Well you’ve gotta go off-piste sometimes…
And whilst I’ve never actually been skiing it has been a pretty intense couple of weeks, traveling in Afghanistan, held at gunpoint (again) then spending a few days in a police cell and being deported from Tajikistan- it will feel strange returning to a life on the Northern line. I’ve been writing these for over 2years now so I don’t know how many people are actually still bothering to read them but I’m guessing a few more people on the list might look in at the email subject.
Deciding on whether or not to go to Afghanistan has haunted me since before the trip started and has grown in prominence in my mind as I got ever nearer. I did umm and aah a bit but ultimately I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I bottled it and in the context of traveling in Asia it felt pretty vital to come.
Whilst it was a bit scary at times it was also very rewarding and I left feeling frustrated I couldn’t see more of the country and really wanting to return in the future.
Getting the visa itself was very easy but when I went to apply for a permit in Peshawar to cross the Khyber Pass the officer was (understandably) contemptuous: “On the road to Kabul there have been 2 attacks on NATO convoys in the last 10 days. So no I’m not going to grant you a permit”. And then that very evening militants tried to blow up that building, though they actually missed and got the one next door they still killed 40…
Therefore rather guttingly I had to get the expensive flight meaning I couldn’t cross probably the most iconic border in the world and since it was Pakistan Airlines one of my bags went missing en route- the clue’s in the company name.
I arrived into Kabul a bit nervous but the nerves quickly disappeared as I got into the standard argument in Asia with taxi drivers trying to rip me off! Kabul turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant place to be, during the Afghan civil war in the ‘90s it was virtually destroyed during street fighting as various factions slugged it out for control of the country before the Taliban eventually emerged victorious. Therefore there’s not much in the way of sights with the eerie shell of the Darulaman Palace being a good monument to the power vacuum followed by brutal street fighting that emerged after the Soviets were defeated. The bazaar area around the disgusting Kabul river is really interesting to wander round and there are some nice parks dotted on the hills which make up the city and these felt almost misleadingly peaceful considering what’s going on elsewhere in the country. I think what I was most surprised by though was the sense of affluence about the place; until the Russians invaded, Afghanistan wasn’t a permanent warzone run by religious nutters so there were lots of things hinting at a better life I wouldn’t expect to see like flower shops, Western clothes stores and even travel agents. When you add in a not terrible infrastructure and the fact it’s not quite so densely populated, life actually felt more comfortable there than in most of the subcontinent.
Since 2001 billions have poured into the country in the form of NGOs and reconstruction projects so there’s money about but I also realized that’s brought about a 2 tier economy which is one of the reasons why so many Afghans (especially in the countryside) are angry about the lack of progress in their lives. Whenever there’s a big UN or NGO mission anywhere in the world quite quickly traders will supply them with virtually any goods Western workers want and since they’re on expense accounts they don’t really care how much things cost, leading to so called ‘NGO inflation’. Therefore whilst local food/transport are very cheap things like accommodation are illogically expensive in Afghanistan ie about what I was paying in Japan but not exactly of the same quality (this would cause massive problems later). The budget for security of UN and NGO workers in the form of bodyguards, bullet proof 4x4s etc has now risen to equal what they’re actually spending on the development projects themselves and it’s become something of a lightning rod for criticism of the UN mission as local people see bodyguarded Western diplomats effortlessly spending $12 on a box of American cereal in Kabul whilst the rebuilding of a clinic in the countryside has taken 4years.
Whilst security is obviously a major problem, if there’s one thing that has to improve if the country is to develop is the corruption problem. Once again it’s another piously ‘Muslim country’ where absolutely everyone is on the take, from the president down to rank as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
On a local level nothing gets done by local officials unless you pay them first and harassment and petty bribery by cops is something the people have to put up with every day. But this goes all the way up to the President, every single Afghan I spoke to was utterly contemptuous of the government and would dismiss them as nothing more than thieves or robbers. Virtually everyone around Bush family friend Hamid Karzai has been indicted on serious corruption and other charges yet he seems to think it’s his right to turn a blind eye to it. For example his brother has been widely implicated in the heroin trade but Karzai refuses to investigate him and Karzai’s bizarre response to questioning was to blame the American invasion saying there was less lawlessness and opium grown under the Taliban. As happened so many times with humanitarian missions in Africa, Western governments are pouring money into the country but just aren’t getting a good enough return thanks to a combination of bureaucracy and corruption creaming off too much of the money. Despite the investments ordinary people just aren’t seeing enough visible improvements around them and the frustration this causes means NATO are having a hard job convincing the population their presence is a positive thing.
Leaving Kabul didn’t go very well and ultimately I didn’t do half as much as I wanted to in Afghanistan; when I got to what passed for a bus station I asked about getting to Bamiyan where the famous huge Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in the ‘90s. Along with a national park nearby it’s the safest part of the country but the driver and other passengers strongly advised me not to come as it’s not actually walking round the streets which is especially dangerous in Afghanistan but the traveling round, basically the guys in black turbans set up checkpoints on the roads and if you’re stopped at one of those then you’re in trouble. In the previous 2 weeks fighting had kicked off on the road to Bamiyan and one of the passengers said ‘Just don’t come, if they catch you they will kill you and no-one can rescue you’ as the other guys made the triple whammy of sharp intakes of breath, shaking heads and the ‘slit throat’ sign. So I didn’t go (which caused problems later) and had to take the only really safe road North to Mazr e Sharif. The scenery was however fantastic as at this time of year Afghanistan is a country of 3 very striking tones, the cobalt blue of the sky, the yellow colored dust of the dry mountains and the green of the valleys below, which the people live in. Apart from the plain that forms towards the Iran border the rest of the country is mountainous and in a harsh and unforgivable landscape which like SE16 is prime bandit country it’s not difficult to see why no-one has ever conquered Afghanistan. But the only problem I had in the country didn’t come from the Taliban but the boys in blue, well it’s more a turquoise colour in Afghanistan but the police anyway. I’d been to a city called Balkh (birthplace of Zoroastrianism) and had gone into the ruins of an old mosque, I took a couple of photos when a guy wearing civilian clothes(I assumed the caretaker) came up to me and wrenched my camera out of my hand. He flashed a police card and indicated he wasn’t gonna give it back and 2 more cops showed. I again asked if I could have it back at which point he pulled out his pistol and aimed it at me. At this point I thought I was in real trouble- basically being mugged, but then he ushered me to the exit with the gun still firmly trained on me. As I left I thought I was damn lucky I was only losing the camera and still had my passport/money on me but I grew increasingly angry about it going back to town and I asked a local where the police station was and despite him saying “You may make things worse” I decided to try and get it back anyway. And amazingly it worked, I explained the situation and the commander put out a couple of calls, told me to wait for an hour and a cop walked in and returned it to me! The explanation was that you can’t take photos of ancient monuments in Afghanistan (though there was no sign to say that) and they’d simply confiscated it for unknown reasons. I was ecstatic to get it back but it was the 2nd time in 2 weeks I had a cop aiming a gun at me at point blank range for not even the beginnings of a good reason. They are designed to kill after all and why countries like America let cops or even civilians brandish them so freely is truly beyond me.
Afghans recent experiences are war and being refugee and this, added to the hyper conservative Islam means they’re a hardened, uptight people. As in parts of Pakistan people rarely laugh or joke and I think the abiding image I have of the people is everyone, even young children frowning rather than smiling under almost any circumstance. But they’re also a fascinating people to look at; Alexander the Great conquered what’s now Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan and (so the theory goes) his soldiers left an incredible kaleidoscope of different looks amongst the people. Therefore alongside the (very tough) Persian look you have loads of people with lighter skin, blue or green eyes and blonde or even red hair so the girl in that photo by no means stands out. When I arrived in Northern Pakistan I realized there were people who looked not all that dissimilar to me wandering around and so feeling like Kim I hatched the cunning plan of trying to look like a native which, much to my surprise proved to be remarkably effective. In Islamic folklore Mohammad had a beard about my colour so as a mark of respect men all over the Islamic world a) grow beards and b) dye it with henna so it looks reddy brown (incidentally the importance of the colour green in Islam is because it was apparently his favourite colour too!). Therefore I simply didn’t shave for a few weeks and after buying a couple of kurtas (the pyjama suits they wear) and a Talib cap like the one Osama bin Laden would wear I could basically wander round and people would think I was a Pashtun- in the Punjab people would look quite warily at me! There aren’t exactly hordes of Lonely Planet touting Australian backpackers so people just wouldn’t think of a foreigner being in their midst. This obviously fell apart when I had to start speaking and it was quite funny seeing the shock people got when they realized I was a foreigner and I even got into a couple of tourist attractions paying the local price which I enjoyed. More seriously though in places where there was a definite tension in the air like Peshawar being able to move about and have nobody looking at me twice definitely made me feel much more secure. So quite bizarrely, with the exceptions of places like Hong Kong or Singapore where there’s lots of foreigners about I felt ‘I slotted in’ better in Afghanistan than anywhere else on this trip.
But whilst they can be handsome in a very rugged way like Shahid Afridi for example they’re also the hardest looking people I’ve ever seen. Aside from being naturally big and lives in a tough climate giving them wizened skin ‘made of leather’, Pashtuns in particular past the age of about 12 all seem to possess an unhinged, almost psychotic look in their eyes which says ‘I could kill you if I wanted to ’ and their unpredictable natures make them genuinely scary to be around. On a battlefield they must be truly terrifying to come up against. The Pashtuns are the largest tribal society in the world spanning both sides of the Afghan/Paki border, they do things ‘differently’ and are remarkably intractable in their way of life. If you grow up in a country like England you’re taught that virtually the worst thing you can do is criticize another culture but there’s not much to admire about the Pashtuns. To give just a few phrases I’ve seen used to describe them: ‘lazy, violent, and idle’, ‘vulgar, hostile and aggressive’ and ‘the most warlike people on Earth’. To an outsider perhaps the most striking thing about them is their refusal to acknowledge national or even Sharia law before their own honour code. Whilst bits of it are positive like their overwhelming hospitality (“my friend is my brother, my brother is my friend”- which is why they didn’t give up Osama bin Laden ) most of it is backward beyond belief, the sort of stuff the rest of the world (except maybe Albania) got rid of decades if not centuries ago. They live by a system of revenge based bloodfeuds which can go on for generations in case of insult to self, family or clan and are almost always over zar (gold) zan (women) or zamin (land). I once watched a documentary set in a hospital in Kandahar and there was this endless stream of blokes being brought in after being stabbed or bludgeoned or shot because they’d literally looked at some other guys fat tailed sheep the wrong way.
The role of women in Afghanistan obviously gets a lot of coverage in the Western press because of the Taliban rule where they banned women from working or wearing white socks (they felt men might find them too arousing) or doing almost anything constructive with their lives but things are now much more relaxed than the Western press often reports, although as with most things in Afghanistan it almost entirely depends on the individuals tribe and which part of the country it’s in. In Kabul and the North it’s not unknown for women to wear Western clothes or work before they’re married but what I was most shocked to see were the number of beauty parlours. I was also lucky enough to stay with a shopkeeper and his extended family after I’d got chatting to him over about 4pts of chai one day. He had a couple of teenage daughters and I initially didn’t really know where to look but they actually started speaking to me seemingly at total ease in front of the rest of the family. The key point though was that they were the much more relaxed Tajiks and whilst in almost all of Asia it may be a mans world, just about anyone can be thankful they weren’t born a Pashtun woman in surely the most male centric culture in the world. The sense of honour (called nang) over women is the most intense of any of the honour codes and it’s every mans duty to defend the family’s honour, and the smallest things literally down to outsiders giving eye contact to a female can be a breach of that. If a girl does something willingly then it’s she who must be punished (often murdered) and one recent UN report put domestic violence amongst Pashtun households at a scarcely believable 90%. They don’t believe women should be educated beyond being able to pray so female literacy stands at 11% and perhaps most noticeably they keep women under the strictest purdah, where they’re not allowed out of the female quarters of the home and can’t speak to any males who aren’t members of the family. As a result in Pashtun areas you basically don’t see women beyond the age of 11 or so so they maybe make up 1-2% of the visible population and they’ll be totally covered under a burkha and clearly past ‘child bearing’ age. With their entire lives revolving round looking after the home and children with the occasional highlight being only religious holidays I can think of few groups who have a harder ‘natural’ lot in life.
But the negative impacts of the Pashtuns go much further than that; since travelling in Pakistan and Afghanistan I’ve realised that whilst Western governments aren’t allowed to say it, the problems of this region aren’t an ‘Afghanistan problem’ or a ‘Pakistan problem’ but a Pashtun one. As I wrote about in Pakistan since the 1980s the Pashtuns have had increasing contact with and been influenced by Wahhabism’ from Saudi Arabian preachers and this is what helped create and equally importantly sustained the truly bonkers Taliban. If you look at the conflict geographically on both sides of the border- where there aren’t Pashtuns there isn’t really any fighting, where there are Pashtuns then you have a virtual warzone. A view expressed to me on both sides of the border (from members of different tribes) were that if a ‘Pastunistan’ were carved out of the 2 border areas then the rest of the countries would be safe and the Pashtuns could be left to sort their own problems out.
They’re underrepresented in the national armies (especially in Pakistan) yet they make up the vast majority of the Taliban and whilst in Pakistan you have a clear split between them and the rest of the country in Afghanistan it’s much more complicated and is much of the reason why democracy isn’t working.
Whilst democracy may be the least worst form of government and in the post-Cold War period is seen by Western governments as the ultimate goal for all countries to work towards, in many developing countries it can’t function effectively due to the makeup of the population. As most African countries have seen since independence, people don’t necessarily vote on a basis of left-right politics and deciding who has the best policies but vote almost purely on tribal lines; and Afghanistan is the same. The Pashtuns make up nearly half the Afghan population and so despite the fact Hamid Karzai’s government has been utterly rancid, his ability to rely on the ‘Pashtun vote’ and subsequently cut deals to various local warlords means his grip on power is far too strong. Therefore you have the contradictory position where despite the fact the government are officially ‘at war’ with the Taliban they both draw their support from the same people in the South and East of the country and there are plenty of mutterings that the Taliban are closer to the government than anyone would like to admit. It’s led to a big split with the Americans about how the country can move forward with the Americans up until very recently insisting on no deals with the Taliban (and grouping them with Al Qaeda) whilst the government advocates ever increasing rapprochement with militants such as releasing leaders from prison and trying to gain a negotiated peace. But this seems a very risky strategy, despite coming up against the worlds strongest military for 10 years now they’re causing as much damage as ever with virtually no-one predicting an end to the fighting any time soon. As one guy gave the pretty good analogy: “It’s like a man trying to remove a wasp nest, the wasps will keep attacking him so he has to kill each wasp individually but they’ll just keep coming til he goes away”
America now finds itself in a very difficult position where if they leave then the country may once again return to chaos yet it’s ever harder to justify the money they’re expending on the conflict. The war in Afghanistan (and you might say Iraq too) have had a terrible impact on America in the last 10 years; thanks to the dubious legality of the wars and the waterboarding and torture flights that followed it’s international reputation has taken a battering and aside from the near 2,500 soliders who’ve died in the fighting international terrorist attacks haven’t stopped and Afghanistan is still very unstable. The economist Steven Levitt calculated that by 2008 the wasted time spent removing shoes on airport security queues had ‘cost’ 28 lives and the massive increase in passport and visa costs (the UK passport has doubled in 4 years because of the Americans insistence on microchips) shows that you don’t necessarily need to kill people to have a negative impact on ordinary peoples lives. Perhaps even more prosaically the war in Afghanistan has helped to plunge the USA into a debt of near incalculable proportions to ultimately achieve little beyond the recent assassination of ‘The Sheikh’. Whilst Al Qaeda and friends haven’t quite achieved a world run under a single Islamic Caliphate based on a 12th century Arabia (or whatever it is they ultimately want) at this stage you can make quite a strong argument they’re winning the War on Terror ‘on points’.
For Afghanis themselves, the scars of Taliban rule in the ‘90s are yet to heal and the other tribes are deeply doubtful of any future after the Americans have left with a terrible government and an active Taliban still around. Whilst a lot of criticisms are made of it due to the hyper conservative Islam and their hostility to foreigners, considering their history as the playground of outside powers: Britain and Russia in the Great Game in the 19th century, Russia and US in the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s and even rich, crazy Arabs and the US in the ‘War on Terror’ since 2001, their unwillingness to work with others or change their way of life is understandable.
The future of the country on any time scale still seems very, very hard to predict. I did enjoy being there more than I thought I would though; it’s an intoxicating culture (probably the opium) to be around and the pride they take in their independent spirit and old traditions was a really pleasant change from the artificial culture and nationalism they’ve tried and failed to create in Pakistan. I think probably my best memory of the country was watching the mesmeric sight of the evening prayer in front of the beautiful Hazrat Ali shrine in Mazr e Sharif. Watching the 2,000 or so guys worshipping in unison in the blue twinged twilight definitely made me want to return to the country one day and I hope it’s able to find a way to peace soon.
But I ran into huge problems trying to leave; if I ever have a son aside from obvious bits of advice like ‘If you’re gonna flash, flash hard’ and ‘Never pat a burning dog’ I would say never, ever, ever, ever try to enter Tajikistan 3 days before your visa is due to start. I’d picked up my Tajik visa in Islamabad but had to guess when I was going to enter the country; because I had to scrap the centre of Afghanistan this left me with several days before my Tajik visa dates started and this was a major headache. I was having to pay basically more than I could afford for accommodation in Afghanistan and didn’t really wanna shell out loads more simply to sit around in the dodgy border town for 4 days waiting for time to pass, therefore I tried to enter Tajikistan early- big mistake. I got stamped out of Afghanistan fine but when I tried entering Tajikistan they were like “Oh no you don’t”… they arrested me and put me in a police cell for the rest of the day without explaining what was gonna happen to me. Eventually about 8pm they took me to a laughable meeting with the local district attorney who had a chat right in front of me with the border guards and a poor little local English teacher they’d roped in as an interpreter about how much to try and fine me. Eventually they explained I had to pay a (ridiculous) $400 fine, they seemed unaware of quite how much they were asking and when I said I didn’t have it they asked if I knew anyone near by who could come and pay it! So I said no and they said “Well can you pay $200 then?” They weren’t actually proposing any solution to the problem so again I just said “No, I’m gonna have to go to the capital to get this sorted”. They definitely didn’t want this so decided to try and deport me in the morning back to Afghanistan. I explained to them it wouldn’t work and lo and behold it didn’t as Afghanistan were pretty firm in saying ‘no you left yesterday- you can’t come back under any circumstance’. I then spent 6hrs in no mans land with exit stamps from both countries before they (Tajiks) decided to rearrest me. They locked me up for 21hrs in a 4x 9ft cell with a local guy without any food or water but thankfully the other guy had some cigarettes so we just chainsmoked to ward off any hunger pangs. Finally about 4.30pm the next day they let me out in the courtyard to do some exercise and even let me sleep outside so it could’ve been miles worse. Crucially they also didn’t confiscate my stuff so whilst they wouldn’t tell me anything or let me phone the British embassy I could at least read to pass the time. Then out of nowhere on the 4th day of my captivity out of nowhere they gave me the phone and it was the British Deputy ambassador saying I was coming to Dushanbe that evening.
The Tajiks decision was to deport me ‘nicely’ ie not ruin my passport and let me buy a flight out.
The problem was Tajikistan is not exactly a well connected place and the 3 options they gave me (Istanbul, Frankfurt and Riga for some reason) were all horrible. Very expensive and even more cogently would mean my trip was ruined- I’d have had to go home from any of them. I did discover an ace in the hole though as brilliantly last year Kyrgyzstan started granting visas on arrival at the airport to Westerners. However, the Tajiks weren’t aware of it and the supine deputy ambassador sold me down the river a bit as he almost dismissed it as an option in the late night meeting we had with some guy very high up in the foreign ministry. He sycophantically seemed to be 70% interested in ingratiating himself with the Tajik guy and only 30% interested in pleading my case so I found myself in the crazy situation of really having to fight the urge to have a go at him in the middle of this meeting. I bedded really disconsolately at the prospect of having to abandon the trip at great expense over something soooooo small (in my mind) would have been a terrible way for the last couple of years to end. The next day was one of incredible stress when I took a big risk by effectively ignoring the deputy ambassadors commands and bought a flight to Bishkek. When he found out he was so annoyed with me he refused to speak to me but having met the Tajik guy who was gonna make the decision I gambled he would let me go…. and after a spectacularly stressful meeting he caught the Hail Mary better than Randy Moss and agreed to let me catch the flight the next morning.
When I arrived in Bishkek they gave me a VOA no questions asked and I’ve been in an utterly ebullient mood ever since. Whilst I had to pay for a flight and didn’t get a chance to see anything but Dushanbe (and a police station) of Tajikistan it really was a trip saving moment. With a slight rejig of my plans I’m now able to carry on OK and am really looking forward to the last few months of the trip.
After no alcohol in a while on my first day in Bishkek I went out and got enjoyably drunk and after seeing no women for the last 6 weeks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and a Tajik prison cell it’s great to be back in the USSR!