Postcards From Afghanistan
ConvergEx's Nick Colas undertook a recent trip to Afghanistan. As he notes, the country has a long way to go to reestablish a viable economy and political stability, but he saw enough to be optimistic on both counts. Security around the capital is tight, and Afghan troops look professional and disciplined. There is ample food on display in countless local grocery stands. Girls go to school throughout the city, although women are a less common sight on the streets. Scarcity makes for odd economic outcomes – the only passenger car you’ll see is a Toyota Corolla, imported from different countries. No Afghan will be surprised that you are a tourist in their country – they are still very proud of its history and resilience. Westerners there will assume you are “On business.” Here are seven “Postcards from Kabul” with his last observations from this trip.
Via Nick Colas, ConvergEx,
I called my mom for Mother’s Day on Saturday from the Istanbul Airport. “I didn’t want you to worry, but I have been in Afghanistan for the past week. Everything’s fine and I am out of the country now. Happy Mother’s Day!” There was a pause on the line, longer than the satellite connection would explain. “Oh… I see. All right. Thank you for not telling me before you went.” In truth, Mom has no one to blame but herself, and she knew that. My interest in travel and history is all from her. If I had told her about the trip before I left I was sure she would have tried to come along.
Now that I am back in the United States, I have a few final thoughts about my trip. If you missed last week’s note on the topic, allow me to explain. I have spent the last week in Kabul on a tourist visa. The idea behind the trip was to see first hand the museums and other points of cultural significance on offer in and around Afghanistan’s capital city. I also wanted to witness what was going on in the country and assess whatever outcomes America’s longest war might be visible to the naïve and naked eye.
Obviously, it would take far more than a week to have a truly informed point of view on Afghanistan’s economic and social progress. Traveling as a tourist, you merely get snippets and snapshots of reality. Those make for a coherent paragraph, not a book or feature article. So here are some “Postcards from Kabul” with my last observations from this trip.
Postcard #1 - On women and girls. Afghanistan is a profoundly conservative Islamic country, the only feature of society that truly binds the nation’s different ethnic groups together. To the western eye, the most visible sign of this strict adherence is the sight of women in public covered head to toe in blue burqas, even their eyes invisible behind a cloth grill. Not every female you encounter on the streets of Kabul wears it; some have tightly-fitted headscarves, although they tend to be younger. The other thing you’ll notice is that the ratio of men to women on the street looks to be about 10:1, even though decades of war means the population skews more female than most.
You do see quite a few girls going to and from school every day, clustered together in small lively groups. The signs around the educational institutions for them point to foreign influences – the Turk-Afghan school for girls near my hotel, for example, and the French-Afghan Lycee in Istalif, a small hillside town not far from the Bagram airbase north of Kabul. There were several articles in the local English-language newspaper last week about the trouble women still have in pursuing an education and finding work. My hotel, the Serena Kabul, certainly made a point to hire local women. Aside from that, however, I saw none.
Postcard #2 - On the Afghan Police/Military. Travel through Kabul and you will see a lot of military and police personnel on the street. They staff checkpoints and direct traffic. They patrol in green four-pickups. They guard the museums and public spaces. Overall, they look distinctly sharper and better disciplined than most of their third-world counterparts. Their weapons are bright and they carry them in the same manner as western armies. Their uniforms are pressed and clean.
My only significant encounter with an Afghan Army officer came at the Bala Hissar, an ancient fort in Kabul’s old city. It is widely discussed in the guidebooks, so I had my driver roll up to the checkpoint at its base to ask for admission. What the guidebooks fail to mention is that the Bala Hissar is an active military base. The confused soldier at the gate brought over his commanding officer, who sported a set of U.S. Special Forces style sunglasses. His handshake was rock hard, atypical for Afghan greetings where anything more than a gentle press is rude. I was clearly not his first American… There was no request for a “Special payment” to see the fort. Just a polite “Please leave. You can look at the fort from the outside.” Which is exactly what we did.
Postcard #3 - On traffic and roads. I don’t think Kabul has a single traffic light. At least I didn’t see one last week. There are traffic circles and occasional checkpoints and the odd stop sign. There is even a countdown clock – as if there were a traffic light – in front of the American University. But no light.
The roads alternate between smooth and virtually impassable, often within the same 100 yards. Most drivers navigate the streets at a suitably slow pace, simply because there is no room for error. People walk through moving traffic everywhere through the city. There is a system of unofficial minibuses that offer rides for a few pennies, picking up and dispensing customers through their sliding side doors without coming to a full stop.
Postcard #4 – The Mighty Toyota Corolla. After a few days in Kabul you come to realize that there is only one kind of passenger car on the city’s streets: the Corolla. As you look at them more closely you find that some still bear stickers from US and Canadian dealerships. Others, from Japan or Australia, are right hand drive. My unofficial tally puts Toyota Corolla passenger market share in Kabul at about 97%. This makes sense once you pull up to the car parts area of any local bazaar. There, mechanics have all the spare parts you’d need to create an entire Corolla from scratch. That limited – but incredibly deep – base of resources keeps an entire city mobile at the lowest possible cost.
For SUVs, the Land Cruiser is king, of course, but my driver informed me that the “FourRunner” is the car younger people favor. As for military applications, the Afghan Army uses 4 door Ford Ranger pickups with a machine gun mount where you might expect to see a light bar in the U.S. American military seem to favor Ford products as well, rolling in convoys of unmarked Expeditions. If you are a motorcycle fanatic, the most common offerings in Kabul are Iranian, available at the low price of $600 for a brand new bike. Three-up riding is common, so there are two sets of passenger foot pegs.
Postcard #5 – Shopping in Kabul. There are literally thousands of small shops on every major street in the city, offering everything from basic foodstuffs to clothing to building supplies. Many more merchants offer up their wares from wheelbarrows and animal-drawn carts on the side of the road. Food seems in good supply in the capital city – I saw everything from fresh cucumbers to rhubarb to radishes on offer. Meat lovers need to be careful, however. Animals are grazed in the trash heaps around the city and freshly slaughtered fare hangs outside on hooks awaiting purchase. To the delight of the local flies, if not to the end consumer.
Postcard #6 – You Meet the Nicest People… Sort of. While haggling over some pottery in a small village about 20 miles outside Kabul, a white bearded man in local dress walked up and said “You sound like we’re from the same part of the world.” He looked for all the world like a Pashtun tribesman, but he spoke with a northern Midwest accent. I said “Hi, my name is Nick.” I think he said his name was Hal. He said he came up to the village for relaxation and after many years in the region he was very comfortable. After a brief chat with the shopkeeper in what they said was perfect Pashto, he disappeared.
When I was checking in for my flight back to Istanbul, the fellow in front of me was having trouble coming up with the $240 needed for his excess baggage. He was clearly a contractor – military haircut, desert boots, and powerful build. I put $100 on the counter for him, feeling that he would appreciate the help from a fellow American. He looked at me and said, “Thanks. Are you with ICG too?” I said no. He asked where I worked. Rather than give the ConvergEx story, I just said “Nowhere special. Don’t worry about it.” He fell quiet and did not address me again, even in the crowded waiting area after security.
Postcard #7 – Summing up. Afghanistan has been a front-page country for the West since before its modern borders were even established. It has famously been the “Graveyard of Empires” for first the British and later the Soviets. America and its coalition partners are set on avoiding that curse with their exit next year. Unlike their predecessors, however, this group has invested heavily in reconnecting Afghanistan to the rest of the world’s community of nations and building a secure and viable stand-alone country. For those who complain that the progress has been too slow, I think they underestimate what the term ‘Failed state” really means.
The people I met understand the future of their country is still tenuous, at best. Afghanistan is very poor and the Taliban are far from defeated. At the same time they appreciate that they now have a chance for a better future, if not for themselves then for their children. I truly hope they make it.