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TV Hill, Kabul
By this time tomorrow I will be gone. I, Kazim Khan, will have struck a blow against the Western rogues, who have pillaged and plundered my country, as also against the people who stole my beloved from me.
Today is the most important day of my life. It will also be the last day of my life. In fact to be fully accurate, it will be the most important day of my life IF it is the last day of my life.
And tomorrow will be the start of my new life. Will it be tomorrow or today itself? I don’t know. I should have asked Mullah Shamsuddin about this. Once I die, will I be immediately transported to jannat, or will there be a gap of a few hours? Will my soul be put into some kind of rocket, similar to the missiles that I’ve seen raining on my country, fired by the Americans, and will the rocket then take off towards jannat?
What do a few hours of delay matter? Once I kill myself – and I’ll simultaneously kill those who were responsible for what happened at Muntozai – it’ll only be a few hours before I am face to face with my Maker. According to Shamsuddin, the more infidels I kill the greater merit I will acquire. I don’t believe that is really the case, and I feel like asking him if killing a larger number of disbelievers would mean that I will be moved to superior accommodation in jannat? If he nods his head confidently I will tell him that I thought you got everything you desire in jannat, and there are no divisions. I’m not sure what he will say to that, but he’s certain to come up with something. Whatever it will be, the accommodation in jannat, I mean, it will be a lot better than this small room I’ve been holed up in on TV hill in Kabul.
I asked Shamsuddin whether he was certain that the building under attack housed those individuals who had been responsible for what had happened two months ago, and he assured me that this was the case.
‘We have 100 per cent information, bachiya,’ he said, ‘that these are the very people who issued the orders.’
‘Are there any innocents in this house?’ I could see that he was getting annoyed with my questioning, but I didn’t care. I am not an automaton, and I don’t believe in killing innocents.
‘None,’ he had said, and then hesitatingly added: ‘Maybe an odd servant or so, but we can’t do anything about that.’
‘Would those servants be Afghans?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but don’t worry, since they are Muslims they too will go to jannat.’
I am not persuaded by this brand of logic. I have serious doubts about killing innocents, whether they are Muslim or not. Even if I was to allow myself to be persuaded that all the Muslims who get killed will automatically go to heaven, surely that is not the point. Their families and loved ones will suffer just as I am suffering. If all innocent Muslims who get killed are going to jannat anyway, why in Allah’s name are we fighting this war? We fight because of the families left behind who suffer. Like I suffer.
It’s three in the morning, still too early to head off for my mission, but let me just prepare my uniform and check the accessories ….
* * *
Aram Guesthouse, Shahr-e-Naw, Kabul
I woke up at 0400, much earlier than usual, possibly because I had had too much to drink.
‘James Stewart!’ said Imelda, while I was in the middle of my fourth drink. ‘This is not England. You are supposed to be a hard working consultant working on an important report.’
It isn’t easy to find alcohol in Kabul, what with the new restrictions imposed by the government, so when one comes across some there’s a temptation to overdo it, and last night Imelda and I were together at a party and I had one too many. It always happens to me that I tend to wake up earlier than usual if I’ve imbibed too much.
I’d been struggling with a report on ways to tackle the state of corruption in the Afghan government for the past few days, and sometimes I’ve got very bright ideas early in the morning. Despite my fuzzy brain, I had a couple of useful notions as soon as my eyes opened. I worried that I might forget these, my morning’s inspiration, so I dragged myself out of bed, went to my writing table and started to jot them down. It took me only a few minutes to put down the ‘headlines’, as I liked to call them, and I was returned to my cosy bed, trying to get back to sleep. Damn and God bless. A couple of original expressions popped into my mind. Hard-hitting, succinct phrases really, which would go well with the report. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d forget these turns of phrase if I didn’t write them down immediately. So I forced myself out of bed once again …
This isn’t easy because it’s getting cold, being the start of winter. Morning temperatures were above zero, but in the Aram guest house where I’ve stayed for the past two years, you feel colder towards the start of winter than you do once it’s begun.
To give you an idea how cold it can get here in Kabul, let me tell you about the time I was flying out for my R and R to Dubai. R and R – what’s that? Rest and recreation, they call it. Most development agencies have this, or something akin to this. If you’re working in a dangerous place, you get more frequent breaks than you would if you were working in, say, London or New York, although to be honest, sometimes those cities can be equally dangerous. I mean, where are you safe these days?
So, I was telling you … Last year, it was the dead of winter and I was flying out of Kabul airport to Dubai in this small aircraft that’s used to carry us development workers, and we’d all got seated inside the aircraft, when the blasted engine refused to start. It’s just like your car doesn’t start some winter mornings. I wondered if they were going to ask us all to get out and push.
It was freezing cold inside, and as the minutes ticked away, some of us started to panic.
‘We’re going to die of the cold,’ said a lady sitting in front, quite loudly.
I heard a countryman, a British soldier sitting on the other side, sigh loudly. He looked exhausted. The British had fought a pitched battle in Helmand last week, and two soldiers had died. From the heat of the battle to the freezing interior of an aircraft: I wondered if he’d been there.
We saw red tunic-ed Afghans come forward with the de-icing machines. Pipes were pulled out and the aircraft was sprayed for several minutes, and finally the engine came to life.
All of us heaved a sigh of relief. Thank God. Not the best way to start your holiday.
Anyhow, I’m not sure why I’m telling you this. Ah yes, it’s because I wanted to explain why it’s colder now inside my room than it will be when the winter really gets going. You see, Zia Hussain, the owner of this guest house, is such a miser that he tries to delay switching on the heating as long as possible. Once the heating is on, this place is warmer than possibly any other place in Kabul. Personally I don’t like bukharis. I feel suffocated whenever one of those traditional Afghan stoves is burning. This place has heating the way I like it: hot water flowing through pipes. And the way the building is constructed, it feels more or less centrally heated.
That’s why I’ve been trying to persuade Imelda to move here.
She just shakes her head and smiles whenever I make that suggestion. I interpret those little actions in my own way. The reason she smiles is because she’s saying: ‘Excuse me James, I know why you want me to move to your guest house, but I’m sorry. It’s getting cold, but I don’t want to be your bukhari. At least not just yet.’ The shake of the head is practical: Imelda saying that it makes more sense for her to go on staying at the Siftar guest house because that’s where the rest of the team working on elections is staying. You see, Imelda is working on the election programme for a Norwegian charity, and has been doing so for the past several weeks. Her main expertise is in human rights, but since it became more and more difficult to monitor the situation, her employers reassigned her to election work. She’s a lovely Filipino girl in her late twenties, a slender, olive-complexioned, warm-hearted person, and she has worked previously in many post- conflict situations around the world.
If you ask me why I fell in love with Imelda, I could give you any number of reasons. I could say for instance that I love her small pouts whenever she is a bit annoyed with me, or the way her nostrils flare up slightly whenever she is angry or excited. I could speak of the luminous quality of her skin, which is the colour of pale moonlight and always has a soothing, calming influence on me even when she is being, or trying to be, her most acerbic. But if I thought hard about it, I would have to say that I was trapped, captured, and I fell headlong in love with her because of the idealism I see shining in her face. It’s a quality I too possessed when I first began to work in post-conflict situations.
When I first met her at her small office in Kandahar, and she spoke to me angrily of the slaughter of the innocents, I knew she was telling it like it was, and I knew also that she was the woman for me. I used to be like her, but I wasn’t any more. I’d become more cold-hearted, having seen so much; but after that meeting with her I wanted to return to the old ways of feeling and thinking – the real reason why we’re here.
The good thing about the guest house where Imelda is staying is that there are two security officers staying there. Not that they could do much in the event of an attack, but still …
At the Aram we also have Richard Wright, an ex-policeman with the Met, but he’s retired and now works as a consultant with one of the international agencies.
Last night, Richard and I were having a few drinks together when he began comparing extremist Islamist organizations with charities doing development work. We were discussing the suicide bombing that had taken place the previous week. A bomber had set himself off not far from the American embassy, killing several passers-by.
‘It’s been after almost a month, hasn’t it?’ he remarked. ‘So I guess it was to be expected.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘These people, these terrorists,’ – he became specific – ‘they too have their targets, don’t they? They have to convince their donors that they’re doing good work. And they probably have their targets. At least one bomb a month in Kabul.’
I understood what he meant. If a couple of uneventful weeks passed by without a single incident, we would all start to anticipate that something was due to happen any time now.
‘I’m sure,’ he continued, ‘that they aren’t very different from us in terms of their methodology. Just as we have our targets, say, for instance so many thousand wells to be dug in the northern region of Afghanistan, they too have their targets. We appoint independent monitoring and evaluation experts such as you to make sure that the work has been done as claimed – in your case you try and estimate if corruption has come down or gone up – and so also those who donate money to the Taliban will conduct their independent evaluations of their activities. We prepare our PowerPoint presentations and also our videos of actual work done on the ground, and possibly these terrorists are doing the same thing.’
I don’t know about PowerPoint presentations but it was true that in recent times, matters had become so ghoulish that there was talk of a second party armed with a video camera accompanying the suicide bomber, who would take video footage of the Taliban- sponsored suicide attacks that would help their planners create more deaths and suffering and ‘inspire’ more jihadis in the direction of martyrdom.
* * *
T V Hill, Kabul
I’ve put on the uniform. This is the standard uniform worn by the Afghan police. One of the Mullah’s ‘fixers’ managed to get hold of several bales of the cloth through a source in the Afghan police. We have our sympathizers enlisted in the Afghan police, the Afghan army, and all over the government. According to Shamsuddin I should say the infidel Afghan police, the infidel Afghan army, and so on and so forth.
The tailor who took the measurements of Abbas, Hussein and me for the uniforms had done a reasonable job, but he wasn’t pleased with my uniform. He said he wanted to make some alterations.
‘Zaroorat nashtai,’ I had said. ‘It’s not needed.’
‘Don’t you want to look smart?’ he asked, and then when he saw that I wouldn’t give way added a bit crossly, ‘Well, suit yourself then.’
Did I want to look smart? In a police uniform? Till the time it became bloodied, which wouldn’t be long after I had worn it. Just a few hours, at the very most, after I had set out on my mission.
Abbas, who celebrated his 25th birthday last week, felt I should have humoured the old man, and allowed him to make the changes.
‘Ta Lewnay,’ said Hussein, who is ten years older than Abbas. ‘The boy is right. All this is not needed. He’ll get a brand new uniform in Jannat. All of us will.’
‘And maybe I’ll get a new skin,’ said Abbas, who was pockmarked.
All three of us had laughed.
Shamsuddin tells me that this is a great honour – to be chosen for the task I’m about to venture on. I’ve known two other warriors who chose to give their life for our cause. There was Ahmed, who studied with me at the madrassa, and there was Suhail, our neighbour’s son.
And yet, sometimes I wonder if I want to reach Jannat.
I won’t be seeing Zeenat in Jannat, unless there’s a duplicate there. And I don’t want a duplicate. I want my Zeenat, but I guess I can’t have her. It’s easier for me to reach Jannat than it is to reach her, for she is far away in a foreign land, and I don’t have money even to go to Peshawar, let alone to buy an air ticket. Besides, they’ll never give me a visa.
Oh, I remember all too well that terrible day when Zeenat came to me and confessed her love for Pierre, the Frenchman who was in charge of our affairs. He had offered to marry her and take her away to Paris.
‘What will happen to your mother?’ I asked her.
‘Pierre says that once I’m there he will arrange for sponsorship for my mother as well, so that she can join us there,’ she said happily.
I was burning with anger and jealousy at that point, but I kept quiet.
‘Why are you so quiet?’ she said innocently.
Why am I so quiet? What a question to ask! How innocent can you be?
‘Oh, I guess they’ll be shutting down the project,’ I said. ‘I’ll have to look for a new job.’
‘That’s true,’ she admitted, ‘but I’m sure Pierre will give you a good reference and you’ll soon find something else.’
A good reference from Pierre! From my enemy, who had stolen the affections of the woman I loved. Did I want that? Was I not a Pathan? Yes, a red-hot Pathan, who would wreak vengeance on his enemy. I could remain unemployed and even starve, but I couldn’t accept any favours from Pierre any more.
* * *
Aram Guesthouse, Kabul
I woke up to the sound of gunfire.
This was unusual.
Rockets were far more common.
The Taliban would fire at least one or two rockets every week, the sound of which I clearly heard from my room in the Aram guest house, on Sher e Naw Street.
Ninety-five per cent of these rockets land safely, not causing any casualties. I’m not sure what the hit rate is for the Palestinians firing rockets at the Israelis, but of course the two situations are not comparable.
Since I am aware of the hit rate, the sound of these rockets doesn’t trouble me too much. They clearly do bother the pilots of military aircraft flying over Kabul, for they can be targeted more easily, and in recent weeks the Taliban have taken to firing colourful flares.
Last week, some time in the evening, when Imelda and I were having tea on the Aram guest house lawns, she spotted one of those orange and green lights.
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
‘Nothing to worry about.’
‘I know that,’ she said impatiently, ‘otherwise there’d have been a sound of some explosion or something – but it’s not Halloween or Christmas, and besides they don’t celebrate those festivals over here. What is it?’
‘Flares,’ I said. ‘The pilots let them off to mislead missiles with heat sensors.’
The Taliban were rumoured to have managed to get hold of some missiles, which they used periodically to target military aircraft flying overhead. Once released into space, the missiles sensed the heat of an aircraft and pushed towards it. The way to send them off in a wrong direction was for the aircraft to throw out these colourful flares.
The rat-a-tat sound is continuing. I guess I should get up and see what’s going on. It’s a quarter to five in the morning, a bit too early for them to be doing construction work, and I can’t think what else could be making such a persistent noise. It sounds very close at hand as well, although thankfully it’s not in the vicinity of this building.
* * *
This room that I stay in on TV hill in Kabul is so small. I don’t know any of the families staying nearby, and I think they’re a bit suspicious of me. Who is this fellow living alone, all by himself?
I had much more spacious accommodation in Kandahar. The French agency I worked for there paid me well, and I tried to help my family members who were still in Munto Zai, a small village about an hour’s drive on a small dirt road.
But what I loved most of all in Kandahar was being with Zeenat.
Zeenat worked in the same organization as a social worker.
She was a Pashtun like myself, and stayed with her widowed mother in the main city. She had studied in Kabul and was a graduate of the university. After her father died of tuberculosis the mother decided to move to Kandahar, where they had some ancestral property. So Zeenat came to live in Kandahar and found a job with Médecins Sans Frontières, barely a few weeks after I had joined as an administrative assistant.
Michel had interviewed me for the position. My uncle Basheer, who worked as a security guard for them, had spoken to him about me. Michel had agreed to give me a fair chance, together with the other interviewees. My uncle had been satisfied. That’s all he had asked for. A fair chance: he was confident that his nephew, who could read and write English, would be the one to be chosen. It was not a mean accomplishment for someone from Munto Zai, for apart from Jamil, who kept the land records, there was no one there who spoke more than a smattering of English. Hullo, how are you, welcome. Simple expressions, which even the children in this Kabul slum where I now live can mouth. My English too is not very good, since I only studied up to class eight in Islamabad, but still I haven’t forgotten what I learnt then.
We have a doctor in our village, and before I came to Kandahar I’d been working with him, so I had an idea of different pharmaceutical products.
I had also driven my uncle’s truck to carry vegetables to the wholesale market in Kandahar, and I had a driver’s licence.
Michel was impressed.
‘This job is yours, Kazim,’ he said at the end of the fifteen-minute interview, ‘and to be honest, given your skills you could probably do a more important job, but all we need is an administrative assistant who can double up as a driver – because as yet we don’t have a separate budget for a driver.’
I began work the following week. It was as easy as baking Afghan bread in an oven.
In the beginning I stayed with my uncle in his house, but after some time I decided to get my own place. My company provided for house rent, and I would lose that if I continued living with my uncle.
I was going to stay alone, but with the money they provided I could get quite a big place. Eventually I found a two-bedroom house in the centre of Kandahar city. I could have taken larger accommodation but decided against it, because that would have meant inviting trouble. My relatives in Munto Zai would stay over at my place then, you see, and I didn’t want that – especially after Zeenat joined our office. And that was quite soon after I had joined.
In the beginning, it was just Michel and me. I understood that Michel was a trained gynaecologist, a doctor who examines women. Medecin de Femmes employed doctors such a Michel to provide treatment for women who lived in Afghanistan, Iraq and such places. In the beginning this surprised me. Why did we need to have doctors for women? Michel explained to me that in countries such as Afghanistan women were neglected, and didn’t receive proper medical attention and care. That’s why his organization had decided to help them. That made sense to me, but I wanted to ask him: if that was the idea, shouldn’t the doctors be women as well?
I didn’t ask him this question during the first couple of weeks when we went to the villages surrounding Kandahar, but then, I believe, he was forced to ask the question himself.
You see, when we drove to the first large village that we wanted to cover, we looked around for the headman’s house. Then it was my job to speak in Pashto to him and make ourselves understood.
We were running a small clinic in our office at Kandahar. There was a small laboratory there as well. We had a couple of nurses, and two beds for patients.
My job was to explain to the headman that this facility was available in Kandahar for any woman who wished to avail herself of it. And furthermore, we wanted to set up shop in the village itself for an hour or so. We didn’t need any space for this, I explained, whenever eyebrows shot up at this request. We were carrying medical testing equipment in the car itself, you see. We even had a plastic table, a chair and a stool. And we could carry out a cursory examination on the spot.
‘Who is the person who will examine these women?’ the headman would ask.
‘Doctor Michel,’ I said.
‘He, a man,’ the headman stuttered in disbelief, ‘he is going to examine the women of our village in the open market where he will park his van?’
‘Not in the open market, sir,’ I protested. ‘Anywhere discreet. At the side of the market perhaps. And the medical examination that takes place in the open will only be to measure the blood pressure and heartbeat. A detailed examination will take place indoors at the lady’s residence. Or better still, at our clinic in Kandahar.’
The headman looked at me in speechless anger as if he would have given me a beating at that very moment, had it not been for the bespectacled Angrez sitting beside me.
‘Could you explain to him,’ said Michel, ‘that sometimes pregnancies can be very complicated, and medical intervention can save lives.’
I translated for him, without much hope.
‘Can you explain to the doctor,’ said the Afghan chief, ‘that we would rather our women die than be touched by a strange man.’
‘I’m a doctor,’ protested Michel, getting the gist of what had been said.
‘That doesn’t matter to us at all,’ said the headman with a tone of finality.
I could see Michel was troubled by this encounter.
‘Why don’t we take one of the Afghan nurses from the centre with us next time?’ I suggested.
‘No,’ he shook his head. ‘They hardly speak English. I wouldn’t understand.’
‘I could translate.’
‘That’s an idea.’ He brightened up. ‘I see this as a temporary solution. In the long term we have to hire a woman who can speak English, Dari and Pashto.’
‘Why Dari?’ I asked.
‘We would ultimately like to extend our programme to the non-Pashtun areas,’ he explained, ‘and my programme director sits in Kabul, where mostly Dari is spoken, isn’t it?’
I first met Mullah Shamsuddin inside the green mosque in Kandahar. Once I’d begun working for Medecin de Femmes I needed to find a mosque to pray in. There was a Shia mosque quite close by, but as I’m a Sunni I needed to walk a bit further to reach the mosque. This was quite a famous mosque really, owing to the fact that Mullah Omar had preached there.
At the time I didn’t particularly care for Mullah Omar and his type of people. I thought they were a bunch of idiots really. I wasn’t alone in my thinking. As a matter of fact, the village I come from has historically been opposed to the Taliban. We are moderate, peace-loving Pashtuns, even if that appears strange to many people.
Anyhow, I say my prayers regularly, and soon I came to the attention of the mullah.
‘You are working for the infidels, aren’t you?’ he asked me one day.
‘Not for the infidels, Mullah saib,’ I responded politely, and added, ‘I don’t work for the Americans. I work for a French charity, which gives free treatment to those suffering from illnesses.’ I knew that I had to distance myself from the Americans, for they were bombing innocent civilians all over Afghanistan – no one could forgive them – and I deliberately didn’t mention that our focus was the medical treatment of women, particularly pregnant women, for I didn’t know what the mullah might have thought about it – possibly he would have reacted not so differently from the village headman we had so recently met. I had wasted my breath, for he wasn’t convinced that I was doing anything worthwhile.
‘Bah,’ he said. ‘They are all the same.’
‘No, Mullah saib,’ I insisted. ‘All the foreigners are not the same.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said, ‘but one day, when you’re a bit older and have seen more of the world, you will.’
After that he left me alone.
Medecin de Femmes advertised a position of social worker, and the next week we interviewed six women for the post. Michel asked me to sit in on the interviews, primarily to assess the Dari and Pashto skills of the candidates, since I can speak, read and write both languages fluently. On that day Zeenat was the last candidate to be interviewed.
When she came in, I almost gasped in disbelief. In Afghanistan, it is well known that it is the girls from Nooristan who are the most beautiful, but this was an absolutely stunning specimen from Kandahar. The natural, red flush of her cheeks reminded me of a pomegranate, one of the large red fleshy varieties selling in the city that are sometimes as big as a football.
She spoke softly, and her stance was demure. If I hadn’t known from her last name, and later from her accent, that she was a Pashtun, I would have suspected that she was Tajik. If you ask me I would say that Pashtun girls are cleverer and more beautiful than the Tajiks, and most people will agree with me. All the same, many of us Pashtuns like to take a Tajik wife. This is even true of royalty. The late Zahir Shah had a Tajik mother; it is for this reason that he never even learnt to speak Pashto. Why do we prefer the Tajik girls? It is because our women are too much like us. The Tajik girls are softer, more submissive.
Zeenat spoke clearly in English and answered all the questions that Michel put to her with a quiet confidence. Her command over the foreigner’s language was better than mine.
Michel turned to me and asked me to test her skills in Pashto and Dari.
I chatted with her a bit, seeking the opportunity to find out a bit about her background, which had not been mentioned in the cv that lay before us.
We had several things in common. Like me, she had lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for many years, which was not very far from my own camp. She came from a village on the outskirts of Kandahar that was not very far from mine. And like me she had studied at an English language school in Peshawar. But unlike me, she had not studied in a madrassa. Her mother was a war widow, so at least one of her parents was alive. As for me, I had been raised by my uncles.
I was pleased to discover that my Pashto, and even my Dari, was better than hers.
She readily acknowledged this during the course of our brief conversation, and praised me for my linguistic prowess. At the time I was an interviewer and she did not know my position in the office, but I believe that she gave her honest opinion. As she left the office she turned to both of us, said a quick ‘salaam’ and was gone.
Michel turned to me, ostensibly to seek my views, but we both knew without exchanging a word that she was the right candidate for our purposes.
We began going to the villages again, and this time we met with greater success.
I was the driver, Michel was the doctor, and Zeenat was the social worker and facilitator.
Quite often we stayed outside, while Zeenat went in and chatted with the women. The idea of having an examination booth in the open was abandoned, but Zeenat, who already had a certificate in nursing, was able to jot down symptoms and do some basic medical examination. We also linked up with a female doctor from neighbouring Khost, to come down every week and attend to some of the female patients whose spouses would not allow a male doctor to lay a hand on their wives.
It was all going very well. In the beginning I had been physically attracted to Zeenat, but when my feelings developed into love I cannot really say. Gradually, as the days passed, she began to confide in me about her family’s troubles.
‘Ever since the death of my father,’ she explained, ‘we have been dependant on my uncle. My mother doesn’t want to live with him any more. That’s why it was so important for me to get this job, so that we could have the financial independence to live apart if necessary.’
‘And are you planning to do that?’ I asked.
‘Let’s see,’ was her ambiguous reply.
On the work front everything went well for six months or so, when one fine day Michel announced that he would be leaving the country.
‘So what’s going to happen to us?’ asked Zeenat, even more anxious than me.
‘Nothing,’ he laughed. ‘You and Kazim will continue as before.’
‘But we need a qualified doctor such as yourself,’ I protested. ‘And you’ve been here just six months or so, haven’t you?’
‘That’s how it is with people like me, I’m afraid,’ he replied in a serious voice. ‘We keep moving from country to country. I’m now being assigned to Sudan, in north Africa. And don’t worry about a doctor. My replacement, another doctor from France, will be here next week. You’ll work with him.’
Zeenat and I heaved a sigh of relief, although we were sorry to hear of Michel’s imminent departure; he was a really good man.
* * *
I’ve finished the part of my report that deals with the state of corruption in Afghanistan. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the reasons the Taliban is gaining ground all over the country. Ordinary Afghans remember how, during the time they ruled, there was practically no corruption.
It is convenient for us, the ‘internationals’, to focus on the failings of the Afghan government, and there is one more thing, far more important than corruption, that is alienating the ordinary Afghan from us and will make it impossible for us to win their ‘hearts and minds’. It is quite simply the collateral damage, the innocent lives that are being lost in drone attacks and other killings.
The actual remit of my consultancy was to do a report on what needed to be done in Afghanistan to help bolster confidence in the people in their government. When I arrived here, Robert Rees, my Welsh programme manager, said that was just too wide a job description, and he would prefer me to focus on the state of corruption in the country. His bosses in London didn’t appreciate his ideas, so when there were reports coming out of Kandahar about a bungled operation, he suggested I take a trip there.
‘There’s a lady called Imelda working for a Norwegian human rights group,’ he said. ‘She’s the one you should meet.’
That’s how I’d first met the lovely Filipino human rights activist, with whom I’d fallen in love.
It had been a short day-trip. I had flown to Kandahar in the morning and back to Kabul the same day. The south was dangerous, where the real battles were being fought: the physical battle, and the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
I had landed in Kandahar airport a little before noon. To say that not much was happening would have been an understatement. It was a big, empty airport, the aircraft in which I had flown had carried few passengers, and I walked down a long, empty corridor, ruminating on how it had been intended to be an international airport. It had been built during a period of relative peace and stability when a large passenger turnover was anticipated, which, however, never happened.
The airport now served a different purpose because it was partially occupied by the American military, as well as other international forces. As if to indicate that the quietness in the building was anything but peaceful, from time to time the silence was punctuated by the sound of pilotless drones that hovered above, seeking hypothetical enemies. Modern warfare was something different altogether. These unmanned robot-strike aircraft represented, according to military analysts, the future of aerial warfare, and allowed people sitting opposite computer screens in far away Las Vegas to drop bombs on targets in Afghanistan.
There was no baggage collection point, and no porters or luggage trolleys. When I arrived at the front of the building, I collected my small suitcase from the back of a pick-up truck. It contained items I carried in the eventuality that for some reason I wasn’t going to be able to take the return flight to Kabul, departing three hours later. I opened the bag and proceeded to stuff my jumpers, caps, gloves and overcoat inside.
A gigantic, bearded Pashtun named Anwar was waiting for me outside the airport, in a large black Jeep that had been provided by Afghan Logistics in Kabul. I climbed into the front seat next to the driver and was pleased to find that Anwar spoke some broken English.
I was more than a little perturbed when we began the journey to Kandahar. He explained that the long, straight tarmac road that led from the airport to the town was the place where a great many IED explosions and suicide bombings took place. Anwar stepped on the gas and drove as fast as he could, but even so we were overtaken a couple of times by drivers who raced past us madly.
I stared out of the window at the bleak landscape that was periodically interrupted by small, craggy hills serving as an introduction to the large, mountainous terrain that formed so much of the country. The hills were on flat, low-lying land that could heat up to 50 degrees in the summer, but at the moment the temperature was very pleasant.
The road to Kandahar must have been about ten kilometres long. It was well-tarmac-ed road, for reasons of security, quite apart from any developmental factors that might have contributed to its funding. It was harder to plant and disguise IEDs on a clean, flat, shining asphalted road than on a bumpy, worn-out surface. This added to, but by no means guaranteed, safety; terrorists could always plant explosives along the side of the road, with someone watching from a safe distance and detonating them when they pleased by means of a remote-controlled device. Even worse, a jihadi might suddenly emerge from behind the bushes and blow himself up in front of a vehicle identifiable as belonging to the army or government, with people inside thought to be valuable enough to exterminate.
There was a low hubbub of activity in the city, but in general Kandahar was quiet, very quiet for a large town. We navigated a roundabout and Anwar pointed to a mosque, explaining that this was the one frequently attended in earlier times by Mullah Omar. I stared out of the window. It was an ordinary mosque, perhaps more ordinary than most, but had become famous because it was where the Taliban leader preached, harangued and motivated innocent people to do many terrible things. Mullah Omar, the rehbar or spiritual leader of the Taliban, had gone into hiding now, but from what I could see of what was happening outside the mosque, it was still operating as one.
There was skeletal traffic on the road into Kandahar. A tractor went past on the other side with people piled on top, many sitting on their luggage. Afghans use every inch of available space. Roadside vendors sold bolani, fried leek pasties, and other Afghan delicacies.
Anwar braked the car suddenly, to my surprise, for I couldn’t see any vehicle in front. He pointed ahead towards a group of Humvees approaching. It was best not to get in their way, even though from the insignia I made out that these were Canadian, not American, military vehicles. The Canadians did not have the reputation for being as trigger-happy as their cousins to the south, but still Anwar was wise not to be taking any chances.
‘Ma khawaziga,’ urged Anwar. ‘Don’t move please.’
I hadn’t shown any indication that I was about to get out of the vehicle, so I was mystified by his request.
‘Some of these military vehicles have automatic machine guns inside pointed towards the side of the road, programmed to start firing if they sense any untoward movement,’ he explained, noticing my surprised expression.
Good God! I was suddenly alert, and very deliberately immobile. An unusual movement inside a vehicle without United Nations or military markings, and it might be the last one I would make.
The Humvees passed and Anwar restarted the car. We moved ahead without further incident, and were soon racing along a road on the outskirts of the city towards the American military base.