Kabul diaries: notes from my recent trip to Afghanistan - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 8 January 2011

Kabul diaries: notes from my recent trip to Afghanistan

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th Jan 11

Steeped in forbidding history, soaked in blood, but with arms wide open in the traditional Afghan welcome, Kabul is surely the world’s most surreal capital city. Every corner chronicles a tale: here is the sports stadium that was given over to public executions, the Taliban herding in terrified spectators for the casual gunning down of convicts; here is the zoo where hungry mujahideen fighters shot an elephant to eat; here is the corner where former President Najibullah’s body was hung by the Taliban after he was tortured to death.

My own introduction to Kabul was an education in the bizarre rhythms of that city’s dusty, brown dreamscape. Entering alongside the Northern Alliance forces, on the heels of the fleeing Taliban in November 2001, I wanted only to grab one of the bungalows vacated the previous night by Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. After nearly two months of rough living on the fringes of battle, arranging for my comfort was my prime concern.

Before long, a friend, freelance cameraperson Peter Jouvenal, chanced upon an empty house on Passport Lane, next to the abandoned Indian Embassy. Who had lived here, we asked the watchman. His off-hand answer: Sheikh Osama’s fourth wife, his favourite. The Sheikh, he recounted, was an almost nightly visitor!

Even as we verified that information from the house owner, the watchman and his family were spirited off to America: the CIA had given them 30-minutes’ notice to pack their belongings. For the next two months, a stream of journalists filed stories on our new residence (including a memorable one on Osama’s underwear, based on a pair of oversized boxer shorts that we found hanging on the clothesline). I sometimes lay in my bed wondering when the world’s most wanted man had last occupied it.

“Osama House”, as our residence was dubbed, is now the Gandamack Lodge, an expensive guesthouse named after the Afghan hilltop where the retreating British army was massacred in 1842. The enterprising Jouvenal runs it, one among many expatriate-oriented restaurants and guesthouses across Kabul where la dolce vita so unexpectedly flourishes. A fistful of dollars will get you a handsome room, liquor and no-guarantees protection by AK-47-toting fighters, many of them hired from rabidly anti-Western militant commanders.

Here is just one of Afghanistan’s ironies: warlords protect nightclubbing foreigners in Kabul to gather the resources needed to kill them on other Afghan battlegrounds. That is because the anti-Western campaign goes hand-in-hand with a parallel jehad: the making of money. Ideology is useful, but money is crucial, translating into guns and the wherewithal that empower local satraps.

Other innovations in jehad have transformed Kabul architecturally. The city’s current look — it could well be called Blast Deco — is a response to the iconic weapon of this era, the suicide truck bomb.Today, concrete walls and barriers obscure entire neighbourhoods, especially in the tony diplomatic enclave of Wazir Akbar Khan. A whole new vocabulary centres on concrete blast protection: Jersey barriers; Texas barriers; Alaska barriers; Bremer walls. Then there is the ubiquitous HESCO barrier, a collapsible wire-mesh container which becomes a thick bulletproof cube when filled with mud. A row of HESCO barriers is called a bastion; piled atop one another, two or three bastions high, they form the ramparts that protect attractive Taliban targets like the US embassy, the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force and the presidential palace that houses Hamid Karzai.

Entry into these enclaves is a white-knuckle experience even for those who work inside. As the heavily-armoured SUV in which they travel crawls up to the barrier, rifles are levelled from sandbagged pillboxes. In a typically Kabuli procedure, the driver lowers his sunshade, flashing to the guards a special number plate tied onto the flap. Displaying that number plate openly would invite a Taliban street attack. The guards then open each door to search the vehicle, hawk eyes peering in over AK-47s.

I run the gauntlet of several such checkpoints when I go to dine with Gautam Mukhopadhyaya, India’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who features near the top of any Taliban hit list. Mukhopadhyaya, a soft-spoken, cool-eyed customer with a wicked sense of humour, stands for all that is good in the Indian Foreign Service. He was the diplomat who re-opened the Indian chancery in 2001 after five years of closure during the Taliban rule. Many Afghans consider his reappearance as ambassador a personal statement of loyalty and friendship.

Chatting with Afghan opinion-makers over dinner, one could not miss the foreboding over Pakistan’s growing influence. In conversation here, as in most gatherings across Afghanistan, ethnic fault lines are starkly evident between the Pashtun community, on the one hand, and the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, on the other. Fahim Dashty, the swashbuckling Tajik who edits Kabul Weekly, echoes the sense of loss that still shadows the non-Pashtun groups nine years after the 2001 assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary guerrilla commander of the Northern Alliance, who fought the Taliban to a standstill. Says Dashty, “If Commander Masood were alive today the whole of Afghanistan, including the Pashtuns, would have rallied behind him. Karzai [a Pashtun] just does not have the charisma that Masood had…even the Pashtuns do not support him.”

The Pashtun community, though, is less enthusiastic about the charismatic Masood. Says Saghar Chopen, a striking-looking Pashtun girl, the daughter of Afghan émigrés to Germany who has returned to Kabul to work for the Afghan government: “I feel dismayed when I see posters of Masood plastered all over Kabul. He was just another warlord, one of the men who have reduced Afghanistan to where we are today. Why can’t we idealise men of peace instead… for example, the Frontier Gandhi [Abdul Ghaffar Khan]?”

For now, though, only the return of the Taliban would see the pulling down of Masood’s posters that are ubiquitous in Tajik-dominated Kabul. A particularly handsome image of the Lion of Panjsher is plastered on the rear window of the Kabul taxi that takes me down to Chicken Street, which, along with Flower Street, is the first port of call for quickie buyers of Afghan carpets and handicrafts… and for seekers of the more immediate pleasures of clandestine liquor and “Afghan”, the gold standard for high quality, black hashish.

Here is where I had come the day the Taliban abandoned Kabul, desperately seeking alcohol to put an end to my extended deprivation. “Sharaab,” I had croaked to the first likely looking shopkeeper I saw.

With rapid-fired instructions in Pashtu, he sent forth his son, a lad of about 12, who soon returned brandishing a bottle of Beefeater Gin.

“One hundred and fifty dollars,” the shopkeeper demanded in Urdu, holding out the bottle to me. “I’ve hidden this bottle from the Taliban for the last five years.”

I paid without bargaining. The same shopkeeper extracted twice that amount from another journalist for a bottle of Scotch that day.

That incomparable Afghan business acumen is evident in every carpet shop in Kabul. As the carpets roll open one by one, every shopkeeper seems to scan his customers, picking up the slightest glimmer of interest. He then quotes double the real price, before eventually bringing it down by 40 per cent through extended, and always courteous, bargaining over several cups of tea.

I still managed to get a bargain, riding on my status as an Indian. After insisting on a $50 dosti discount, I paid $600, or Rs 27,000, for a stunning, 9 x 6 foot, pure wool Afghan carpet from the legendary carpet weavers of Maimana! Who could complain?

My next port of call is a short drive across town: the Central Market is the single most buzzing place in Kabul. The approach to the massive, old, tin-roofed building is picketed by a swarm of beggars, mainly women in the traditional blue Afghan burkha, each one accompanied by several cherubic-looking children. Any resemblance to angels is purely coincidental; a loosely clutched purse is swiftly snatched, while an open wallet attracts dozens of fingers well ahead of the owner’s.

It is hard to be irritated given the obvious desperation of these families. Many have been driven out of their homes by successive waves of fighting. Living in makeshift shanties through the bitter Kabul winter, they must rely on the generosity of strangers to avoid death from starvation or freezing.

Inside the market, I thread my way through a gaggle of pushcarts and pavement vendors loudly hawking cheap apparel. At the end of a tiny alley, I enter Prince’s Market, Kabul’s currency exchange, which epitomises free market enterprise amidst adversity. Even when the Taliban had closed down Afghanistan’s banking system as un-Islamic, Prince’s Market had remained a jostling bedlam.

Currency traders, crammed cheek-by-jowl, call out exchange rates, stock market fashion. Bundles of currency worth thousands of dollars are tossed between the trading floor and a first floor balcony that overlooks it from all four sides. Ironically, given its recent misfortunes, the Pakistani rupee (two of these equal one Afghani) is regarded as a stable currency.

Pushing my way out of Prince’s Market I enter a labyrinth of alleyways, lined with enormous mounds of the dry fruits that Afghanistan is justifiably famous for. The prices are remarkably low, since Pakistan won’t let local producers transport their dry fruits out of the country. Alongside stacks of raisins, almonds and pine nuts (chilgozas), I find heaps of dried mulberries which taste especially delicious with walnut kernels. Heaped on pushcarts outside these shops are the blood red Kandahari pomegranates that used to be carried to Delhi for the tables of the Mughal emperors and, later, the British viceroys.

We head back home, past the beautiful blue dome of the Pul-e-Khisti (bridge of boats) mosque, past the Bagh-e-Babur (the mausoleum of the first Mughal emperor, who insisted on being buried in his beloved Kabul). The December sun is dipping below the hills surrounding the city. The mercury quickly plummets from its balmy daytime high of about 10 degrees to freezing point; during the night, it will drop to about 5 degrees below zero. It is another Afghan winter night and for most of Kabul’s residents it remains, as it was before the West came calling, a cold, difficult, unforgiving city.


  1. A fantastic glimpse of Afghanistan!!

  2. gotta tell you ... I really like your afghan pieces. I congratulate you on your eye and I must say, you seem to be the only journalist in India who seems to be following the journalistic tradition of being "there". Strangely your writing reminds me of le Carre ...

    In any case, Afghanistan is vital. It seems to be slowly slipping away, though i have no one but you to rely on for the news (bloody indian press).

    Leaving aside Pakistan, what do you think of establishing a sealink through iran? I would really appreciate an article explaining the iranian part of this equation.


  3. This is a wonderful example of travel tourism. You really gave a feel for what it is like in Kabul.

  4. Traders will make you feel that you got the best deal... even in mmrca but only the traderer knows what he actually sold... He is laughing all the way home... we Indians always get duped by arab/ central asian raiders... How come Bagdhad Caliph became the richest man in his times... by fleecing India of its produce...

  5. Co. Shukla, thank you for a well written "diary". It brings to mind my own sojourn in various parts of Afghanistan a few years back. Those pomegranates are so good, I still yearn for them. And I had the good luck of getting a very beautiful, if slightly used carpe,t as a gift. I wish that country could free itself from the Pakistani suicidal hug... Sigh.

  6. since you have visited recently and possibly interacted with the locals (not only with the elites)
    what is the chance , in your opinion of taliban winning?

    or more importantly how much support do the taliban garner among the pastuns?

  7. Beautifully written!

  8. Very elegantly written...
    Hoping for more!

  9. Excellent! Look forward to visiting Afghanistan someday (Inshallah)

  10. sir,

    i would love to read about your experiences in more detail. i was wondering if you have any plan of publishing them in the form of a book. i am sure many of your readers will love this idea. i, for one, surely would.

  11. Nice article and completely second Anonymous K's request @01:59 for a treatment of the Iranian part of the equation...

  12. Anonymous@01:59,

    Agree very much like Le Carre. Col.Shukla, perhaps you can write a fictionalized novel with the legendary Mr. Kao of RAW as our own George Smiley :).

    Wishing all the readers of broadsword a Happy 2011!

  13. Absolutely fascinating. Travel tale worthy of the best.

  14. WOW!!! That is all I can say. Thanks.

  15. Nostalgic, contemporary, beautiful and useful. Can be analysed easily for its obvious outcome.

  16. what an article, so vivid and so b-right, as versus the neo-colonial travelogues writen by scared whites who dont see much beyond their immediate environs

  17. Ajai, I have been following your columns diligently over the years from afar in North America.
    Tell you what - someone needs to tell the story about Indian strategic interests in Afghanistan for the intelligentsia in the West to comprehend. Unless we act fast, we are likely to lose our grip on this region and that would be a huge blow to securing Indian interests in an extremely volatile part of the world. Ahmed Rashid has done his part to tell his story from the other side, and we need someone who's not only passed through as traveling journalist, but someone who's actually lived there and been through all that to tell the story, our story, through his eyes !

  18. Mr. Shukla,
    You are one of very good writers.

  19. Which unbiased journo earns this much?

  20. Only a Confederacy with India can resolve all the eternal problems of Afghan.

  21. Ajai Sir,

    A very nice post. Travelogue weaved in with your analytical bits. I recently read Soldier Sahibs by Charles Allen on the the British who 'tamed' NW Frontier of undivided India. So, it was refreshing to read this account of yours. Afganistan is enigmatic. Can we have some more posts on your experiences in Afganistan in 2001? Or will it come out as a book sometime in future?


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