Afghanistan’s tectonics are active and violent; the country’s bellicose history echoes the tremors of its crust. At 1 in the morning, my bed wobbles as though some enormous beast underneath is shifting in its sleep.
Earthquake. How fitting, I think: This is the night before I hit the road that leads southeast to Baghlan province and then north to Kunduz — the road that has recently seen clashes between NATO and the Taliban, as well as kidnappings, extortions, and robberies by the Taliban, by the anti-government militia of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and by ordinary — but just as potentially deadly — roadside thugs. Last week, five U.N. workers were kidnapped on this road; four German soldiers died in a firefight with the Taliban, along with three Afghan policemen. NATO airstrikes killed 29 insurgents and wounded 52, according to Afghan police officials.
At 5 in the morning, I bid farewell to my hostess, a portly matriarch with a gold stud in her right nostril. She nods back, and as I step off her tiled porch she throws some water in my direction from a red plastic pitcher, for good luck. The fierce-looking Pashtun driver everyone calls Qaqa Satar (qaqa means “uncle” in Dari) is wiping the rearview mirror of a hired sedan with the sleeve of his salwar kameez; Ramesh, my interpreter, and I pile into the car. We drive off into the giant, tangerine sun quivering on the eastern edge of the pink mountain ridge.
I spent several days doing research about the road. A security officer for a Western relief agency in Kabul told me flat-out not to take it. An Afghan colleague in Kunduz told me the road is safe from 8 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon (why 2:30, and not, say, 3, or 2:15?) and that Taliban fighters kidnap at least one person from the road each night. I spoke with a driver who travels from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kunduz every other day — he dismissed stories of kidnappings, but told me that armed gangs pretending to be Taliban do set up checkpoints and rob travelers at gunpoint after dark.
His friend elbowed him out of the way to promise me that the road is absolutely safe, no trouble whatsoever. He drummed loudly on the hood of my hired car and yelled that he could guarantee my safe arrival in Kunduz “100 percent,” for $100.
In the end, I have no idea what to expect. The sun rises and it is hot. We ride past copper mountains touched with a downy patina of tender spring grass, mostly in silence. The northern mesas of the Hindu Kush are lavender in the morning light.
Mazar-e-Sharif to Samangan
The Afghan countryside has barely changed since my first visit here in 2001. The same tired donkeys with their noses in the blood-red wild poppies. The same shepherds squatting beside outcroppings of ancient rock. The only visible change to the rural landscape are cell-phone towers and the repaved two-lane tarmac, which in 2001 and 2002 was so scooped out by decades of aerial bombardment it was barely navigable. The smooth road delights Qaqa Satar, who goes 80 miles per hour, swerving in and out of traffic to pass a slow-moving convoy of heavy Afghan army trucks. Oncoming Mercedes 18-wheelers painted turquoise and fuchsia blink their lights, then honk. If we die on this road, I think, it will be in a head-on collision.
I once drove on this road during a locust invasion. It was in 2002. The pavement was slick with crushed grasshoppers, and their delicate shells shattered against the windshield with a crunch, like potato chips.
Samangan to Pul-e-Khumri
At a roadside market in Samangan we buy two loaves of nan for a dollar.
The bread is warm, crusty in the middle where the baker pressed it into a flower pattern and sprinkled it with thyme and salt. Fog licks at the velvet hills and the gutted hulls of old Soviet tanks. Were they abandoned by the retreating Soviet Army in 1989? Were they the tanks of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary mujahideen leader, the Taliban had blown up in 1997? Were they Taliban tanks, destroyed in 2001 by U.S. warplanes? Their rusting metal is silent, their tracks are gone, and grass peeks through their turrets.
Pul-e-Khumri to Baghlani Jadid
Somewhere around here, the U.N. workers were kidnapped, the German soldiers and Afghan policemen perished, and NATO planes killed and wounded scores of militants.
But Pul-e-Khumri is used to war. In December 2001, one warlord tricked U.S. forces into believing al Qaeda fighters were hiding in the city so that America launched airstrikes against fighters of a rival militia. Nearly 50 people were killed. Last month, Taliban forces battled with Hekmatyar’s men here; 60 people died in the fighting. Pul-e-Khumri betrays no emotion, not grief or elation, as we drive through streets drowning in muck churned up by a recent rain.
Two dozen day laborers in orange vests stab at the mud on a side street with shovels, and about as many Afghan soldiers stand guard around them. The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone who works for the government. The workers are risking their lives for a stretch of paved road, and so are the soldiers.
Some German military trucks pass by, heading south. I cannot see the men inside, but I imagine that they are very young.
Baghlani Jadid to Kunduz
Near an auto body shop (RAFI’S BROTHER’S WORK SHOP, the hand-painted sign proclaims), two men in plainclothes with Kalashnikov rifles are standing in the shade of a poplar tree. Taliban? I ask Qaqa Satar. No, he responds: These are local vigilantes the government has hired to fight the Taliban, to help the overpowered police and army soldiers.
But they are worse than the Taliban, Qaqa Satar opines. During the day they work for the government; at night, they set up impromptu checkpoints and rob travelers. I make a mental note not to travel here at night.
My cell phone vibrates; it is a message from the security section of an international relief agency in Kabul.
“Ops Room security alert! There is an ANSF-AOG clash in Baghlan province, pul khumri district (150 meters south of Pul Khumri, Kunduz-Mazar junction) please avoid the area.”
The German convoy, I think.
“Passed pul-e-khumri an hour ago,” I type back. “In kunduz province.
Road clear so far. Saw no clash.”
“Thanks a lot for informing us, have a safe trip and take care.”
On a hillock, a square concrete building of an Afghan Army checkpoint. Four or five sentries stand on top of a sandbagged roof, facing every direction. This is a sign of an army surrounded, a fighting force trapped.
“In kunduz city,” I text the security guys in Kabul. Ramesh and I high-five. Qaqa Satar smiles for the first time during the trip. We drive slowly through alleyways shaded with poplars and wild black cherries, the familiar busy market street, the kebab shops, and a palatial doctor’s office promising WEMENS HELTH.
I am looking for someone: a former Northern Alliance fighter, Hanon, with whom I shared many front-line cigarettes and rivers of weak, murky tea in 2001 in Takhar province, where he was fighting the Taliban.
Hanon is from Kunduz, but I don’t remember the address of his father’s house, which I visited more than eight years ago. Nor do I know if he is still around, or alive. I scan the faces of Kunduz men: hard, careworn faces. I have a picture of Hanon, which I whip out at the checkpoint in front of the provincial governor’s headquarters; at an unnamed local dive where we stopped for a $3-lunch of fresh lamb, vegetables, and tea; at the office of a local human rights organization. I show Hanon’s photo to street vendors, to policemen, to soldiers. Some shake their heads. Others vaguely say they seem to recognize the face, but they are not sure from where or when. With his bushy black beard, his soiled salwar kameez, his brown paqul hat, he is more an ideogram than a real man. There are millions of Hanons in this country — bearded, illiterate men in paqul hats, thrust into war by Afghanistan’s ever-moving tectonics.
This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.