Around Afghanistan in 80 bumpy hours
An Afghan road trip offers plenty of opportunities to meet with locals, but don't expect paved highways
Our journey began at dawn in Kabul as we broke through the bustle of kebab carts and headed past farmers wearing plexiglass face shields, probing the parched earth for land mines.
We rode north toward the Panjshir Valley and passed truckloads of crated machine guns and rockets used to conquer the former ruling Taliban only last November. Mohammed Fahim, defense minister under the new central government, has ordered the country's best guns returned to the valley to keep them out of the hands of his political rival, President Hamid Karzai.
Before long, our Landcruiser was bouncing through immense potholes and over unpaved stretches of highway. Russian tank treads from previous conflicts and rebel land mines have laid waste to Afghanistan's major roads.
Nine months since the Bonn peace process, which promised the country "reconstruction" after the fall of the Taliban, the country's main thoroughfares have not seen a single strip of new pavement. What remains of Afghanistan's major highways would make our one-week circuit of the country require more than 80 hours behind the wheel.
From Kabul it took us until sundown to negotiate the two-mile-high passes through the Hindu Kush mountain range and reach Shibergan, the redoubt of Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. His men stand accused by human rights groups of allowing hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners of war to suffocate in metal shipping containers, but few here take the charges seriously.
The general's smiling lieutenants asked us to drop by in the morning to have a swim in their leader's new indoor pool, the only one in Afghanistan. But we did not have time to spare.
We left and, several hours later, found a roadside inn where dozens of tribesmen were gathered for the screening of an Indian melodrama. As we continued southwest, the devastation of the country's ongoing drought became more apparent. Nomadic families roamed on camelback from one dried-up riverbed to the next in search of water.
On our fourth day, we made time to stop for a feast of Persian delights and a bit of carpet shopping in Herat, the ancient city of verdant gardens. Next, we drove toward Delaram, a desert oasis between Herat and Kandahar. The truck stop where we put up for the evening was run by a wealthy heroin-smuggling family whose members boasted that business could not have been better despite a much-touted government "crackdown."
Two days later, at dawn, we left for Kandahar, the nexus of the Pashtun heartland and the former home of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As we arrived in town, a team of US Special Forces, cultivating bushy brown beards, patrolled the streets. The strapping fighters mingled with shop-owners, but never took their fingers off the trigger.
On a side street, we discovered a fruit-preserves factory once run by Al Qaeda. Plastered on the doors of Noor Ali's vegetable stand were photographs of the proprietor's favorite Al Qaeda fighters, posing in uniforms with heavy machineguns on their laps.
Mr. Ali said that Al Qaeda fighters were "like my own brothers, and I would still die for them." As he spoke, Capt. Ali Gul, an Army officer in the new regime, walked in to buy fruit, but first landed the shop owner a verbal slap in the face. "Those stupid enough to be their friends were the only ones fooled!" he said. "Those backwards religious zealots were the ones who supported Al Qaeda with shelter and even handed over our military bases to them everything we had in this poor country."
But such anti-Al Qaeda sentiments are rare in Kandahar. Unemployed residents, meeting to plan a protest against government officials who laid them off a week earlier, told us that they were prepared to go to the Pakistani border and receive arms from Al Qaeda to fight the Americans if Mr. Karzai did not soon live up to his promises to create jobs and rebuild the economy. "Soon we will all be Al Qaeda again," said Saleh Mohamad, who fidgeted with his long beard. "They won't be able to stop us next time."
Two days later, we left for Kabul at 3:30 a.m. At 5 p.m. we finally hit real pavement, a 40-mile stretch of road built by the Taliban regime, their only contribution to highway development.
At the gates of Kabul, several soldiers from the US-friendly Northern Alliance stopped our driver and chided him for having an "infidel" American on board.
We passed into Kabul as the sun cast a rosy pall over the dusty streets. We were greeted with news that couldn't have been more encouraging after a back-jarring week.
President Bush had just spoken on the phone with Hamid Karzai and promised that the United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia would give Afghanistan $180 million to rebuild the 600-mile stretch of road we had driven from Herat to Kandahar.