War's high tech beams into 12th century

Medieval ways rule in an Afghan village, except for the global positioning devices

We had come to the southern Afghan village of Maruf to witness an extraordinary period of change in Kandahar province, spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. Just 10 days before, religious clerics had ended their five-year-long revolution and handed power back to tribal elders here.

We had come for another reason, too: to see the cave complexes near Maruf that had been abandoned by Arabs and other non-Afghan Muslims, some of whom may have belonged to the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.

But here in Maruf, there was no sign that the American war had turned into what Pakistani religious leaders pronounced a "clash of civilizations" between America and the Islamic world. There was no hostility toward the five foreign journalists that had suddenly arrived in the isolated village - two Americans, two Pakistanis, and an Australian. If there was any clash at all, it had less to do with religion or politics, than with time itself.

Like much of Afghanistan, Maruf remains entrenched in the 12th century. The pace of life is slow. Time is measured by how fast crops grow, rather than modern concepts like hours and minutes. The silence is total. Even the goats herded into our compound each night were quiet.

There is no electricity or television, no computers, and certainly none of the services that a modern government usually provides: no schools, no medical clinics, no postal services. Like 89 percent of rural Afghans, the children here drink water that is often unsafe. It's one why reason almost a quarter of Afghan children die before age 5.

Men make all the decisions, greeting each other with hugs and sitting around kerosene lamps, talking for hours about roads and politics and animals and the weather. Leaders like Ahmedullah Alizai carry walkie-talkies or satellite phones provided by the US government, but for most village men, gossip is their only newspaper, their only contact with the outside world.

Women are a silent presence, cooking the food, raising the children, and performing chores out of sight. Children do chores as well, and rarely have the chance to go to school. Only 24 percent of the boys in rural Afghanistan ever learn to read; for rural girls, that number is only 3 percent.

Amid this 12th-century lifestyle, there are jarring reminders of the 21st. While we carry computers and satellite phones, the Alizai commanders have the best equipment of all. Commander Rahmatullah, leader of our security escort, carries an Iridium satellite phone that he says was provided by "the Americans."

Ahmedullah Alizai, the Alizai tribe chief, also carries a satellite phone, with a GPS locator. And each Alizai truck has a magnetic sticker provided by "the Americans." The Alizais say they were told that the stickers signal to US jets that a vehicle belongs to "friendly" Afghans and not fleeing Taliban or Al Qaeda members.

We ask our host, Ahmedullah, about these mysterious providers of high-tech gadgetry. How did "the Americans" contact the Alizais?

"I talked with friends who were close to the US consulate in Karachi [Pakistan]," he says. "I told them about the situation in Maruf and how we were going to fight against the terrorists and the cave complexes here."

Were they US special forces or CIA? Were they from the State Department? "No." Were they from the US government? "No, they were volunteers," he says, beginning to grow irritated. "Look, who told you we talked with the Americans? I came here to fight against the terrorists, so those who want to join the fight, they gave these tapes to us to put on our vehicles."

Even with the magnetic stickers, we keep an eye on the skies, searching for the vapor trails of jets overhead.

"Don't worry about the planes," says Salim Alizai, a Pakistani lawyer and senior Alizai member. "They are searching for the [Al Qaeda] camps and the caves, and they are watching the borders. If you have the magnetic tape, you are fine. Even some of our troops put the tape on their shoulders, and at night, the planes can see them from up in the skies."

All through the war, Afghans have marveled at the accuracy and precision of American and British airstrikes. During the war of the 1980s, Soviet planes would carpet bomb villages and rebels alike, and dump landmines by air over vast swaths of territory that they couldn't take by conventional means. In the current air war, the bombs have been fewer and more accurate, though not without mistakes.

This district has seen very little bombing, however. In October, American intelligence officials had narrowed down bin Laden's whereabouts to some fives caves in Kandahar Province, including Maruf and a series of caves a few hours drive away in Argestan.

But Alizai tribe members say there was no need to call in US airstrikes, since they managed to drive out Al Qaeda and the Taliban through a mixture of persuasion and fighting.

"My people, my tribe, they stood up against Al Qaeda," says Ahmedullah, with a touch of pride. "We tightened the noose on them, and we brought them to a position where, out of hunger and other difficulties, they had to quit this area."

As he leaves to review his 200 armed men, the ancient pace of village life reasserts itself. A crowd of children huddles at the gate of a mud-walled compound to gawk at the foreigners, and a herd of goats wanders by.

Part 2 in a series. Yesterday: crossing the porous Pakistan-Afghan border.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.