Beware the highwaymen

Crossing perilous bridges in a cash-filled Corolla, nothing is as important as watching out for black turbans.

By Phillip Robertson
Published February 6, 2002 11:22PM (EST)

On Jan. 29, Michael Kleiner, at the Red Cross office in Kabul, said yes, they were flying planes to Kandahar but they weren't taking the press. He explained that once he took one reporter, the rest would clamor for seats and complain when they were kicked off by higher priority aid workers, an unwelcome public relations problem. It was understandable. The U.N. was busy flying TV news crews in and out of Kabul from Islamabad, and the flight operations office was crowded with producers and cameramen begging for a blue U.N. baggage check tag. When we arrived at the office, the staff told us that we could fly to Kandahar through Islamabad, no problem, but they had no internal Afghanistan flights, and besides, the cost was enormous. Ariana, the Afghan national airline that had just recently gone back into service with its two planes, was flying to Herat and that was it.

We had come back from Ghazni the day before, after running into a pack of wild boys with Kalashnikovs, thinking that in Kabul we'd at least get a flight to Kandahar. They didn't turn us back, but we'd taken a vote that night and thought better of continuing, and when we reached Kabul, the driver we'd had for the past two weeks quit and said he was leaving to go home to Jalalabad the next morning. Ghazni is about a quarter of the way to Kandahar by road, four hours from the capital. In our first attempt to reach Kandahar, Aman and I went as passengers in Abdullah's minivan, an earthquake on wheels which had a habit of leaving parts behind in the road, and now he was taking it back with him to Jalalabad. Like every other car we traveled in, Abdullah's ride was hanging on by a thread, and definitely couldn't have made it all the way to the destination, nearly 500 kilometers away.

Aman had said back in Ghazni, when Kandahar was still a possibility, "Inshallah, we will make it. Don't worry," and I said there's no way in hell we would make it. Every time we started out for a new destination, he prayed, holding his hands out to God, and I thought that was fine but couldn't match it. It was a real disadvantage.

As it was, the car broke down on the way back from Ghazni, high in the mountains where the streams had frozen into white ribbons. Coolant drooled from the machine. Once the car stopped and we got out to collect snow to melt over the overheated engine, we stood in the bright, cold air and the silence. The breakdown felt like a relief. We put our hands in the snow where it had frozen into a thicket of long needles, and packed them into a Pepsi bottle. It was enough to get Abdullah's van going again. As soon as we hit Kabul on Monday, Jan. 28, it was then that Abdullah, crazy driver but heroic stoner, quit on us, leaving the mission without a ride. "Tomorrow," I told Aman, "we will find a flight to Kandahar." It was a hopeful statement, one made without knowing the facts.

After trying the Red Cross, and then the U.N. flight operations center, there was one final, uncertain possibility for finding a lift to Kandahar. Abdullah gave us a few last hours of transport, and it was time to try the officials at the U.S. Embassy, to see if they would put us on a military or government flight out of town. We rattled down Kabul's streets, the Kabulis honking and cutting each other off, and at one of Kabul's insane traffic circles, a middle-aged cop pulled us over by pointing at a spot on the ground. Abdullah stopped.

Abdullah, Aman and the cop got into the routine shouting match in Dari, and when the cop took his knife out, it was puzzling, since it's the last thing you'd expect from civil authority. I'm sitting in the front passenger seat, when the cop reaches through the window after shaking hands with me, flourishes the knife, flicking it at my chest. The cop says something under his breath to Aman and then with the blade, carves four ragged lines in the dark plastic of Abdullah's sunshield. The cop takes his arm out of the car and waves us on.

"Aman, what did he say to you?"

"He said, 'I hate foreigners, they are not Muslim.'"

A hideous omen, dealt out while I was trying to think of what to say to the American officials that would buy us a flight. The scratches, however, pointed right to Aman and Abdullah, two people who had helped me at every turn, become trusted friends, gone into unpredictable and dangerous situations against their better judgment and always kept it together. Helping foreigners was not a safe occupation. Everywhere they went, someone would hate them for it.

After the child fighter fired on us the day before, Abdullah did not panic and follow the instructions of an armed gunman. At the same time, Aman had translated perfectly and worked a miracle of diplomacy with a psychopath who had big plans for us that afternoon. But in the relative safety of Kabul, in broad daylight, it seemed that the cop had deliberately marked our car for harassment or some other bad ritual, and we told Abdullah to tear the plastic sunshield out so the signal couldn't reach its intended destination. We were minutes from the U.S. diplomatic compound.

Just behind the gates of the American Embassy in Kabul, there was a young soldier who could have been from Iowa or Wisconsin. He checked my passport and went off to call the press attaché. I waited outside. Aman and Abdullah watched from the van parked across the street. After a minute, John, the press attaché, came down and we talked about the security of the road to Kandahar, how it was thick with escaped Talibs, al-Qaida, and pretty much every bad thing the country had to offer, besides being as long as hell and mostly unpaved. Very polite about it. East Coast education, ratty sweater, a charmer at dinner parties, a speaker of languages, said to me through the bars, "People have stopped by and asked about flights to Kandahar, but the answer is always no."


"It doesn't hurt to ask, though." John was cheerful.

I felt like I'd just grabbed his daughter's thigh after driving her back from the prom and been caught at it.

"You are not welcome, young man, to nestle in America's warm bosom," said the invisible neon sign over the Embassy gates.

The way to Kandahar, the legendary trunk road, conduit of civilizations, was the only way left to go.

Depressed, thinking our magic had fled, Aman had one last trick up his sleeve he didn't mention. The three of us went to a Chaikhana to have lunch, and about half an hour into it, someone I'd never seen before walked in and asked to speak to Aman. This happened quite a bit. Aman had friends and an extended family of acquaintances all over the country. In a minute or two, Aman reappeared and introduced the man as Hajji Abdul Wahid, from Nangarhar province, and said that if we wanted to go to Kandahar we could go with him. The only hitch was that we would have to make up our minds to go right then and there, since he had business in Kandahar that couldn't wait.

In fact, Hajji Abdul Wahid never likes to wait. We paid, and went outside to look at the car. It was a white Corolla wagon, like the cars that come secondhand from Japan after the engine has so many miles on it, and the government forces them to be sold abroad or scrapped. Afghanistan was overflowing with these Japanese cars, most with advertisements in kanji script still on them. Hajji said he bought the car new, which could have meant that it was new to him, but he definitely knew his business, and he was rich in Afghan terms. Numbers would come up again and again during the ride, as he took the measure of the situation, of his passengers, of the dangers of the road, but the one number we never learned was exactly how much money he was carrying in his Corolla.

Afghanistan has no import or export duties, and this has made it a smuggling crossroads for China, Pakistan, Iran and the northern former Soviet republics. Not just contraband, but appliances, videos and a weird array of consumer products. The roads are full of trucks moving goods from one Afghan city to another, their drivers intoxicated into transit equanimity by high-grade hashish.

Truckers have formed transport mafias, smugglers do a brisk business and a significant portion of everything that crosses an Afghan road is robbed or stolen or grifted by bandits and drivers themselves. Increasingly, the drivers and passengers are killed by the thieves. During the Taliban regime, it was safe to travel around Afghanistan at night, a feat people here regard as miraculous. Not surprisingly, it was the truckers in Kandahar who lent their support to the Taliban in 1994, the year the movement came on the scene. On Nov. 4, 1994, the Taliban fighters freed a Pakistani convoy that had been seized by warlords and forced to stop near the Kandahar airport. Soon after, the road to the border town of Spin Boldak was regularly patrolled, and the smugglers were back in business.

Standing out on the street with Hajji Abdul Wahid, Aman wanted to know if we were going or not. I said we were. Upstairs in the Mustafa, I changed into native clothes, wrapped up in a wool patu and climbed into Hajji's car where the back seat was as hard as a church pew. What's the deal, I wanted to know. Aman explained that the rear seat had been replaced with something that only looked like a rear seat, but was in fact a safe. It was full of thick bundles of currency. Mostly U.S. currency and Pakistani rupees, probably more than $50,000 worth. Hajji said that we could put our cash in there as well, which was very kind, but I turned him down.

Hajji Abdul Wahid is a currency speculator who drives his product back and forth across Afghanistan, taking advantage of the different rates of exchange in different cities. It's a sophisticated enterprise carried out in a primitive manner. News of current events travels by word of mouth, and wads of currency for sale are displayed in cases. The money-changers in the bazaars short the Pakistani rupee or the dollar depending on the situation in the Kashmir. When I told a money-changer that the two sides had backed away from war, he said that peace in Kashmir was bad for the dollar. When fighting erupts the dollar soars against the rupee.

Hajji Abdul Wahid is skilled at quantitative analysis, and he spent most of the drive, which took two full days, running numbers in his head. Cost/benefit. Supply and demand curves. Risk analysis. I owed him 50 bucks already.

I asked, "So, what happens if you can't come out ahead in a currency deal once you reach Kandahar?"

Hajji Abdul, the man with three houses in three different provinces, said that he would buy a car, and have one of his drivers take it back, and sell it for a profit in Nangarhar. Hajji Abdul had more than one business.

"Don't be upset," he said on the way out of town, "everything will be fine," and Hajji's nephew gunned the engine as we went past the bazaar at the edge of Kabul city. The Corolla had money hidden in the doors. Probably tucked into the engine as well.

Afghan cities have bazaars that have grown up around transit stops. Kabul has a Kandahar bazaar where drivers call out, "Kandahar, Kandahar, Kandahar," selling the ride. If an Afghan who isn't a warlord wants to go to Kandahar from Kabul, they go down to the market to see who's going and how much it will cost. Fleets of beat-up Corollas take passengers on the two-day trip. There are also buses, called flying coaches, that take the same route loaded down with passengers and cargo, but they take much longer to cover the same ground. In Kabul, I saw a wildly painted bus with a carefully stenciled "Disappointed" above the rear windows.

We drove out past the Kandahar bazaar on the way out of town, and were 150 kilometers away in Ghazni in three hours. The next morning, we were back in the car at 5 a.m., heading for Kandahar in the darkness. The fighter at the checkpoint was asleep, and Hajji Abdul's nephew drove right past him without slowing down. Three hundred thirty kilometers and 10 hours to go.

Afghanistan's mountains were once at the bottom of an ancient sea called Tethys, forced upwards by the collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. Long bands of mountains, interspersed with broad valleys, make the land seem like a wrinkled sheet, which of course it is. The Kandahar road follows one such valley, and south of Ghazni, when the sun came up, each peak in the Khafar Jar Ghar range took on a different hue. Bronzes. Reds. Yellows. The waves of an old dead sea burned in the sun.

At 7:30 we stopped for tea in Mokur at an old Chaikhana. Men were just waking up, eating eggs with pepper. We took off our shoes and walked across the blue carpet, and despite the cold desert morning it was warm. Hajji Abdul Wahed said the owners had built a fire under it for the guests. We didn't want to lose any time so we paid after a few minutes and piled back into the car and the seats full of Hajji's money.

The Russian blacktop was long gone, and the road became worse as we went farther south. It bogged the car down, and Hajji's nephew was forced to slow the car to a crawl, steering it across the ruts, looking for the most level patch of ground. But for the first few hours, the traffic was light, and it felt fine to be moving. As the road drifted closer to the base of the mountains, we crossed dry washes, once broad streams from melting snow. Not all the bridges were intact, and the driver would follow a track that crossed the wash, going down one bank and up the opposite side. Every time we had to cross a dry stream without the benefit of a bridge, the Afghans would get nervous, looking around for problems. I asked Aman what he was looking for, and he said, "These are not good places." Not long after he said that, just as we passed Shah Juy, I knew exactly what the story was with the washes.

It was about 10:30 in the morning, people in the villages were in the middle of their morning routine, and instead of the wool pakul hat favored farther north, men were now wearing black or white turbans. Five kilometers outside Shah Juy, Hajji Abdul Wahid took off his pakul and put on a black turban, and so did all the other Afghans. Aman handed me a white cap. We crossed another dry wash. When we approached a bridge a few minutes outside of Shah Juy, there was a man down on the bank nearest to us, his eyes level with the roadbed, watching the traffic. He had wound the black silk of his turban to cover his face except for his eyes. Men on motorcycles wove in and out of the stream of traffic, and Hajji's nephew floored it. Who was that? I wanted to know. That, Aman said, was a bandit.

This is how the system works. The dry streams that cross the road at right angles are a way for highway robbers to approach traffic without being seen. Once they force a driver to stop at gunpoint, they take him down onto the riverbed, take everything he has, usually after a severe beating, and then, at least half the time, kill him. After the deed is done, they escape up the wash in a four-by-four into the mountains.

The man we saw under the bridge was just the spotter. He has a number of accomplices under the bridge with him who, after a signal, boil out onto the road with guns. Most of them are professionals, and when it happens, it happens fast, leaving drivers with little time to react. By leaving so early from Ghazni, we thought we'd beat the odds of being stopped, but the predators were out in large numbers, blowing the theory that bandits sleep late. Whole towns on the Kabul-Kandahar road were infested with armed men hunting the road in broad daylight. Gilan, Shah Juy, Gajoy, Kharjoy and possibly even Qalat, since there have been attacks reported south of that town. These are just the villages that looked bad from the road, and it was difficult to see them, because it was necessary to keep the foreigner's face hidden. Aman rode with the gun under his patu. At dusk, the situation gets much worse. Bandits stop all types of vehicles, from Corollas to buses to tankers. Fuel tanker drivers carry large amounts of cash and are particularly prized.

As we passed through the towns between Mokur and Qalat, motorcycles, each with two men, a driver and a passenger, kept pace with the cars, while the man in the passenger seat looked in the windows. They followed the traffic like flies. Hajji Abdul Wahid said that under the riders' patus were Kalashnikovs, and that they could also force cars to stop. At one point there were 10 motorcycles working the same stretch of road. They darted; they swerved, and the bad-death feeling they gave out goes for more than a 100 kilometers. It takes hours to cross it.

A few days later, in Kandahar, 100 drivers gathered in the Kabul bazaar and talked about the situation on the road. Mohammed Jalal, a 29-year-old man from Wardak province, recounted how a driver had been killed near Qalat less than two weeks ago. Gul Amir drove a fuel tanker and was forced to stop by gunmen. When he did, they took his cash, telling him that they would not kill him, that he was free to go. As Gul Amir drove away, one of the bandits then shot and killed him. Mohammed Jalal explained that the killings had taken place in the early evening, around 7 p.m. Another driver described his encounter with motorcyclists at Nawrat. "A few days ago, there were bandits on motorcycles, and they tell me to stop but I didn't stop and they fired at me, breaking the windows of my car. I escaped from that place. Motorcycle riders are very dangerous." Many drivers in the transit bazaar were afraid of giving their names, out of fear that the bandits had agents nearby who would single them out for harassment. As we walked back to our car, Abdul Malik pointed at his Corolla, which had a large bullet hole in the hood. It was a shot aimed at him that was 5 inches too low.

A few hours outside of Kandahar we started to see the wreckage of destroyed Taliban convoys, pushed off the road and in the process of being stripped. They were burned hulks. Hajji Abdul Wahid and the other Afghans marveled at the accuracy of the bombs. The Corolla descended out of the low hills, toward the dead orchards of Kandahar, now impossible to cultivate because of the mines. It was a beautiful place once, but on seeing it we still felt joy.

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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