Letters from Afghanistan: installment #9

What Afghanistan could be; fragile though it is

by Connor O’Steen

On the road to Kunduz, as we came out of the mountains and onto the flat plateau that characterizes so much of northern Afghanistan, I was struck with a thought. If I hadn’t known where I was, this could’ve been almost any part of rural America. The farmland and the trees, the terraced hills, the smooth paved road…we could’ve been driving through Iowa or Nebraska. As we entered Kunduz that feeling of strangeness persisted. There was a clean full smell of water and agriculture, there was a breeze but the air wasn’t full of dust. Removed from the road and shaded by trees, boys in full uniform played soccer in the evening sun.

Kunduz is peaceful and prosperous; a far cry from the chaos and desperation that often characterize Kabul. Even with its being Ramadan, people were friendly and helpful. When we went to the bazaar (after outlasting the inevitable swarm of beggars) the shopkeepers playfully told us outrageous prices, and we bartered them down to something reasonable using a mixture of Dari and English. The entire market area is enormous, ranging from clothes and food to blacksmiths, motorcycle shops, and animal sellers. We covered only a small part of it.

Marnie (PARSA’s director) and I were in Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif on consulting and training work for Roshan, the first and largest telecom company in Afghanistan. The specifics of the job would probably interest only the consultants among you, but the general problem at Roshan is that, before a few years ago, it had virtually no competition, and now Afghanistan is swamped in small, ambitious telecom firms looking to grab the market. To compensate for this, senior management has created ambitious targets for growth without providing any sense of how this growth can be accomplished, which in turn has left the regional offices confused and demoralized by their inability to meet sales numbers.

Which is where Marnie comes in with training.

We were only in Kunduz for two days, and most of our time was taken up in meetings, so we didn’t have much time to see the town. I’d like to go back, maybe next year, and see more of the area. Kunduz gives the tantalizing image of what an Afghanistan at peace can look like: tree lined streets, the smell of pastures and farmland, happy people, decorated horses. Of course it would be a mistake not to realize that it’s all reversible. Kunduz was the northern capital of the Taliban when they made their final push for Mazar, and when the US showed up, many just shaved their beards and melted into the surrounding countryside. The presence of Taliban and ex-Taliban elements around the city is a huge problem. The resurgence of the Taliban in the south and east can easily revive these elements in the north, and although we had no problems on the main road to Kunduz, we were told very explicitly by people there that we would not be safe on the local roads. All this peace, the boys playing soccer under the trees, the vibrant bazaar, all of it can be lost again.

For being so close to Kunduz, Mazar is surprisingly different. The surrounding area is barren, with maybe enough scrubland to graze a small flock, but no land that can be farmed. The drive there showed no sights of interest, just some low mountains in the distance and a line of metal electricity pylons stretching to the horizon. In some ways this seems to characterize Mazar itself. It is undoubtedly a big city, and a prosperous one because of all the Central Asian imports it taxes, but it still seemed strangely empty. There were plenty of shops and people, but it lacked the bustling street life of Kabul and the natural beauty and open spaces of Kunduz. Mazar, despite its success, just didn’t feel cohesive to me. Granted, I was only there four days which is hardly enough time to really get to know a city, but I couldn’t find any sign that shook this hypothesis.

I did see the shrine of Hazrat Ali, which is by far the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen in person. Before I saw it, I had never really understood the mosaic tile decorations in Islamic art, but being there in person really brought the power of the design home. If you stare at the walls of intricately tessellated, interlocking blue, white, and yellow tiles long enough, your eyes start to unfocus on the pattern and it begins to fill your vision and ripples slightly in front of you. Looking at tessellations has always made me think of stretching out the repeating pattern to infinity, and I was again struck with that idea at the shrine. Perhaps that’s the point of the design. Anyway, it’s a very interesting place.

Marnie and I also took a daytrip and visited Balkh and then Aqshan. Balkh, for those of you interested in history, was the capital of the Bactrian Empire established by Alexander the Great and his generals at the far northeastern corner of his conquests. Much to my amazement, the Greek wall dating from about the 1st century BC is still standing around Balkh. There’s even a Greco-Bactrian dome (that I took a picture of) rising out of some farmland. The size and extent of the wall showed that Balkh used to be much bigger than it is now; there are pieces of the ancient city that are four or five miles from the new town square. Other than this, Balkh is a quiet, dusty town. We took a walk through the central park as everyone stared at us, and we saw a shrine something like Hazrat Ali, but smaller and in poorer condition.

Aqshan is further off the beaten path, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that everyone (from venerable old men, to burqa-clad women, to tiny children) stopped dead in their tracks and stared at us. Every time we looked in a shop, we attracted a crowd. There wasn’t a whole lot to see there, but Marnie bought a couple of carpets at 10% of their asking price in Kabul, and I bought a pattu for an utterly reasonable amount. As we left, we also picked up a stray to bring back to Kabul, because the nineteen dogs and puppies we had already just weren’t enough.

[Ed. note:  Connor will soon be leaving Afghanistan, so this is either the last or next-to-last in this series. As always, you can read more about Connor O’Steen’s experiences in Afghanistan in his prior installments, linked below. Also, if you haven’t already, check out Russ Wellen’s take on educating engineers instead of terrorists.]

Installment 1: Dogs, generals and orphans

Installment 2: The hard-working orphans of Chaghcharan

Installment 3: Nasim’s story: making and unmaking terrorists

Installment 4:  Afghanistan, Ghowr Province: an opium village

Installment 5:  Replying to questions and local democracy in Jawzareen

Installment 6:  Having visions with Mohammed

Installment 7: Poisoning dogs; orphan teamwork; getting poisoned

Installment 8: Back from Bamyan; the sewing program; village dominance

What to do: blow myself up or study engineering at Caltech?


4 replies »

  1. I heard in the news today that it’s poppy planting season now and there’s a lot of debate about switching to wheat now that prices have gone up. Unfortunately, there’s no infrastructure for anything other than poppies. How’s that playing out where you are?

  2. Hmm, infrastructure is of course a huge problem with implementing that, but even with the spike in food prices I doubt wheat could match the prices farmers can get for opium. On top of this, Karzai’s government doesn’t want to risk alienating drug lords at a time when the Taliban are making a comeback. I don’t think the poppy business is going anywhere anytime soon.

    But all of this is armchair thinking, the truth is I don’t really see the opium trade in Kabul, except occasionally the non-ISAF armored convoys and gaudy million dollar houses that the kingpins drive around, and live in respectively. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s not there, but it’s not like people are selling this stuff on street corners.