06 October 2009

Drawing a crowd (without even trying)

The road from Kabul to Jalalabad follows the Kabul River for about 100 miles, twisting up and over a pass littered with vehicles, mostly colorfully painted trucks, that didn't quite make it. Afghan military troops are scattered along the well-paved highway that eventually enters Pakistan over the historic Khyber Pass.

I recently ventured out with a friend to Jalalabad, which is east of Kabul near the border with Pakistan. To be a little less conspicuous, we both wore salwar kameez, the traditional suit in much of south Asia, which consists of pajama-like pants and a long tunic. We still stuck out like sore thumbs.

Within minutes, we drew crowds, which was probably assisted by the fact that my friend is about 6-2 and as hairless as a newborn. Facial hair is common here; shaved heads are unheard of. Though most people were friendly and simply curious, the tension and uncertainty was palpable. You could almost see the knowledge of our presence rippling down the streets and roadways.

At one point, while visiting a palatial mosque and madrassa outside Jalalabad, we were questioned by a group of schoolboys. Most of the queries were what you would expect: Where are from? What do you do here in Afghanistan? However, one boy, maybe 12, angrily asked in his broken English, “How come you Americans never learn Pashto” (one of the two dominant languages in Afghanistan)? “I don’t know,” I replied and told my friend it was probably time to leave.

One misunderstanding about Afghanistan is that the “enemy” is a single entity organized under a single command. Untrue. Not only is the Taliban itself fragmented under different leaderships, but there are local militias who operate autonomously. What unites them is Islamic fundamentalism and their opposition to the western presence. They don’t need written directives in triplicate to launch a strike against their enemies. Notify the guys, pull the AK-47s out of hiding, gather at the mosque, and they can be ready to roll.

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