Scenes from Afghanistan

On the line in Afghanistan

Slide show: On the Pakistan border, divisions and danger are everywhere, and Americans nowhere to be found

  • Facing
    Photo: James Lee

    Durand Line

    Facing dust-loaded dry winds, Afghan Border Police officer Masoud Sayed watches for signs of trouble along the Durand Line in Nangarhar province on April 15, 2010. Drawn with British ink in the late 19th century by Officer Henry Mortimer Durand, this borderline intentionally bisected tribal lands in a largely unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Pashtun opposition to English interests. Today, few Afghans would be able to identify the exact lay of the Durand Line, which officially demarks the North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Both of these xenophobic lands are havens for criminals and guerrilla fighters who fervently denounce foreign interference in the region.

  • Pashtuns,
    Photo: James Lee

    Uniformed culture

    Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen move together in a slow-moving chow line in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 23. Such united fronts are short-lived. After grabbing lunch trays of rice and goat meat, these Afghan National Army soldiers find seats at tables divided along ethnic lines. Distrust amid some groups can be traced back to late 19th century land disputes. Bridging these ethnic fault lines within the Afghan National Security Forces will become increasingly important as foreign governments prepare to withdraw military resources.

  • Shedding
    Photo: James Lee

    Outside of Islam

    Shedding his sandals, a Sunni Afghan National Army soldier strides across a row of footwear and through the screen door of a crowded mosque during the sunset Magrib prayer in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 26. Eighty percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, while Shia Muslims comprise a religious and political minority. Some Shia Muslims serving in the ANA are opposed to peace negotiations with Sunni Taliban members. Taliban forces have been accused of religious cleansing against Shia communities. In 2001, the Taliban reportedly murdered more than 300 Shia Muslims in the Afghan town of Yakawolang.

  • Juma
    Photo: James Lee


    Juma Khan surrenders himself to a boyish grin while a pet bird is perched on his wool beret in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 24. “I feed this bird small insects,” said Khan, a sergeant in the Afghan National Army. “Watching birds makes me forget about the problems in my country.” Khan began raising birds during his childhood in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

  • Steeped
    Photo: James Lee

    Daily bread

    Steeped in flour, a skillful hand stamps patterns into bread bound for Afghan Border Police in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 14. Once decorated, the dough is fired in a round clay oven dug into the kitchen floor. By utilizing traditional food processes and products, Afghan National Security Forces have reduced their daily dependence on foreign governments. Applying this principle beyond the kitchen will be necessary before the government of Afghanistan can assert independence and national sovereignty.

  • Two
    Photo: James Lee

    Small screen

    Two Afghan Border Police officers watch a female singer from a local spinoff of “American Idol” on a satellite phone in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 15. As Afghanistan’s broadcast media expands, the government has begun to censor some programming that subverts Islamic values. Officials with the Ministry of Culture have questioned employees at private television stations about music videos that feature women in nontraditional clothing.

  • On
    Photo: James Lee

    Border game

    On a board game manufactured in Pakistan, Afghan Border Police officers roll a set of dice and plan their next move in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 16. With the odds in their favor, guerrilla fighters and criminals routinely travel unimpeded through security checkpoints at border crossings along Pakistan’s tribal areas. Complicit ABP often fail to perform routine vehicle inspections. As a result, shipments of illicit drugs and weapons traverse the Afghanistan-Pakistan border every day.

  • Beds
    Photo: James Lee

    Double occupancy

    Beds sit empty behind an earth-filled blast wall located along a ridge line in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 15. Some of the Afghan Border Police assigned to this remote observation post believe their position exposes them to unnecessary risk. Last December, guerrilla fighters launched a coordinated nighttime attack against Observation Post Sangar in neighboring Anarguy. Five officers were killed defending their mountaintop post. When foreign military officials denied requests for helicopters, the survivors bound the dead to borrowed donkeys and followed local villagers off the mountain.

  • On
    Photo: James Lee

    Black loafers

    On wood slats, an Afghan Border Police officer takes a load off his leather loafers in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 15.

  • An
    Photo: James Lee

    Heavy weapon

    An Afghan Border Police officer armed with a Russian-made PKM machine gun descends from a mountain patrol near the Pakistan border in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 16. Weighing more than 22 pounds, this light-duty machine gun is difficult to portage on steep terrain. A military modernization program by the International Security Assistance Force has begun to replace some of these Soviet-era rifles with weapons commonly fielded by NATO forces.

  • In
    Photo: James Lee

    American made

    In Ford pickup trucks, a dozen Afghan Border Police officers speed along a dirt road in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 14. More than 14,000 ABP recruits have received basic law-enforcement training by foreign military personnel. American officials plan to increase the total number of Afghan National Police officers to 123,000 by 2011. This number reflects the combined total force strength of the Afghan Uniformed Police, Afghan Border Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police and the Afghan Counter Narcotics Police.

  • Before
    Photo: James Lee

    Papaver somniferum

    Before pocketing it, a soldier in the Afghan National Army inspects a scored seedpod during a poppy eradication operation near the Pakistan border in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 17. An annual flower, the opium poppy seedpod can produce a milky sap when scratched. Laden with powerful opiates like morphine, this sap is typically harvested from a series of parallel cuts and dried for the illegal heroin trade. This multibillion-dollar crop has spread corruption throughout the Afghan National Security Forces and directly financed a regional guerrilla war.

  • Afghan
    Photo: James Lee


    Afghan Uniformed Police greet Afghan National Army Col. Mohamad Zamir during an unannounced visit to their police substation located along National Highway 7 in Laghman province on April 24. Along with the public, Afghan soldiers widely view the police as corrupt and grossly ineffective. In the past nine years, the American government has spent more than $6 billion on the training and operation of the Afghan Uniformed Police.

  • Holding
    Photo: James Lee

    Bad cop

    Holding an embroidered taqiyah prayer cap, Mohamad Wahli faces another day of prison life at Laghman province’s Central Jail on April 22. A former Uniformed Police officer, Wahli became addicted to heroin and was later arrested with four grams of black tar heroin in his vehicle. “It was less than four grams,” said Wahli, while seated in a folding chair. His claim was instantly met by laughter and taunts from a dozen prison guards standing nearby. His arrest points toward a much larger problem. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies revealed that one in five Afghan police recruits test positive for drug use.

  • Below
    Photo: James Lee

    Evil eye

    Below the Arabic phrase “Masha Allah,” a mirror mounted to the decorated cab of a freight truck reflects a dirt road leading to the main Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 14. This phrase is commonly used in South Asia to ward off the evil eye. This superstition pertains to bad luck or injury caused by the envious eyes of others. Regardless of the potential supernatural risks, thousands of people engage in cross-border movements each day, often motivated by economic or social reasons.

  • Returning
    Photo: James Lee

    Open highway

    Returning from Kabul, dump trucks and passenger vehicles speed past Afghan National Army forces along National Highway 7 at the foot of the Woreshmin Tangay Mountains in Laghman province on April 24. According to ANA officials, keeping this supply route open is vital for NATO’s military bases. “All the American logistical support travels along Highway 7 to Bagram Air Base,” said Afghan National Army Col. Mohamad Zamir. “After reaching Bagram, these supplies are flown to bases all over Afghanistan.”

  • After
    Photo: James Lee

    Afghan hash

    After massaging heated hash oil into cigarette tobacco, an Afghan National Army soldier smokes a joint under a tree in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 27. Afghanistan is the largest producer of hash worldwide. A recent survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime determined that half of Afghanistan’s provinces are engaged in “large-scale” cannabis farming. With lower harvesting costs, cannabis has proven more profitable for Afghan farmers than opium poppy production. Last year, the value of this illicit harvest may have exceeded $90 million.

  • By
    Photo: James Lee

    Arms control

    By rifle serial numbers, a handwritten inventory of weapons is conducted by the Afghan National Army in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 27. According to the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, fewer than 400 weapons have been lost by Afghan National Security Forces over the past nine years. However, missing weapons are not the only arms control predicament facing CSTC-A. In 2009, ammunition recovered from guerrilla fighters killed in Korengal Valley may have been originally issued to Afghan National Security Forces.

  • An
    Photo: James Lee

    Defensive driver

    An AK-47 assault rifle and three taped magazines rattle across a center console as the voice of singer Ahmad Zaire plays on a cellular phone during a vehicle patrol by the Afghan National Army in Laghman province on April 26. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, joining the Afghan National Security Forces remains a dangerous decision. Between 2007 and 2009, more than 750 ANA soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. During this same period, 1,948 Afghan National Police lost their lives.

  • Caught
    Photo: James Lee

    New policy

    Caught outside in bad weather, a kilometer long Afghan National Security Forces convoy is hit by a cloudburst while returning from a successful opium poppy eradication operation in Goshta district, Nangarhar province, on April 17. In accordance with a new policy outlined by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, NATO forces were prohibited from participating in this counternarcotics mission. By ending NATO’s involvement in these types of missions, American forces hope to gain the support of those Afghan farmers actively engaged in illicit opium poppy cultivation. This dramatic policy shift has resulted in some heated international criticism from the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Drug Control. In Moscow, government officials are facing a casualty rate that far exceeds the guerrilla war in Afghanistan. An estimated 30,000 Russians die every year from drug overdoses, including Afghan heroin.

  • Standing
    Photo: James Lee

    Out to dry

    Standing on the shadow of a perimeter wall, Nurullah Waliaha rings water from a hand-laundered undershirt in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 27. Seven months ago he volunteered to join the Afghan National Army. Before enlisting, his mother had always washed his dirty clothes. “I like washing my own clothes,” said Waliaha. “This is my uniform; it is my responsibility to keep it clean.”

  • Craters
    Photo: James Lee

    Nailed to the wall

    Craters of chipped plaster surround a poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a wall in Mehtarlam district, Laghman province, on April 27. Handpicked by the administration of George W. Bush, Karzai began his political life after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Now into his second term, Karzai has recently begun to publicly criticize American military policies. Some of these inflammatory statements have strained relationships with his Western allies.

    In March, Karzai decided not mention the International Security Assistance Force while addressing the 16th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Bhutan. However, according to official transcripts, he spoke about the limitations of military action in South Asia. “Defeating terrorism cannot be achieved by military means alone,” explained Karzai. “We must also address conditions that are conducive to exploitation by terrorists. We must restrict the pool of individuals who, because of grievances or a sense of alienation and marginalization, become easy prey for terrorist indoctrination.”