Monday, May 31, 2004

# Posted 1:48 PM by Patrick Belton  

DISPATCHES FROM KABUL: OxBlog's Afghanistan correspondent is back afield, and sends in part one in a series of despatches to us:
Part I: Arrival

As a kindness to the daily herd of travelers waiting to see if their flights show up, the departure lounge of Kabul airport has been decorated with inadvertently funny signs. "No accompanists allowed beyond waiting area" -- once you pass through security, you're singing a capella. And there's the official list of items which are forbidden in one's handbag:

1. The handbag.
2. Explosives and military matters.
3. Gases and passions.

We showed up, handbags, passions, and all, in the early afternoon to a mostly empty airport -- the major commercial flights are all scheduled to depart in the morning. We were headed from Kabul to northern Afghanistan for a three-day tour of the almond groves with a couple California nut experts. (They pronounced almond to rhyme with "salmon," something I never quite got used to). The airport staff handed us flattering little Frequent Flyer -- Kunduz bag tags and hurried us through security to our two-prop AirServ charter plane. We scrunched into our seats; the pilots elbowed their way down the two-foot-wide aisle, buckled up, then craned their heads back for a conversational safety lecture.

I'd braced myself for a bumpy ride, but the skies were friendly -- and the view from the air so breathtaking I probably wouldn't have noticed if we'd dropped an engine. The mountains of Panjshir rose up like a white wall to our right, and to the left was the great central massif of Afghanistan, with ridge after snow-capped ridge rippling out to the horizon. Mohibi, our Afghan companion, pointed out the winding ravines running up to Bamiyan at the heart of the country. I was glued to the window for the whole flight. The mountains became hills, the hills gently rolling grassland, and we dropped smoothly into Kunduz.

The trip quickly became less smooth. We had sent up a couple of drivers the day before -- and, per our company's new security policy, we had called up the ex-military guy who runs the main protection racket in Kabul and asked him to send two cars full of hired "shooters" for our defense. However, when we arrived at Kunduz airport (which is a couple miles out of town), we found ourselves alone save for a handful of curious airport guards. After a couple of heated phone calls, our drivers showed up, speeding like the devil. Turned out they'd been ready to leave for the airport on time, but the shooters had taken a little while to muster up. As we spoke, our security escort arrived: two SUVs full of skinny, scruffy, shabbily clad Panjshiri irregulars, chain-smoking and casually brandishing their Kalashnikovs as they piled out of their cars. They didn't look very impressive. I imagine the Soviets thought the same thing.

We took off for town. The roads around Kunduz are unpaved, and throw up tremendous clouds of fine white dust as you drive along them. Somehow, our shooters managed to lose us in the cloud. I asked where they'd gone. Mohibi doubtfully said, "I think I saw them turn back to the airport." I asked why on earth they would have gone back to the airport. Mohibi shrugged and said, "Because the sky is so high" -- a wonderful Afghan phrase, which I heard him use a lot over the next few days. The shooters later caught up with us, and chewed out our drivers at length for "losing" them again. They then informed us that today, they were only contracted to escort us around Kunduz city, and that if we were going to drive out of the city for site visits we would need to pay them extra for petrol. This so irked our Afghan companion that he told them to get lost and meet us tomorrow morning. We drove around for the rest of the afternoon cheerfully unprotected.

Kunduz is a small provincial capital, with half-paved streets full of colorful horse-drawn carts. It's the city where the Taliban lost the war for the North back in 2001 (also losing one John Walker Lindh as a captive to the conquering Northern Alliance), and it was the first (and so far the only) city outside Kabul to get its own ISAF peacekeeping force. Course, there was already a pretty robust peace to keep -- unlike, say, the cities of Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz had no mighty warlord or clashing commanders to make life difficult for occupying troops, and it's well away from the Taliban resurgence. The surrounding countryside reportedly has a bit of a bandit problem, but the roads north to Tajikistan are open again. Power wires that were yanked down and sold as copper to Pakistan during the war are going back up, with electricity two or three hours a day.

The farm country around Kunduz is simply beautiful: broad fields of golden wheat and brilliant green rice, densely planted stands of poplar, old almond trees shading the fields. And when you head south out of the city, you quickly find yourself driving through my stereotype of a Central Asian landscape: a broad tableland of pasture and wheat fields, with a wall of nearly treeless pale green hills springing up at the horizon, and the snowy mountains of Badakhshan drifting sky-blue in the distance.

As we drove, I jokingly asked Mohibi why the Afghans referred to the mountains as the Hindu Kush -- seemed odd, given that they're in a resoundingly Muslim-majority region. "Well, you see, once there was an Afghan and a Hindu traveling together from Hindustan to Afghanistan," Mohibi informed me, beaming. "The Hindu had a very warm wolf skin coat, and the Afghan had only a shirt, but he had enough money, and he was very clever. So he said to the Hindu, give me your coat and I will give you all my money. The Hindu was greedy, he said okay. So the Afghan took the coat. When they came to the mountain, the Hindu realized it was so cold, so he said, I will pay you double, just give me back the coat. The Afghan said no. Soon the Hindu drop dead. The Afghan take all his money and keep the coat. That is why they call it 'Hindu' -- meaning Hindu -- and 'Kush' -- meaning kill." I learn something new every day.

We visited a bunch of farmer associations, orchards, and nurseries that afternoon. Our visiting California consultants had brought along sacks of cheap plastic animals, the kind you can buy by the hundred in most dollar stores in the States, and handed them out one at a time to the local kids wherever we went. It was a nice idea -- you never saw a little molded plastic pelican inspire such mirth and delight. They said that whenever they went to Mexico, they brought toy soldiers, but had thought better of it in this case.

The "Modesto boys" also dispensed little snippets of agronomical wisdom, but the whole three-day trip was mostly an excuse for our Deputy Head of Project for Agriculture to drive around the north and get a feel for the place. The Afghan farmers spread out blankets, carpets, and pillows in the shade of the almond trees, gave us juice boxes imported from Pakistan, and tried to draw our attention away from the opium poppies three fields over. When it finally began to get dark, we drove back to the German guesthouse in Kunduz.

Our dinner topics that night included rhetting, scutching, and hackling. You might think this was just the common South Asian expat game of describing the grotesque symptoms of whatever stomach virus we contracted from last night's salad. But no -- one of our companions was astonished to find that the local Afghans only used flax as an oilseed, and had never heard of linen. He immediately launched into a Heineken-fueled explanation of every step in the process of extracting flax fibers and turning them into tablecloths. As you might expect for a process older than the English language, it's got its own highly specific medieval-sounding vocabulary. Afghan and American alike, the rest of us listened with baffled interest.

Then our Deputy Head began to argue that our project should focus on getting Afghans to invest in "tree bonds" -- selling the ten-year income stream from a poplar grove. Apparently it worked in Bolivia. When someone questioned whether Afghan poplars were really a secure investment, the Deputy Head shook a finger in our collective faces. "I've worked in international development for forty long years, and it's been one failure after another. You try an idea, you hope it'll work, and it never does. But this, this works. This is my home run." The prospect of working in this field for four decades and coming out of it with a single success -- and tree bonds, at that -- was a bit discouraging.

We eventually crashed in our mildewed, over-warm rooms. I woke up around six and washed my hair in the sink (no functional shower) before hitting the road again.

more to follow....

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