Saturday, May 20, 2006

Afghanistan!?!?!?

Ok, before you all start freaking out let me just stress a few points. Yes, we went to Afghanistan, in transit for the last 4 days but we are now finished. We are currently in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. No, we have no intention of going to Iraq or any other war zones. Yes, we are trying to get a visa for Iran but that is proving very difficult and is unlikely to happen. As group leader I take full responisibility so if you're going to yell at anyone, make it me. Having said that, I presented the case to the girls and they were good to go. It was not a decision made lightly and we are not getting cocky after 1 year out. I'd been watching the news for a long time and in the last 2 months, getting all sorts of Afghan news daily emailed to me, and talked to everyone I could find that had been there or was going. Hopefully now that we are done, I can stop suffering from accelerated hair loss......
It's no joke though. Every year since the US-led invasion tourists have died in Afghanistan and entering ourselves would plant us firmly into the realm of "extreme tourism" but statistically for what we had proposed we fell into the low-risk category. As with every other country, our biggest threat was car accidents, and there are plenty of those everywhere.
Why did we go? Well, like almost everyone else around here for the last few thousand years, because it was in the way. Afghanistan is the crossroads to everywhere out here and entering meant leaving south Asia (the Indian subcontinent) and entering central Asia again. Armies from as far away as Greece and Mongolia have come stomping through here and well, there are foreign armies here now too. As to that, a brief and very incomplete recent history follows.......
The soviet invasion fails and they pull out. Afghanistan is left in a state of chaos and civil war with nobody in control during the 90's. In the late 90's the Taliban, a Pashtun, highly fundamentalist Islamic group (trained and funded by Pakistan and the CIA remember) successfully take over. The people don't agree with the philosophy whole-heartedly but are desperate for peace and support the most successful group. A very tough and extreme form of Islamic law is imposed on the people and despite relative security and peace, after 5 years of power only 3 countries officially recognize the Taliban as the rulers.
To this day, the Taliban has NOT been labelled as a terrorist group. After 9/11 the US demanded that they give up Bin Laden. To the Taliban, many of whom fought beside him against the Soviets, Bin Laden is a national hero and honoured guest in addition to being one of their only sources of external money. The Pashtuns have a very strong code of honour that places guests at such a high level of honour that they would rather die than let harm come to one. The Taliban demand proof that Bin Laden was responsible before making a decision, the US refuses and immediately invades controlling Kabul by as early as Nov 2001. 2 months for the total takeover, from nobody heard about them to done deal. That's a little too fast and there's no surprise the conspiracy theorists love it.
Since then it has been largely ignored while Iraq took center stage. I've heard it said that things are worse in Afghanistan than people believe because the US is trying to present it as a success story. The truth is that things are getting worse and not enough people care. The US is handing over command to NATO and reducing their troops in the country. Dutch, British and Canadian forces have now taken on an offensive role instead of the peacekeeping one they used to. Western-backed warlords control the west and north of the country, and Karzai, the president, controls very little outside of Kabul. The Taliban has had considerable success lately and now effectively countrols all the countryside south of Kabul and along the eastern border with Pakistan with many frequently running freely across the border into the uncontrolled tribal lands of Pakistan where they get the most support and to hide. That's a huge area. Opium production is on the rise and Afghanistan currently accounts for almost 90% of the world's supply. In the last year or so, the military has tried to wipe out the opium fields and hunt down the Taliban. As a result, the farmers and criminal element have now joined forces with the Taliban, making things much worse. More scarily, in the last year, the Taliban have started to use suicide bombers as a weapon, something previously unheard of in Afghanistan. NGO's are pulling out of the south and other areas as they continue to be attacked and reconstruction efforts have often produced poor results. It's a big problem that people at home (who are footing the bill) checks what these guys are doing. Often work is poorly done and falls apart after the companies (most of whom are in Iraq too) leave so that teh Afghans have nothing but less faith in their foreign liberators. The US alone spends about $1/2 billion a year on reconstruction in Afghanistan, but spends about $1 billion per MONTH on their military there! People are beginning to wonder if it's not really just a military occupation of their country and support is waning in some areas. 4 1/2 years later and still only 1/2 of Kabul has power. The Taliban was also managed that much. In all honesty, the west has totally botched the job. True, there are more legal freedoms allowed and girls can go to school but most women still wear burkhas as the cultural aspects of issues are stronger than the law. In all honesty though, men out here in south asia are such perverts that I would probably try to lock my wife at home or make her wear a burkha when around those people. I didn't think it would bother me so much, but these femiphobic countries and people are driving me crazy.
So now that you are thinking, like we did, that Afghanistan is like some post-judgement day scene from T2, I'll tell you what we actually saw.
Our first day we went straight to Kabul from Peshawar. Long, rough day. Because the area around Peshawar is tribal, we had to get a permit to go through the Khyber pass and get to the border. We also had to pick up an armed tribal guard to escort us. Now-a-days I think it is just a formality and money-grab thing than anything else. I don't know if there is safety in numbers but there are more tourists than you think going across. The day before an Italian guy, the day after, and Irish guy and Italian girl. We went with a very American guy (Jazz, 38) that sounded like Dad, Wade and David in the way he talked and thought at times. We also had a Dutch guy (Jain, 23) going on the same day but at a different time. That was just from our hostel and I know there were others going too.
The Khyber pass was way busier than I thought. Tons of border traffic going through and quite a few villages along the route. The Khyber is not a high pass and the mountains are very short, barren, crumbly looking things. Historically though, it's the gateway to India and invading armies have been using it forever. The key is to control the pass so there are numerous forts and military personnel stationed here, going back to pre-British days when the Sikh empire stretched this far. The border was easy though leaving Pakistan we had to have our picture taken. I wonder how long it takes for those to reach the US military.....
Thus began the Afghan experience and for me it was totally unreal. I'm glad I went and sad that I wasn't able to see more as it is very unlikely that people will be going back any time soon. To think of all the history, past and currently in the making just blew me away. Jazz and I were constantly shaking our heads saying "Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this". Mom, well, I don't think anything phases her and the girls are too young to really appreciate it I think. Afghanistan is a mix of people so there are many more looks and you instantly know you are in a different part of the world. There is a military and police presence everywhere we went, which has been pretty common for us lately so we'd've thought little of it except for all the military helicopters flying around. The terrain is unbelievably rough and rugged (but somehow beautiful) and it is immediately obvious why nobody would be successful in conquering a small rebel group out there. Villages are made out of mud-brick houses with high mud walls surrounding them so they look like mini forts. It would almost be normal countryside but then you'd see old tank wreckage or a sign for demining (or landmines) on the side of the road.
Kabul, while not as quiet and dirty as what we've seen lately, definately looks wrecked and is obviously overcrowded as people come in from the countryside for work or relative safety. I don't think the population is that high but the density is crazy. The traffic is horrible too. It's been a long time since we've seen so many private cars.
We met up with Jain at our hotel the following morning and spent 1 full day walking around Kabul. There are quite a few westerners here but not as toursists so they were shocked when we said we were. As everyone is working for NGO's, the military or business groups and have loads of money, Kabul is much more expensive than we've seen in a long time. $15/night each is a lot more than $2. Not much to see as most things are destroyed, but we did get to Chicken st., the backpacker hangout of the early 70's. Nothing really down there now but souvenir carpet shops.
From Kabul we went straight north to Kunduz and then crossed into Tajikistan the following afternoon. This is already too long so I'll let the girls finish it off.
Ammon

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