Michael's Dispatches

Life Before Death

Published: 6 October 2008
From four Provinces, Afghanistan

I left embed with British forces in Kandahar, and flew to Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand Province.  Helmand is the biggest opium source of the world today.  I write these words from Nangarhar, where bin Laden had made his home.

British officers warned me not strike out on my own, but the temptation was great.  A friend of mine has a private airplane, which I took from Kandahar Province to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.  As we landed, some cars arrived to pick up other passengers.

The airplane dropped us off, but security waited for the airplane to safely take off again before they left.  The aircraft is exposed on the runway, and an RPG had recently sailed over the field.

The airplane rumbles away.  Days after the last time I flew from this “airport” in 2006, three people were killed when a plane overran the runway trying to avoid a truck.  The plane crashed into a house.

The road from the airport into Lashkar Gah is newly paved, and we drove in an unarmored pickup truck.  (The security guards in the new, armored vehicles picked up other passengers.)

Lashkar Gah: The tall kid in the back had some very big ears.  The people in “Lash” were very friendly in 2006, and again on this trip, but Afghans kindly warned me not to go shopping in the market.

Lashkar Gah

Western attitudes about the Afghans are interesting.  There seems to be a general feeling of affection towards most Afghans, and I find the Afghans approachable and easy to get along with.  The food I’ve eaten in different provinces is excellent, and I also enjoy talking with Afghanis.  Many soldiers, journalists and foreign workers have expressed similar experiences here.  Tom Ricks, the outstanding American journalist who authored Fiasco (a very important book about the Iraq war), spent some of his childhood years in Afghanistan.  Tom emailed me about Afghanistan, saying: “I love the country…”  On another occasion, Tom wrote to me about his childhood here:

“When I was a kid we used to go down to the Helmand for Christmas, stopping in Kandahar for milkshakes at the American USAID outpost there.  It was lovely that time of year. Lashkar Gah was a Little America out in the desert. The big dams north of there were built by the Americans in the '50s--the subject of James Michner's novel Caravans.”

(Tom is holed up working on a new book: The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, which I am looking forward to reading.)

President Hamid Karzai has little clout outside the major cities of Afghanistan.  In some parts, his influence is about as big as his photo.  In Washington and London, however, he is seen as being very powerful.

The US poured great resources into Afghanistan during the 1950s.  Americans built large houses from brick (such as this one), and hired local staffs.  A house-boy who worked in this building in the 1950s learned English from Americans, and he missed them badly after they left.  I’ve talked with him for some hours in 2006 and again in 2008.  For years he searched for the American woman who helped teach him English.  Finally, through a journalist, he was reunited with her family.  He showed me recent letters from America, which letters indicated a great fondness on both sides.  The “house boy” is now a cook, in the same house, and it’s clear that those letters are among his prized possessions.  The Americans built Kajaki dam in the 1950s, and supplied electricity to places that never had it, and helped build a large irrigation system that later was used to grow massive amounts of opium poppy, which of course funds the Taliban who support al Qaeda.  Strange how that played out.

During the sweltering days, these huts can be comfortably cool.

Just sprinkle water on the shrubs and you’ve got a makeshift air conditioner.

Friendly people.  Heavily armed.

Afghans say that in the old days, there were no walls around the houses when the Americans were here en masse.  But then the Soviets invaded and walls went up.  I asked several Afghans who was worse, the Soviets or the Taliban.  One man said the Soviets were far worse.  The Soviet approach to counterinsurgency bordered on genocide, but that strategy backfired.  The Soviets left under a hail of bullets, and their loss of the war in Afghanistan helped bring down the entire Soviet Union.  British soldiers told me that they held joint patrols with some of the Eastern European troops, who still use Soviet-style vehicles.  When the people saw the Soviet vehicles coming, they threw rocks at them, though they did not throw rocks at British vehicles.

Other Afghans told me the Taliban, and years of civil war, was even worse than the Soviet invasion.

Lashkar Gah.  There are many nice gasoline stations in Afghanistan, but still some roadside stands like on the right, selling fuel in plastic jugs.  I overnighted downtown, which the British had told me was “crazy,” but I had no problems.

If you can’t read this, don’t worry, neither can most Afghans.  Still, they keep erecting road signs.

Paved roads are a visible sign of progress and security.  But Afghans, British and Americans who are paying attention tell me that government influence ends where the pavement ends, which means most of Afghanistan.  Worse, many of our (NATO) folks never leave the bases.  There were people at the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Lashkar Gah who did not even know this road was paved.  That might not sound like a big deal, until we consider that this road runs straight to the PRT.

The Afghans really load down those rickshaws.  An Afghan in Jalalabad told me there is a ricksaw factory in that city, which I thought would make a fun story to write.  How is the ricksaw business?

Rush hour in Lashkar Gah.  Over in Kandahar, an officer from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who is working with our Special Forces, told me that his country is putting $50 million dollars into an Afghan road project.  Talking with citizens from UAE makes me want to skip town and head to Dubai where it’s safe and the Arabs are very hospitable, though many Afghans I talk with don’t seem to like Arabs.  When my western friends talk bad about Arabs, I think of places like UAE or Qatar where we are extremely welcome and safe. The idea that we are in a global religious war is untrue.  Certainly there are wars unfolding that have religious basis, but this is not World War III.  We are not in a war against Muslims, and the vast majority of Muslims are not at war with us.  Islam is experiencing a culture-wide religious and political civil war, much like the wars that accompanied the Reformation in Europe.  We are trying to put out the flames of the Islamic civil war.  Yet sometimes we make it worse.

Cemetery: Afghans have said that when Arabs (al Qaeda in this case) came to town, they started getting into fights with locals because they would rip down flags in the graveyards.  The flags somehow offended al Qaeda, but so far nobody has given me a solid reason why.

Lashkar Gah

The British had warned not to go it alone.  It is to their great credit that they spend so much effort to save a writer.  Yet there is another world outside the wire that must be explored to develop a nose for this war.  Astronauts don’t get paid to play in simulators; likewise, war correspondents must venture into the unknown.

So far, Afghanistan is easier to cover than Iraq.  In Iraq, going alone would have been suicidal.  Unless you could afford your own personal bodyguards, there was no alternative to embedding with the military.  Traveling on my own is not suicidal here, just very dangerous.  And it reaps enormous benefits.  The information flows at a much faster rate, and I get a tactile sense of what’s really going on.  In Iraq, only companies like New York Times with gigantic budgets could dare allow their writers to go it alone.   Yet in Afghanistan, if a writer is willing to accept higher levels of risk, he or she can break out of the military cocoon.

And float like a butterfly.

Butterflies in Lashkar Gah

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