible NOT to see huge swaths of poppy fields next to major roads, and next to the airfield, makes it clear that economically, the enemy is growing here at the speed of Papaver somniferum.

Some of the fields below obviously are poppy, but other areas are difficult to make out. Although only one species of poppy has narcotic properties, the number of variations remains uncatalogued.

Steve tells me that Afghan farmers cultivate eleven variations of the opium species of poppy, and often one farmer will grow several types at once. Some plants need less water or are more cold resistant, and others are bred for late or early harvest, and still others are characterized by bigger yields or better disease resistance. Many of the poppy farms we would see on the ground had sections with white flowers, another with pink and a third with red.

When we landed at Lashkargar, some Americans in Humvees cut dusty tracks down the runway, letting out a few civilian passengers. Each civilian came to talk with Steve before boarding the aircraft and flying away. While the heavily armed American combat patrol rumbled away, we gathered into an unarmored Land Cruiser and headed out for Steve’s office in the middle of town, to drop off our bags before driving to the PRT.

Welcome to Lashkargar

Security at the PRT was relaxed to the point where a suicide bomber would have no problem crashing the gate. An attack, in fact, was about to happen.

The UK was preparing to take over the PRT, and Steve had a contract from the British Government to build a British accommodation and office block, and his crews were laboring away while we were there. Steve checked with his manager of that contract who reported that the construction was going well, and the British military was pleased with the pace and results.

Two of the British soldiers joked about how the base received 200 cases of beer, and one of their mates got “pissed” (drunk) and went around banging on the doors of senior ranking soldiers. That was it. The order was given to ship all the remaining beer to a different base a couple hours away. When one of the British soldiers actually complied with the order and shipped all the beer, his direct superior could not believe that he actually shipped all the beer. “Yes,” he said while sitting in his tent, “I told him to send all the beer, but I caan’t bloody believe he shipped all the beer!”

This worker risked his thumb to smile for the camera

This character was all smiles until he asked me to photograph him, then he put on scowls, and as soon as I clicked a photo and put down the camera, he smiled again. So, I shot another photo but he scowled again, and then a third time I tried to surprise him but he was faster with the scowl than I was with the shutter.

CADG employees mixing cement for British construction in Lashkargar. Steve is losing well over a hundred temporary employees to the opium harvest beginning next week. The employees are open about it, and labor for the poppy lancing and opium harvest this year is stretched so tight that the field hands say they will get 1/3 of the take. The local mullahs will take 10% Zakat for religious tax and, according to some, many local police and other officials also impose mandatory tithes.

The British compound in Lashkargar is being constructed with specs that the base should be suitable for ten years. A British Member of Parliament said that 5,700 British troops are coming to just Helmand Province. When I asked how many are coming to Afghanistan, he answered unconvincingly that he did not know. The Australians are among the other nations currently pouring increasing resources into Afghanistan.

We had dinner on the PRT and got to the gate at 5:50 PM. The American National Guardsmen who were supposed to be guarding the gate until 6:00 PM had left their post early, so we were stuck on base with the sun setting. Steve found a Marine who called the sergeant of the guard, who in turn came huffing, angry that we “waited to the last minute.”

We spent the night at Steve’s large compound downtown, equipped with an excellent cook, a nice garden, and a bunch of birds that nested outside my door and raucously woke me before the sunrise.

The wings have painted the walls by this bird’s nest.

After breakfast and some morning meetings, we again drove to the PRT, checked in with the Brits, and prepared for an overland journey to Camp Bastion, far out in the desert, just next to “The Desert of Death.” Reports were coming in several times per day of people fighting, or foreigners being beheaded or shot to death in the areas to which we were traveling alone. Although people had said the immediate area of Lashkargar was quiet, I absolutely did not believe it was safe. And a suicide attacker was closing in.

Next: Our journey to the Desert of Death



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