After arriving back in Kabul on a U.S. Air Force military C-130 transport from Kandahar, I met up with my friend Tim Lynch, the Afghanistan country manager for World Security Initiatives, a private contracting firm. WSI is located off of Jalalabad road, the main artery between Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad. The road is a rough ride and heavily populated with construction companies. Like most places in Afghanistan, the ride is always adventurous.
Tim had some business to conduct in the city of Qalat, so I tagged along for the ride. Qalat is the provincial capital of Zabul, and lies about 300 miles south of Kabul, 125 miles northeast of Kandahar. The Kabul-Kandahar road is a well paved two lane highway that runs though the wide plains between two mountain ranges. This is the same plain the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and the British Empire marched to Kabul during their conquests of Afghanistan.
The valley region from Kabul to Kandahar is a hot, arid plain seeded with small farming villages along the wadis as the farmers seek to maximize their access to the scarce water. Green bursts pop up in the desert, and farmers grow almonds, dates, grapes and a host of fruits and vegetables. Golden wheat fields edge the highway, and shepherds guide their flocks of sheep, oxen, goats mules and camels seemingly into the middle of nowhere. The terrain provides perfect cover for the Taliban.
ANP or Taliban? Click to download video. 4.0 Megabytes in .WMV format. Pajamas Media has the full 2:55 video in Quicktime format.
Zabul is considered a successful example of nation building in southeastern Afghanistan. During a briefing from a senior Coalition officer on the state of the four southeastern provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Helmand provinces, Zabul has been rated as the most advanced province as American forces have concentrated significant resources in the security, economic and political realms. An indicator of the success in Zabul can be seen in the targets the Taliban chooses: the police outposts have been the main focus of Taliban efforts, and the Taliban rarely attacks Afghan National Army or U.S. Military units in the region.
A segment of the Kabul-Kandahar road in Zabul province near the town of Shajoy (Shah Juy on the map, .PDF file) is known as Ambush Alley. The Taliban have been focusing their efforts on this stretch of road, and it provides perfect cover for ambushes due to the low rolling hillsides closely situated next to the road. A burned out police outpost and several destroyed buses are visible along Ambush Alley, and several police outposts have been attacked over the past few months.
Knowing the dangers involved in the drive from Kabul to Qalat, Tim decided to take the risk and drive down in a convoy of one vehicle. He needed to get his personnel to Qalat and had intended to drive down in a convoy last week, but problems occurred and the personnel was not in country for the move. Driving in a single vehicle gave us the advantage of anonymity, as large convoys are easily spotted and make for large targets. But driving alone entails the risk of not having backup in case of attack.
We armed ourselves with automatic weapons and chose the armored 4×4 Toyota pickup with red markings. The Toyota pickups are virtually everywhere in the Middle East and Central Asia, and because of this provides a level of camouflage. Haji, our Afghani driver who fought the Soviets with the Mujahideen, weaved through the rough rodes and chaotic early morning traffic in Kabul, then gunned it on the open road to Qalat. Haji is unmatched in his mastery of the Afghan roads, passing convoys of jingle trucks, farming vehicles, taxis, military convoys and local traffic. The 300 mile drive to Qalat took less than four hours, not bad on a two lane highway that weaves through mountains and towns. Along the road we passed the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ghazni, several Afghan National Army bases and numerous police outposts and checkpoints. We also encountered several U.S. Army and Afghan National Army patrols. Tim noted this is a marked increase in a security presence over the past few months.
The drive to Qalat was uneventful, save the appearance of a suspicious red land cruiser parked on the side of the road with a man outside carrying a weapon, accompanied by another man with a weapon on a motorcycle. Haji indicated these were Taliban, and Tim agreed. We passed without incident. After dropping off the passenger at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Qalat, we turned around and headed back to Kabul. Here’s where things got a little interesting.
As we arrived near the town of Shajoy, we encountered four armed men on motorcycles. Haji immediately identified them as Taliban, and Tim thought so as well. While they were wearing olive uniforms with Afghan National Police patches on the sleeve, Tim noted their weapons and motorcycles were not police issue. The armed motorcyclists weaved in and out of traffic. Haji blew past the bikers and further up the road we encountered a U.S. Army patrol of four Hummers on the side of the road. We pulled over, Tim explained what we saw to the Army captain, and the four bikers passed us by as we sat on the side of the road. The captain ordered his soldiers to mount up.
We followed the Army patrol and quickly caught up with the bikers (they were driving low powered dirt bikes). The bikers intermingled with the Army patrol without incident, and eventually pulled off the road. The encounter highlights the often murky nature of the war in Afghanistan. While we and the Army captain suspected the motorcyclists were Taliban, without provocation or a method to communicate on the fly to confirm their identity, the troops had to let them go. The soldiers chose to follow the rules of engagement. Opening fire on the bikers without positive identification could have caused the deaths of Afghan police and created animosity between the Afghan and Coalition security forces. Allowing potential Taliban to flee may allow them to kill Afghan civilians or Coalition security forces in the future. Welcome to the wild, wild west of eastern Afghanistan.