Yesterday 27 broken bodies crammed the crevices of the Kabul Gorge. Today the bodies were gone. A detachment of Afghan soldiers stood by with guns at the ready. If I squinted and focused on a rock outcrop one thousand feet below, I could faintly see the burnt-out shell of a bus. I heard the raspy voice of the foreman barking out orders rapid fire in Pashto as a work crew strained to salvage a prize from the crash site. Laboriously, the bus’s engine, dangling at the end of long ropes, inched up the steep wall of the gorge. Had it been a missile strike? Collateral damage in the war against Osama Bin Laden?
No, it was a highway accident in 1974. Then, as now, the five deadly sins of the Afghan road are bald tires, slick surfaces, ancient cars, hashish, and the fatalism of men who believe their lives are in God’s hands.
Despite the mayhem on the roads, the 1970s were good times for Afghanistan. Tourists flooded the country to savor its rich history and stunning vistas and to shop. Lacquered wood lamp stools, gem-studded daggers, turban silks, lapis lazuli bracelets, Pathan hats, Herat blue glass, and tribal silver jewelry were all the rage.
Place names now familiar in the war against the Taliban—Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Qandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad—were tourist destinations. Did you want to buy an antique Kunduz carpet? Fine. But you had better make sure that the carpet hadn’t been delivered new from the factory yesterday and placed on the roadway for a half day of instant aging by cars and trucks.
The hippie route from Turkey through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India was thriving. After leaving Iran’s holy city of Meshed, one crossed into Afghanistan at Islam Qala. Seventy-five miles more and one came to Herat, once familiar to Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Spending the night at Herat was sensible because Kabul was a further 658 miles, a punishing all-day drive.
I came to Kabul from the other direction, the east. From 1974 to 1978, I worked as the lawyer for USAID, the foreign aid-dispensing arm of the U.S. government, and lived in Islamabad, Pakistan. I often drove the 300 miles to Kabul on business, usually on Friday, the Muslim prayer day, when the Grand Trunk Road would be free of the two-axle, six-wheel, top-heavy Bedford trucks that bulled ahead in the center of the road until the other driver lost his nerve and pulled over. On Friday, all one had to watch out for were donkey carts, pedestrians, and the odd Mercedes that took advantage of an empty road to try to break the sound barrier.
Islamabad to Peshawar was 100 miles. After Peshawar, on the flat, dusty, deserted plain where refugee camps now stretch for miles, the Khyber Pass loomed, with tank traps left over from World War II, regimental insignia carved on rock walls, and massive Shagai Fort, “Home of the Khyber Rifles.” At the border town of Torkham backpackers from Australia met up with Britons and Americans going out to India and Nepal. Waiting for the customs office to reopen, I drank tea on the balcony of a chaikhana and ruefully contemplated the flea-bitten Torkham Hotel where I would spend the night if the border formalities were not completed by nightfall.
En route to Kabul—surrounded by Pashtun children, North West Frontier Province near Peshawar, 1975
I also watched an endless parade of men and boys roll truck tires and oil drums into Pakistan and carry huge tins of ghee (clarified butter) and bolts of cloth into Afghanistan. The going rate for hashish was 20 rupees, or 2 dollars, a brick. Pakistani and Afghani men wore the same shalwar-kameez—baggy trousers with a draw-string waist and a long loose shirt down to the knees. But Afghani women didn’t wear the dupatta or head scarf one saw in Pakistan but a full length burqa, with a fabric mesh peephole.
Over the border, the parched Khyber gave way to the snow-capped Hindu Kush. The only town of note between the border and Kabul was Jalalabad. When I see photographs of war-wrecked Jalalabad of today, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s the same graceful city where I used to stop for kebab, nan, and tea en route to Kabul. This was a city of gardens and tree-lined streets. Each spring Jalalabad hosted a mushaira, a poets competition to see who could produce the perfect ode to the beauty, aroma, and captivating quality of one of Jalalabad’s great treasures, the orange blossom.
The Afghan kings escaped the bitter cold of Kabul by spending their winters in Jalalabad. King Amanullah abolished the veil, sent girls to school, and curbed the power of the mullahs, but in 1928 Shinwari tribesmen revolted and burned his palace in downtown Jalalabad. Amanullah spent his last 33 years in exile in Rome, much as ex-king Zahir Shah was doing until the necessity to find an alternative to the Taliban rescued him from obscurity.
When the weather was nice, I ate lunch in a pleasant garden near Amanullah’s burnt-out palace, before resuming my trip. Afghanistan was so tranquil in the 1970s I never guessed that a new round of murder and mayhem was just around the corner. To me, Amanullah’s palace was just a nice picnic spot, not a harbinger of things to come.
A further 50 miles of driving brought me to the Sarobi Reservoir and the first glimpse of green since Jalalabad. Then the road played leapfrog with the Kabul River, leading to the terrifying ascent up through the Kabul Gorge. At the top of the gorge the road pushed straight toward the heart of the capital, passing by the military academy, a woolen factory, a raisin factory, and a winery.
When arriving in Kabul, backpackers and hippies headed straight for Chicken Street with its shops, kebab stalls, and low-priced hotels while the expense account crowd motored up to the Intercontinental, on a hill high above the city. Mostly I stayed at the USAID staff house, a white stucco bungalow on a quiet residential street that was the American community’s weekend retreat, family restaurant, and singles bar rolled into one.
Peace Corps volunteers on a break from the village grind shot pool with construction foremen in from Kandahar while diplomats at the American Embassy came straight from work, loosened their tie, and ate dinner with the wife and kids.
Waiting for permission to leave Pakistan in 1975
On one visit to Kabul just before Christmas, I opted for some extra warmth and checked into the Intercontinental. In the morning I opened the heavy curtains in my room to see a white blur, snow so heavy it obliterated the panoramic view of the day before.
Kabul’s water supply came from snowmelt, and I never heard an Afghan complain about the snow. One evening the diplomatic corps put on Handel’s Messiah in the Grand Ballroom of the Intercontinental. Hearing a 50-voice choir sing the Hallelujah Chorus in Kabul was remarkable even without an orchestra, a bass soloist, and most melodic duets.
After the Taliban banned wedding parties and outlawed television as “idolatry,” harried Intercontinental management hauled television sets out of guest rooms and only allowed wedding celebrations in halls where the male and female guests could be segregated. The bullet-scarred hotel was rumored to be a popular Osama bin Laden hangout. An Oct. 24 Washington Post article theorized Osama was in the midst of a motorcade of seven identical black Mitsubishi jeeps with tinted windows and pickup trucks full of armed men that sped up towards the hotel two days before the U.S. air strikes began.
Afghanistan started to unravel with the overthrow of King Zahir Shah by his brother-in-law General Mohammed Daoud in 1973. Daoud had been the real power behind the throne so the coup didn’t seem a big deal at the time. But it set in motion a downward spiral of events. Five years later Daoud was toppled by pro-Soviet leftists and murdered. I saw the carnage just after the coup. The ex-royal palace looked like a cheese replica of a Bavarian castle, with a bite taken out of the tower by a mouse.
In February 1979 the American Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs was kidnapped and murdered. And later in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, sparking a 10-year resistance movement. The overland travel route to India and Nepal slammed shut, a casualty not only of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and civil strife in Eastern Turkey.
All of the delights of Afghanistan are gone—the funky Versailles-like palaces at Darulaman, priceless Buddhist art in the Kabul Museum, the Paghman arc de triomphe, shopping for blue-glazed pottery at Istalif, and driving through the Salang Tunnel at 11,000 feet and picnicking in mulberry groves on the Khinjan River. In the 1980s Afghan mujahaddin ambushed Soviet tank columns in the tunnel, incinerating thousands, and the Khinjan River ran red with blood.
Whatever treasures in the Kabul Museum that were not destroyed in the fighting that wracked Kabul in 1993 were plundered and sold abroad to collectors and profiteers. Then in March 2001 after an edict by Mullah Omar the Taliban systematically destroyed all pre-Islamic statuary including the world’s largest standing Buddha at Bamiyan.
One day long ago, I arrived at the Afghan border on foot. No taxis or buses were around, but a man named Abdul agreed to drive me to Kabul for 30 dollars in his yellow Mazda with a black racing stripe on the side. The car looked marvelous, but the engine knocked and the chassis shuddered. Every few miles Abdul raced down to the Kabul River to fill jerry cans of water to cool the radiator. Somehow, the Mazda climbed the Kabul Gorge, but then the engine sputtered and died. We were out of gas.
Abdul waved down three cars in a row. All stopped, but only the last driver had enough gas in his tank to siphon. He put a rubber tube in his tank, sucked gas till it ran down his chin, got the siphon working, and then transferred five liters worth of gas to Abdul’s tank. This act of kindness toward strangers is what I remember best about Afghanistan.