Afghan odyssey: Few roads, many guns
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In Afghanistan, most roads are single track, and as we crept carefully along with a refurbished crankshaft (only one part left over), it became clear that this was no place to squeeze an American Humvee. Asphalt is a historical memory for all but a few urban dwellers. Every movement through inches-deep, talcum-powder fine dust stirs up clouds that seep into high-tech computers and satellite phones, and eat away at engines.Skip to next paragraph
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The sun set over the mountain crags like a gold doubloon, and darkness closed in. Our drivers wanted to stop. But after 15 hours on the road, our maps showed that we had hardly begun our journey. "Let's keep going," we urged our drivers. "No," they said, "too dangerous at night." But after a roadside meal of rice and onion, lit by a weak paraffin lamp, we climbed back into our vehicles.
But the drivers were right. We moved slowly along the road, but a rock wall on the left side for miles kept us precariously close to the sheer drop on the right, hundreds of yards down to the river. Near the crest of the first of many steep hills toward the mountain pass, the first jeep's wheels whistled, boulders flew, and the rear tires dug into a hole at the edge of the black abyss.
The drivers took an "I told you so" attitude, as we all climbed out, moving rocks by moonlight to fill gaps in the edge of the road. Finally the car was free, and the others followed. Five times that night we had to leave the cars and walk first to the crest of hills, rebuilding parts of the road - the last after the moon set.
Had US troops in Bosnia ever faced such dangerous roads? As I clung to one rock and surveyed the moonlit vastness beyond, I also thought about the manhunt mission. Hadn't indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic evaded capture for years, in the ethnic Serb half of Bosnia? Aren't they still at large in a place far smaller than Afghanistan, where US troops and a NATO force are in control?
Exhausted, we finally stopped and laid our sleeping bags down in the dusty road. Four hours later, dawn broke into a perfect blue sky, and our convoy rumbled to life. Before long, we were facing another hazard.
The turbulent, cobalt blue rivers lend a high-altitude Shangri-La feel of a Himalayan paradise. But the poetry fades when you try to cross them. Rounding a corner, we came across a truck contracted to the Red Cross, whose rear axles had fallen through a log-and-plank bridge, effectively blocking it. Men strained at a block-and-tackle attached to a rock wall. For days, they told us, they had been trying to raise the truck with stones and wood levers.
The load of cooking oil and food aid from Kabul was piled beside the road, tended by men wearing all manner of camouflage. Our convoy turned down to the waters' edge, and managed to cross at an old ford in the river, though the chilly water rose to the floorboards.
An hour later, we arrived at another collapsed bridge. It had been replaced with a narrower one, too small for most trucks. Our old Soviet four-wheel-drives had two inches to spare on each side, driving over rough planks with protruding nails, and stones placed on logs.
How different this was from the 1991 Gulf War battlefields, I thought, in which half a million US soldiers combined with a broad coalition pushed back the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was a set-piece battle on a desert as flat as a feudal game board. Classic strategy and tactics applied. The biggest problems were extreme heat and ubiquitous sand. But going after Saddam Hussein was not a declared mission.