Treading Cautiously through Kabul

For a year or so I’d been watching their gruesome beheading videos online with morbid curiosity, these poor souls caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been me. Having spent time in Syria and Iraq just prior to their black-flagged, bloody colonisers bulldozed in, I often wondered if Afghanistan would be next. Then on an overcast April morning outside a busy bank in Jalalabad, a suicide bomber detonated killing 35.

IS had officially arrived. Three days later I was in Kabul.

Afghanistan is synonymous with so much that’s wrong with the world: war, women’s rights (or lack of), poverty, opium production and severe corruption. The list plumbs a veritable depth of despair. My first contact with the country began at its Kuala Lumpur embassy in a stale old room furnished with two worn-out leather sofas and a decaying, smoke-stained picture of some Hindu-Kush river that timidly suggested: Visit Afghanistan.

Looking over Kabul, Afghanistan

I had all the correct paperwork for my visa but within two minutes of entering the room, a moustached Afghan consular official was shaking me down for a $50 bribe on top of the normal $50 fee. The poppy seed doesn’t fall far from the flower.

“Where is your government letter of approval? You cannot get the visa without this,” he said, scratching his stubbly chin with yellowed fingers.

“I phoned this office three times to check, double and triple check the documents you wanted, why didn’t you tell me this before?” We both knew what was happening, we just didn’t call it what it was: a big, fat, stinking bribe.

“There must be something we can do, sir, please.”

He disappeared into a back-office and returned saying it had magically been approved, just as soon as I pay the new fee - $100.

Entering the lion’s den

Traversing Hamid Karzai International airport was chaos. Note the usual suspects: long lines at immigration, needless officialdom, well connected queue-jumpers, crying babies and broken air conditioning.  Once through I had been promised to find a man standing in the throng of families waiting outside with my name on a card - this was very important for my peace-of-mind and security. Of course, he wasn’t there.

There was no Wi-Fi or pay-phone outside and my SIM card refused to work. To add to the tension, all the reassuring white faces from the flight had disappeared with their security details. Even the Afghans had gone, leaving me alone outside the airport, lost and incommunicado.

The late afternoon sun was warm, and under pressure, burdened with baggage and escalating mild panic, one tends to sweat a little. Out of the blue I saw a face I recognised coming towards me from the car-park, but how could this be? I didn’t know anybody here. It was the BBC’s man in Kabul, Shazed Jillani, whom I’d seen on TV reporting the Jalalabad bombing just days ago, catching a flight upcountry. 

Meeting Shazed Jillani in Afghanistan

“What agency do you work for?” he asked. 

When I told him I was just a tourist his jaw nearly hit the asphalt. “Well, good luck, and stay safe!”

After an anxious hour of brow-wiping and fruitless waiting, I entered the Emirates Cargo office in the waiting hall and explained myself to two bemused employees whilst offering some nice Belgian chocolates I’d gotten off the flight. It worked. One lent me his mobile to call my guide and within 30 minutes, vamoose! I was in a white Chinese sedan racing through the dusty car-choked streets of Kabul.

Finding a sanctuary and guide

Choosing a safe place to sleep in Kabul can be tricky. The many guesthouses that accommodate peacekeepers and NGOs have been attacked with almost as much frequency as top-end hotels. The Taliban typically hit soft targets with suicide bombers first, followed by a marauding gun attack in which foreigners are invariably the target. So I was oddly relieved to learn I’d be staying in a room in the Iraqi embassy compound of all places – surely pretty far down the terrorists’ list.

My young guide was a short, softly spoken 24-year-old Hazara man called Akbar. He wore a khaki jacket with a blue scarf and army-green trousers. He shaved his beard and didn’t wear the local pakol, the pushtun cap many Afghan men wear, so his thick black hair and boyish smile gave him a kind of pop-star look.

“There are many bad guys here, mostly Taliban and sometimes they attack cars like ours,” he volunteered as we left the sanctuary of the compound for the erratic, slow moving afternoon traffic. “A foreigner was stabbed sitting in the backseat of a car, much like you are now. He died later. And another person working for the New York Times was stabbed in the head. He died too. This was all Taliban.”

“Are there Taliban guys in Kabul?” I asked, peering sheepishly out the window at a sea of unfamiliar eyes and beards.

“Of course, they are everywhere, at all levels. You can see them outside now, they have long beards, usually. I get harassed because of my job, they even threatened to kill me.”

“Why?”

“Because of the foreigners. My job is to guide foreigners and show them my culture, my country, but the Taliban don't want you here. They are very bad for business. They even threatened my brother. But I like my job and I think it’s important that foreigners come and try to understand that not all Afghans are Taliban. We have many more good people that you don’t see on the news.” I felt terrified, humbled and impressed all at once.

Our white sedan crawled along medieval-looking streets, past raw sewerage, open-air fruit and vegetable stalls, skinned and hanging animal carcasses, headless chickens; their blood collected in stagnant pools along the pot-holed road.

“You can’t walk the streets here, it’s too dangerous,” Akbar said.

“What about expats, don’t you see them out and about?”

“No, not walking around. It’s not safe. But at nighttime they like to hang out in restaurants or in private garden parties.” In 2014, a popular Lebanese restaurant was bombed, then Taliban gunmen attacked, killing 21, mostly foreigners. We drove past what remains of Taverna Du Liban in the up-market Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, now just an empty villa. It’s impossible not to imagine the events of that night, just as it is for tourists at ground zero in New York not to look up in the air and envisage people jumping from towers.

I was about to ask Akbar about IS in Afghanistan when we pulled over to the side of the road and he announced we would be getting out. A jolt of adrenaline surged from my head to my feet. This was my first walkabout on the streets of Kabul, and unlike most foreigners here, I didn’t come with an armed escort.

Getting out and about in Kabul

We were outside the Gardens of Babur, unfortunately closed to us for ‘family day’. Akbar negotiated with the gatekeeper while I walked in circles on the pavement next to an ice-cream seller, trying to feel normal. Hoards of long-bearded men in traditional Pashtun attire (loosely-fitted shalwar kameezes and dark waistcoats) glided by, plowing deep, indecipherable stares towards me. I felt exposed in my jeans and T-shirt. Akbar, to my relief, returned after paying some backsheesh which magically opened the gates to these ancient gardens. Once again, a little money greased the way.

Babur was an Uzbek conqueror of the 16th century who spread the Mughal dynasty from Central Asia down to India. He became its first emperor and now his body lies in a modest marble tomb sitting atop the stepped gardens.

On the way up, groups of chatty women in full length blue burqas picnicked under orchards while boys ran around playing tag between maple trees. Compared to the relative chaos beyond the perimeter walls, this was a sanctuary of peace. “Just don’t take pictures of the women!” Akbar kept reminding me. Even though the surroundings were tranquil enough, I still felt jumpy and on edge.

Women in Burkas in Afghanistan

Back outside the gardens, while waiting for our driver to return, I heard a loud bang which startled me. It was the ice-cream seller.  As I turned to see what was happening, he lunged at me, shouting something unintelligible so I quickly stepped back allowing him space to land on his feet. Immediately a small crowd of men gathered around separating us, while Akbar, totally unphased, just assessed the situation in a word, ‘migraine’.  Perhaps migraineis Kabul-code for not the full shilling, in which case I would entirely agree. The seller was calmed down and spirited back to his ice-cream station when our sedan appeared. I was keen to jump in and get going.

The advance of IS

According to the Telegraph, in September 2014, IS posted leaflets in Peshwar, Pakistan and in Afghan refugee camps, along with black flags proclaiming their ‘intention to bring (the) barbaric form of Islam to Pakistan and Afghanistan’.

By February 2015 there were increasing reports of Taliban members defecting to IS, black flags being flown in Helmand and then a NATO airstrike which killed a militant who had recently sworn allegiance to the caliphate. Clearly something was happening, so as we drove down the long Chilsitun Road, I asked Akbar what he thought about the threat from IS.

“IS!” he scoffed with a grin. “We have a powerful army and we are not afraid about them and we will make sure that they cannot do anything in Afghanistan, inshallah.”

As American and NATO troops pull out of the country, this very army will be tested to its limits by both IS and the Taliban.

A metaphor for Afghanistan

At the end of Chilsitun Road you find two notable structures: the new Afghan parliament building and the much more impressive, though ruined, Darulaman Palace sitting on a dusty hilltop. It’s almost 100 years old – lucky to still be standing given that it has been shelled, set fire to and shot at repeatedly by communists, mujahedeen and Taliban fighters over the decades. There’s not a square meter of this structure that hasn't been riddled with bullets or deformed by rockets. And yet its symmetrical, neoclassical beauty is, with a generous dose of imagination, still there to appreciate.

The Darulman Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan

As the sun dipped behind the mountains which encircle Kabul, local men played football on the valley flats and groups of boys huddled in long shadows behind the palace playing with cigarettes. Inside the ruin, nature had begun its insidious regrowth, slowly giving life to the deserted building. Grass and young trees sprouted in the courtyard, singing birds danced and corkscrewed around the windowless rooms and corridors, perching for breath on the gaping puncture wounds of an RPG or bullet hole. A slightly askew, lonesome flag pole held aloft a sad looking green, red and black national flag which drooped in the windless calm of the courtyard. The sad beauty of this palace was a metaphor for the whole country.

Uncovering some Afghan culture

Darkness fell quickly as we were driving back to the Iraqi embassy compound when Akbar pointed out Osama Bin Laden’s old home, a modest two-storey office block with a garage which is now painted orange with a TNT Shipping logo above. “Be careful taking photos here.”

“Why?” 

“Because across the street here, this is the Afghan Intelligence building.”

Surprised, I looked across and saw the barbed wire, high walls and guard towers of the HQ. It seemed like his other compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, which was located just 1km from the Pakistan Military Academy (the British equivalent of Sandhurst). No wonder the Americans couldn't find him for so long, the world’s most wanted terrorist had (with their tacit blessing) been living right under the noses of both Afghan and Pakistani intelligence.

Akbar took me to a local kebab restaurant for dinner. I began to feel relaxed around him, trusting him to walk me down dimly lit streets, stopping to chat to his friends, shake a few hands and exchange names.  Everyone I met was very friendly and welcoming. We found a nondescript restaurant down one street which from the outside was just a wall with an entrance, but on entering, were presented with a pretty garden of cosy, raised wooden bungalows in which to sit, eat and smoke shisha.

Eating out in a restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan

“I have seven guns at home,” Akbar volunteered.

“Why do you need seven?”

“This is Afghan culture. A man must have a gun and the bigger or more expensive your gun, the more status you have. In my village in the north, there are no roads and no police. If I want to go see my brother I must walk across the land. Who is going to protect me from bandits? Who will protect my wife and child? Nobody. That’s why I need guns.”

“I didn’t know you were married! What is her name? What does she do?” I asked chattily, inadvertently digging myself into a huge cultural faux pas.

“Andy, in Afghan culture, you don’t talk about my wife. It’s very bad.”

I apologised several times but it was unnecessary as Akbar was worldly-wise, he’d met and guided enough foreigners before to know that I didn't mean to offend.

Next morning, we drove up to the top of TV Hill, a local favourite, to catch the incredible view of Kabul and its stunning snow-capped mountains. The hum of invisible high-altitude drones whirred constantly, the sky was blue and the air clear all the way to the mountains. These natural walls appear like a great barrier, separating the relative security of the capital from the nomadic wild-west of the provinces where bandits and terrorists roam freely and plot attacks. Up here you see that Kabul is but a shark-cage in the ocean and there are buckets of chum being thrown in the water all around you.

Frequently, American Black Hawk helicopters ferrying VIPs rose from the airport, turned and sped across the city only to land in the nearby American Embassy compound. “It’s too dangerous for them to travel by road here, especially if they get stuck in traffic,” Akbar said. “I don’t know what is more dangerous here: the traffic or the terrorists!”

Black Hawk helicopters, Afghanistan

The future for Afghanistan

So what of the future for Afghanistan? From driving around and talking with Akbar it seemed as though IS wasn’t really a concern, rather, the rebuilding of his country, the pullout of foreign troops and the instability that would follow worried Akbar. This famously unconquerable, uncolonisable country had outlasted so many armies that came before, it seemed likely that the Taliban would resurge and leave no room for IS.

“I’m hopeful about the future, you know that we will have a good country and a good future because we have everything. It’s a beautiful country.” It was hard not to agree with him as we stood on top of the highest vantage point with a beautiful 360 degree panorama over the 3500-year-old capital. For the first time on this trip, I almost felt relaxed.

We drove up Airport Road, arguably the most dangerous road in the world, passing the old Soviet fighter jet poised triumphantly at the entrance to the airfield. 

Soviet fighter jet outside Kabul airport

I stopped to take a photo but a soldier barked and chased me away towards the first of five layers of security checkpoints. I wished Akbar well and with a handshake and a tip, I was off. As we went our separate ways, he disappeared back into the traffic of this dusty, dangerous, volatile city and I headed to London knowing I’d just spent time with one of the bravest men I’ll ever meet.

Too close for comfort

When I left Kabul at the end of April, the annual summer bombing campaign was just beginning. Within weeks, the Taliban had bombed 2 government buses, the Justice Ministry and a hotel, even the new parliament building was attacked on live TV, all killing dozens. But most poignantly for me, a suicide bomber detonated outside the entrance to the airport where I said goodbye to Akbar, killing two teenage  Afghan girls and one British citizen.

Exactly a month later, I was living in Saudi Arabia, my adventures in Kabul just a memory. I was watching TV, killing time as it was Friday prayers outside in Dammam city, when a fleet of ambulances sped past my hotel. IS had just bombed a mosque one mile away, killing four.

Then in August I was working in the small, remote desert town of Abqaiq when a 19 year old IS gunman (working for the same company as me no less) burst into the police station and shot dead an officer before escaping by car. After a brief chase, he too was killed.

What began as an innocent little adventure on the trail of IS had turned on its head and I soon found myself living uncomfortably close to the centre of my story.