On a secret Taliban trail into Afghanistan

Walking the narrow goat trails of Kunar Province, Taliban and al-Qaida fighters can travel with their weapons to and from Pakistan. But which way are they headed?

By Phillip Robertson

Published September 19, 2002 6:41PM (EDT)

The intelligence officer's face is in shadow, as it should be. Sher Hassan is sitting with his back to the single window in his mud-brick office, where he serves as deputy chief of intelligence for Kunar Province, on Afghanistan's mountainous border with Pakistan. There's nothing on his desk. The only furniture in the room consists of a battered couch and two bare coffee tables. We sit in the dark waiting for him to speak to us.

"If you want to talk about the problems of Afghanistan, you should really talk to the governor," he says. I explain that the governor will just tell me what he tells everyone else, and that I'd like to hear it from him instead. Sher Hassan weighs this, and then in a tone meant to educate, says, "We are here to find the enemies of Afghanistan wherever they are. Those people coming to make trouble for the new government, trying to cause problems for us, our job is to capture them." Sher Hassan's enemies were not far away, if recent news reports were accurate.

Sher Hassan claimed that there were Taliban forces in Pakistan, funded and armed by Pakistani intelligence, who were trying to infiltrate back into Afghanistan across the mountainous border. Lending a measure of credibility to his fear is the constant U.S. military presence in Kunar, and on Sept. 6, journalists staying in Asadabad heard an airstrike that took place in one of the valleys near Pakistan. There were two enormous explosions, followed by a convoy of helicopters headed for the Nawa Pass, about 10 miles south of the provincial capital.

"I challenge anyone who says there are no terrorists in Pakistan. They are all there. I can show you," Sher Hassan's silhouette said to us. Pakistani government officials have denied similar charges and accuse the Afghans of being unable to control their own territory, a suggestion that makes many people here furious. In any case, the U.S. military activity so close to the border with Pakistan proves that Sher Hassan is not the only official nervous about infiltration.

The intelligence officer talked just long enough to reveal who he thought was behind all the ammunition and weapons buying in the tribal areas, and he was losing sleep over it. Hassan's bogeyman was a legendary and brutal commander in the war against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was born a few short miles from Asadabad. Hekmatyar had thrown his lot in with the Taliban, and in a recent BBC radio address from a secret location, urged all Afghans to rise up and throw out the infidels. Hekmatyar was calling for a second great jihad, a war against the Americans.

The U.S. took careful note of his rhetoric, and has made him a target of their search and seize operations. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Hekmatyar fled to Iran, but after intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. the Iranian government asked him to leave. Now, in what can only be worrisome to U.S. military observers, Hekmatyar and his political party, Hezb-I-Islami, have a broad base of support in Kunar Province, and perhaps more worrisome still is that they do not know where he is. Widespread disillusionment with the U.S. presence, frustration at the depredation of local warlords and the return of Hekmatyar to his former home in Kunar seems a formula for an instant anti-American jihad. Rumors were circulating in town that he was hiding in the mountains of Nurestan, assembling an army.

"Yes, Hekmatyar and the Taliban are in an alliance, but he is not in Kunar Province," said Sher Hassan. "He's in Dir." The town of Dir is in Bajawar agency, Pakistan, just across the border from Asadabad, a mere 50 miles away.

Toward the end of the interview, Sher Hassan made a striking observation that departed from the usual diet of rumor and half-truth common in Afghanistan. Asked how he knew the Taliban was regrouping in the mountains, he said simply, "The price of bullets is very high in Nawagai now." Nawagai is a small town in the tribal areas of Pakistan, just on the other side of the Nawa Pass. Sher Hassan meant that people were buying up all the available ammunition, driving up the price.

We came to Asadabad in Kunar Province to see if we could find an answer to an important question: How precisely are people slipping into Afghanistan from Pakistan? And are weapons and ammunition slipping in, or out, the same way? If Taliban members and others are coming to make trouble for the new government, they would have to rely on a network of secret smuggling routes that wind across the rocky spine dividing the two countries.

The routes are not on any map; they are not near roads; and it would take days of making discreet inquiries in Kunar Province until we could find someone willing to show us where they were. Rumors breed near the border, and the only way to understand the situation was to try to travel the routes ourselves. So after our meeting with Sher Hassan, I set off with my translator, Aman Khan, to make the journey.

The phrase "human smuggling" conjures images of people buried under sacks of grain, rolling past checkpoints or hidden in loaded trucks. In the southwestern United States, paid "coyotes" lead immigrants across rivers, through holes in chain-link fences, but in Afghanistan it does not work this way. The trails exist in a no man's land, a place where there has never been a governmental authority. Remarkably, most people crossing the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan cross it on foot, without any assistance.

The first stop on the search for the smuggling routes is a legal border checkpoint high in the mountains, a small crossing guarded by about 25 unpaid Afghan fighters. The road to the Nawa Pass is not a road, it's a goat trail as wide as a car, and it takes three hours to make it to the summit. Passing us on the way down to the valley floor, families of refugees were heading slowly back into Afghanistan. Traveling in convoys, the Afghans were crammed into Toyota pickups loaded with all their possessions, returning home on a treacherous road. We watched as the wheels of their pickups skirted the loose earth at the edge of the cliffs. At the summit, the soldiers came out to greet us and offer the obligatory glass of tea.

"Please tell the Americans we need a radio to communicate with them," says Ziarat Gul, deputy commander of the Nawa border crossing. After we agree to take the message, Gul explains that the Pakistanis will only allow Afghans to cross back into Afghanistan at Nawa and not the other way around, and as we looked at the flow of people into the country this became clear. Hardly anyone was going to Pakistan at Nawa, but refugees were flooding in. "Pakistani people say that if Afghans are crossing the border, maybe some doubtful people are going with them," Gul said. Since it's common for many Pashtuns to have family members on both sides of the dividing line, the one-way system that was worked out to impede terrorism has revitalized a small cross-border smuggling industry. Undaunted by Pakistani regulations, the Afghans would simply find another way to go to Pakistan.

In searching for the routes, we would discover a simple truth. The clandestine trails are a result of the unique geography of the border. In the 19th century, when Afghanistan's western boundaries were drawn by the British, they chose to follow the ridgeline of a high mountain range in the Hindu Kush. On either side of the range, rivers have cut deep valleys running at right angles to the ridgeline. If the long Kunar River Valley is a hallway, then the valleys are private rooms. Since some valleys are deeper than others, which makes them easier to negotiate on foot, these places have become natural transit highways for tribesmen with families or business on the other side of the line. People in the valleys are insular, nervous around strangers.

Before we left, Gul told us about smuggling routes much farther north, near the pass at Gha Khe, but wasn't specific enough to be helpful, and he couldn't leave his post to take us there. To find the trail to Pakistan, we would have to find a local contact we could trust.

Aman Khan, in addition to his considerable skills as a translator, has an extraordinary capacity for finding friends in remote places, and when Aman finds Fazil Rabi, an intelligence officer in the new government who lives several miles from Asadabad, we find our trustworthy contact. Fazil Rabi, a slightly built man with a dyed red beard, tells me at the Istiqlal hotel, "Anything you need, anything at all, please come to me. You are my guest in Kunar Province, and if I am not here, my brothers will take care of you." Fazil Rabi is a modest man who is sincere, and when he invites us to his farm on the Kunar River, not far from the American military base at Top Chi, we gratefully accept.

Fazil Rabi's family lives in a village called Te Shah, and like other farmers in Kunar Province, he grows corn in fields that are set close by the water. The family property is on a low rise that overlooks the river, and when we arrive the men bring out rope beds called charpai for the guests. After the sons carry the food out to us, we eat a traditional Pashtun meal in the open air, all 15 of us sitting around an oilcloth. We wait until the meal is over to ask our big question about the location of the smuggling routes, and with the children safely out of earshot, Fazil Rabi and the remaining brothers walk down to the stony riverbed to talk about how to get us to there from Asadabad. When they come back up to the house, Wali Jan, Fazil's older brother, says, "There are several different ways, but the closest one is at Shong Le and we will take you there." It's as simple as that, Shong Le is a village in a deep valley, not far south of the Nawa Pass. We leave the next day for Shong Le with Fazil Rabi's brother Asgar, and Fazil Rabi's car.

After a late start, we are driving down a terrible road in the heat and the dust in the middle of the day when we get to a checkpoint on the other side of the Kunar River, 20 miles south of Asadabad. It does not reveal itself to be a checkpoint until a few minutes later when a thin old man comes running out of the building, flapping his arms. It seemed like he needed help, so I tell the driver to stop. The old man then leans in the window and tells us to wait while he runs back to the building and when we see him again, he is carrying his Kalashnikov and promptly gets in the car. His name is Zahir Khan. We tell him where we want to go.

"If you want to go to Shong Le, I will go with you, but I can't guarantee your safety." Aman translates this and when I look at the driver, I can see that he's suddenly uneasy. Zahir Khan, the old soldier in our car, begins to cheerfully describe how the people of the valley don't like foreigners and that there would be trouble if we continue. Khan goes on, adding details, talking about others who have turned around at his checkpoint after hearing how dangerous it was to proceed. The four of us sit in the battered Corolla taking in the old man's observations and looking at the stony riverbed, and there's a long moment while the soldier fusses with the strap of the rifle. On the other side of the mountains just a few miles away was the border and then the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Aman and Asgar clearly didn't want to go on, they're waiting for me to say something --thinking "Why doesn't this guy just turn the car around?" -- and I can feel it. I give in to the atmosphere. "Forget it, let's go back to Asadabad," I say. Aman smiles broadly and puts on a tape of the Persian singer Nagma to celebrate. When we arrive back at the checkpoint, Zahir Khan forces us to come into the partially collapsed building for refreshments.

We have driven in a sea of dust for three hours only to drink poisonous water with unpaid tribal fighters. Ahead of us was the mouth of the valley, a broad riverbed, and on the steep cliffs we could see odd mud-brick houses, and the start of the smuggling trail. It was a defeat, the day was lost.

On the way back to Asadabad, we pass a training camp, called the Kashmir camp by the locals. In a village called Tangu, we stop and examine the ruined buildings, still covered with the murals of the Harkat al Mujahedin, images of a Quran radiating light surrounded by crossed Kalashnikovs. Harkat al Mujahedin is a Pakistani militant group responsible for terror attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and for the bombing of the U.S. consulate in Karachi. When the Taliban government fell, they were forced to abandon the camp, and when they hit the road, they chose Shong Le a few miles away. The location of the camp was not an accident either; it was chosen with the smuggling routes in mind.

We get back to Asadabad and once I return to the Istiqlal hotel, it occurs to me that the old man was telling lies to keep us out of the valley, and that if we kept going absolutely nothing would have happened. The grizzled and talkative Zahir Khan, I realize belatedly, was an Afghan Don Quixote, his windmills, strangers and soldiers. The valley of Shong Le is a kind of protected place, outside the control of the Afghan government, and the checkpoint fighters feel that they had to keep outsiders and other men with weapons away. Zahir Khan had told us over tea that he had re-routed U.S. Special Forces patrols. He could not hide how proud he was of that particular coup.

So Aman and I decide to make the journey again a day later.

Two days after our first visit to the entrance of the valley, the Shong Le checkpoint is sound asleep when we arrive, so we have to wake the soldiers up. But they are our friends now, and happy to see us again. We explain that we will take two of them with us into the valley, but when we reach the place where the cars can't continue, the weapons have to be left behind with the car, and they quickly agree. I didn't want to upset the villagers who didn't want to see strangers walking with armed men near their houses. Instead we would just walk in as if we belonged there.

A short, but even-tempered dispute broke out among the soldiers to see who would come with us, and Aman settled it by choosing a local man from Shong Le, called Sher Ali. The soldiers were working for us now. Fazil Rabi's brother Asgar drives the car an hour into the deep valley following the dry riverbed. There is no road. The driver stops when he finally reaches a point where he can't continue. We get out and immediately see a group of three men, walking down from the hills, their donkeys loaded with flour.

"Where are you coming from?" Aman asked them. "Pakistan," one told him. The crossing point for the smugglers has no soldiers from any government; it is open land, otherwise they could not cross. As the time approached midday, we started to see larger groups of people on the path to the border. They fall into two categories: people bringing goods to and from Pakistan, and Pashtun families on the move to visit relatives in Pakistan.

On the Pakistani side are the tribal areas of Bajawar agency, an autonomous zone of badlands long known for harboring fugitives and drug dealers. The tribal areas are populated by religiously conservative, ethnic Pashtuns who are wary of outsiders. In October and November of last year, it was the mullahs and village elders of Bajawar agency who urged thousands of madrassa students to cross the border into Afghanistan to wage jihad against the Northern Alliance and the United States. The war proved to be a disaster for the jihadis. The Taliban took the untrained Pakistani recruits and used them in suicidal rear guard actions, giving senior officials of the collapsing government time to escape. Many of the students disappeared and are thought to have been killed in the fighting. When the officials of the Taliban government, together with some al-Qaida operatives, escaped to Pakistan, many of them took the smuggling routes into Bajawar agency to avoid capture.

The most important man with us was Sher Ali, the middle-aged soldier from the Shong Le checkpoint, and as we hiked up toward the border crossing, we talked about the recent history of his valley. I asked him if the Taliban had come through here, and he said, "Yes, many of them came this way and brought their weapons." Did the people of Shong Le help them escape? "Nobody could help them and nobody could say anything to them because they had weapons." Sher Ali, walking along the path to the unguarded border, told us he had witnessed their flight following the collapse of the government in early December. Many of them had chosen this route because everyone from the area knew about it, but since the Shong Le route was impassable for vehicles, the Taliban soldiers were limited to what they could carry on donkeys and on their backs. They smuggled themselves out from under the U.S. bombing and into Pakistan.

Sher Ali had also played a part in the escape of a small group of Harkat al Mujahedin members, a Kashmiri terrorist group that had training bases in Afghanistan during the Taliban government. Sher Ali said that for three months, he had worked as a well digger at their camp, and that later when the Taliban were on the run they had come to him desperate for a way out of the country. "I told them to wait for three days, and I made a schedule for them. After three days, I took them this way. They had nothing." Sher Ali, and others in Asadabad, described the Harkat al Mujahedin members at the camp as speaking Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Sher Ali told us that among them were several Arabic speakers. We had reached a point on the trail where we could hear the shouts of the village children reverberating off the valley walls. A man led a herd of oxen up a steep trail above us. From this point, Pakistan is still two hours away for the travelers, a long walk through mountains.

I asked Sher Ali what kind of goods went into Pakistan from Afghanistan through Shong Le. "They take weapons and ammunition, because we have many of those things here and they are cheap. In Pakistan, they are very expensive." Intelligence chief Sher Hassan's observation about the price of bullets now was a first small piece of supporting evidence. Local arms dealers, seeking to make a quick profit, are likely to be importing weapons and ammunition into Pakistan. Who is buying all the weapons is unclear. Sher Hassan's hypothesis, that the Taliban is getting ready for an attack on the new government of Afghanistan, could be correct. Another interpretation has the tribesmen in Pakistan preparing to take up arms against their own government.

Toward midday, as we walked up the steep incline to the pass, two men passed us carrying large wooden crates, slung over their shoulders with sheets. Aman asked them what they were carrying, and one man said, "Bracelets for women. No, I'm just joking, they aren't bracelets for women."

"So what is it then?" Aman said.

"Goodbye!" said the man with the crate, and kept going up the trail to Pakistan.

As we came down the mountain after walking for three hours, we passed more men with similar cargo, but no one wanted to talk about what they carried.

Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Pakistan Taliban