Letter from Afghanistan
My friend (and fellow Reed College graduate) Paul Overby has been in Afghanistan since Sept. 30. This was his second sojourn to the country in a year. Here is his report on his journey to the heart of Taliban-controlled territory along the southeastern border.
I was unhappy again. However you diced it, I was getting nowhere. So I decided to force my way to the center of the problem. The Big Problem in Afghanistan is the Taliban so I decided to go to a place where the Taliban could not be missed. Khost.
The Taliban swarm around Khost. It is the capital of Khost province, on the Pak border, in the area called the South-East. One of the most fearsome Taliban commanders, Siraj Haqqani, was said to be the governor of Khost in the Taliban shadow government.
The only way to get there (apart from official helicopters) is by bus or taxi. I took the bus, airporter size, 25 passengers, about $6. It is normally seven hours, but this time a grueling ten-hours on a rocky and chokingly dusty road in the Zadran Mountains because we were delayed behind a US convoy. These convoys travel quite slowly—and you can’t pass them. Afghans hated us just for that–I’ve heard them say it.
Two weeks in Khost, one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan. What was it like?
Khost doesn’t look dangerous when you first see it. The same crowds in the streets and the same confusion of cars, motorbikes, donkeys, wheelbarrow-transport, green Ford Ranger Afghan police pickups; the small shops with their goods crowded around the seated merchant and ascending toward the back of the store like bleachers; slick billboards from the cellphone companies with a few words in English.
But everyone tells me different, that it is not normal. In a low voice, gently taking me aside, they beg me to listen: you can be kidnapped or killed at any time. They assure me that the Taliban are here, in the bazaar, in the city, and especially all around the city, and they are watching right now… As an American I shouldn’t talk to anyone, shouldn’t leave the hotel room.
And in fact that’s just what Barry did. Barry was a tight-ass Texan who rumbled down to Khost looking for “contracts” in September, two months before I came, at the invitation of his Afghan partner, who put him up in space he owned in a new glass-fronted office building-shopping mall- hotel. So Bear didn’t leave the building for two and a half weeks. At night he edged out onto the inner balcony and cautiously looked down at the shuttered shops on the ground floor.
My approach was different. Khost was so dangerous that I knew I couldn’t hide, and that if I tried, I would lose. So I decided to use the exact opposite strategy: be totally out front. Admit I was an American and what I was doing. It’s true that in some situations, transient situations—on the bus and walking in the street—situations that were more likely to spin out of control since I had less opportunity to shape the reactions of the people I met, I did keep my mouth shut. In these casual encounters I wanted to escape attention as much as possible. I would be just another speengeeray, graybeard, in local clothes. In my out-of-date (styles do change, even in Afghanistan) baggy pants and long shirt and my worn vest and white pillbox hat and winter cloak I looked like just another old dude, a rather pious and traditional one at that. The white beard really clinched it.
I reckoned that I could be open because of what I believed politically. I thought that politics were existential to the Afghans and that they would listen to what I said and that it would make a difference, perhaps the critical difference, between surviving and going under.
The politics that I believed were these: that American policy in Afghanistan was seriously flawed and had to be changed. Most importantly: American troops should be withdrawn massively and quickly. I said: the Taliban are not my friends, but they are not my enemies, either. The enemy was Al Qaeda for the very simple reason they were trying to kill me and every other American. American soldiers—and other foreign troops should be withdrawn—especially from the Pashtun areas—but economic aid should continue. Aid should be delivered and monitored by a small corps of Americans who spoke Pashto, understood Afghan culture, and respected Islam.
It was dark by the time we pulled into Khost. I tried the two numbers I had, but both people said they were in their villages outside of town and could not help me. They didn’t want to move at night. I turned to a few passengers still hanging around the bus, and they pointed out a hotel straight ahead down the dimly lit street. I often felt like Candide, innocent and clueless, dependent on the good will of the Afghans–and they almost always came through. That is why I loved them.
I trudged up the steep, uneven concrete stairs of the hotel and looked around the reception area: everything ramshackle, askew, filthy, disordered. In these situations I always had a sinking feeling that I had stepped into hell, into the world of <Blade Runner.> I asked for a room, using my minimal Pashto to make an obvious request. “So paiseh? How much?” Two hundred kaldari, very good, about $2.35. “Kaldari” are Pakistani rupees, used almost exclusively here, since Khost is only 10 miles from the border—one of the reasons everyone said it was so dangerous. Pakistan was a sanctuary for the Taliban, they took R&R there, then returned to fight some more in Afghanistan.
The staff and hangers-on gathered around and gawked at me in the faint light of a single small bulb. No foreigners came to the hotels in Khost any more—if they ever had. Pakistanis did not count as foreigners. Someone spoke to me in English, a student at Khost University, clean shaven, respectful, unreadable. A poly sci major, no less. The way they welcomed me was a good sign: if they had been cold and suspicious I would have reconsidered on the spot. But they were OK, and I felt OK, and I slept that night.
In the morning I ventured out; I marked the turnings carefully. No one seemed to be watching me. I still had no idea what the city would be like. Not far from the hotel was a large, divided street lined with new construction. Even here, I thought: buildings were going up all over Afghanistan, it seemed. A sign of hope superficially, but the source of this development was probably the war economy, the huge amounts of cash being poured in by foreigners–and by the opium trade. In a rubble-strewn lot boys were playing cricket.
I went out again in the afternoon—looking for an internet shop, interested to see if there was one. Sure enough, just around the corner, in the basement of a kind of mini-mall populated by electronics stores, I spotted a dozen pairs of shoes in front of a door. Take off your footwear before you go into a home or store or office. I went in and began talking to the proprietor. These shops were always islands of the modern, the secular, of English. And indeed several people began talking with me, but one in particular soon took over the conversation.
He was a doctor, he said, Dr. Shafrak Shinwari, as well as a journalist. My sudden new friend was a compact man with a very dark beard and an insinuating manner. He kept glancing at me from under his brows, grinning, his mobile features in constant flux, watching me. He had immediately launched into a long rap on the suitability of this life only as prologue to the real life in Heaven. I had heard this before, of course, but for an internet shop it was unusual. I strained to listen or appear to listen but finally tired and managed to stop him by saying—again– that my main interest was politics, not theology, and that, in fact, I was in favor of getting the Americans (or most of them) out of Afghanistan.
That may have interested him, because he took me upstairs to the office of a friend, another doctor. This guy’s office was unbelievably small, perhaps 8 feet by 8 feet, just room for a desk and two chairs and an examination table behind a curtain. There was a small space left over at the foot of the table to pray. After tea and sweets we went to another doctor’s office, this one larger though no better organized than the first, and drank more tea. The new doctor was large, bluff man, who asked me some pointed questions about why I was in Khost, expressing some doubt about whether someone would come all this way and to such a place without an ulterior motive and only to add a few lines to a book. I shrugged and gave him my stump speech: Americans out, blah blah, and my true enemy was Osama…
At this the big man, said, seemingly without reflection, and sounding hurt, “But he is our friend!”
But Dr SS immediately cut in: “No, no, no! Not our friend–bad man,” and the big physician went silent. But his reaction had seemed so natural and SS’s intervention so much like an attempt to shut him up that my guard went up. Virtually everyone I’d talked to in the last three years, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, which meant hundreds of people—perhaps because of my being an American and perhaps because of my full-body criticism of US policy–agreed with my criticism of Osama. OBL’s supporters were precious few—in the circles I frequented, anyway.
SS asked me for my phone number and address, and when I left I had only one thought: who was this man?