Note from Baba Tim: This was a posted on my former blog, Free Range International (FRI) right before the 2008 Presidential Election. It seems like a good time to update it and repost.
One of the coolest things about living in Afghanistan is the sense of history which surrounds you as you trek off the beaten path. In rural districts, the people’s daily routine has altered little over the past few hundred years. It is easy to find the sites of historic battles or ancient ruins that few westerners have ever been able to see. I was invited to the remote village of Gandamak, which was the scene of a horrific battle in January 1842. I immediately accepted because I knew I’d be protected while I was there. The key to working alone in remote villages is trust. My hosts are heavily armed and, for the time being, accepting the central government. Regardless, I had no idea of the nature of their true loyalties. They invited me to visit their village, with an inherent promise of protection that is part of Pashtunwali. I may never know if these guys were then or are now Taliban, but I did know that I was under their protection and never questioned my personal safety.
Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers, their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth but are not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal. Unlike America’s economically disadvantaged, most health issues Afghans deal with are not caused by morbid obesity. Poor people here die daily of starvation. Many poor children die from exposure during the harsh winters. Unlike people in the west, death from everyday living is still an intimate part of the Afghans’ reality.
The road into Gandamak required us to manuever over three separate stream beds. The bridges that once spanned these obstacles were destroyed about 25 years ago by the Soviets. When I made this trip four years ago, the army had already been fighting a “Stability Operations” battle for seven years. Eleven years after we started in Afghanistan, the bridges were still down, the power plants had not been fixed, and most roads were barely further developed than when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC.
The green foliage seen from afar was confined to dry stream beds. The fields were fallow, the village drainage ditches empty, the livestock lean, and the kids looked hungry. The trees, which provide comforting shade during the heat of summer, will be thinned out again this year to provide fuel for the swelling village population during the winter months. The elders are afraid that within the next five years, all the trees will be gone. While they understand that losing the these trees means losing the village, they have limited options.
As the Maliks arrived, they started talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive back then because I was surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It was unpleasant talking with my guests at the Tiki Bar because they knew absolutely nothing about the election challenger other than he was not Bush, looked cool, and was African American. They were convinced he would be a great president because NPR and Jon Stewart said so. I did not want to explain presidential politics to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span. This was not starting off well.
As I feared, the morning discussion began with the question, “Tell us about Barack Obama?” What should I have said? The fact that his resume was thin was an understatement, but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that required some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with. I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine using the oldest communication device known to man: a well-told story. This story was based in fact, colored a bit with supposition, and augmented by my fevered imagination. It was a great tale. I really wish I could remember it now, but I can’t.
Once I finished, they understood that lawyers in America were similar to warlords in Afghanistan, with the exception that they rub out the competition using law and judges instead of the gun. A man clever enough to win almost every office he ran for by eliminating his competition before the vote, is a man the Pashtuns can understand. I told them that Obama would probably win the election and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan, except that he had promised to add resources to our efforts here. They asked if Obama was African. I resisted the obvious answer of “who knows?” by telling them his father was a black African, his mother was white American, but he identifies himself as African American. I added that most African Americans were born in America to American parents. That confused them so much that we spent the next 30 minutes discussing racial identities. I don’t think they had a clue what I was trying to tell them, but they sure were polite about it.
What followed, I seem to recall, was a long debate about whether Africans were good Muslims. I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the al Qaeda days. I think their conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs, and therefore considered the local equivalent of scumbags. They talked amongst themselves for several more minutes, I heard John McCain’s name raised several times, but they did not ask anymore about the pending election… praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans, regardless of hue…and that it would be better to see more of them, especially if they took off the helmets and body armor, because that scares the kids and woman-folk. They also complained that the big MRAPS and helicopters scared their cows (already short of water and feed), and that it is causing them to produce even less milk. I confided to them that big army scares me too, but I don’t think they understood what I was trying to say.
We talked for another 35 minutes about reconstruction efforts, their perception of the American effort, their local needs, and the increase in armed militancy. The elders repeatedly went over the story about giving up poppy cultivation yet not receiving the promised financial aid. They indicated they had plans to grow poppy again if they got enough rain, inshallah. The serious part of our discussion involved their needs, which were simple: they needed a road over which to transport their goods to market, bridges repaired, and irrigation systems restored to their 1970′s condition. They said these improvements would provide security and increased commerce. One of them made a very interesting comment regarding the way the roads were presently, the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy. Food for thought…
At the conclusion of the meeting, the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.
The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty-five British soldiers, most from the 44th Regiment of Foot, pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They probably pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant famously replied, “Not bloody likely,” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.
Our first stop was the Malik-described “British Prison”, which was up on the side of a pass about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed the steep slope at a vigorous pace, set by the senior Malik. About halfway up, we came to what appeared to be an old foundation with an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be possible, since there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down…they could have established a garrison years later, but that would be hard for me to determine at this point…plus, why would they shove their prisoners inside a cave located so high up a mountain? It was a nice brisk walk and I kept up with the senior Malik, which was probably the point to this detour.
After checking out the Jail, we headed to the actual battlefield. We stopped at the end of a finger, which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated. Apparently, some villagers started digging through the site to look for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. People poured into their ancestral homes from Pakistan with little money and no work. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jam until the central government put troops there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue, which they figured the British must have pilfered in Kabul. I estimated that there are about 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to any westerner dumb enough to think they are genuine.
Back in 1842, the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area on the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle actually occurred and, as their direct ancestors participated in it, I assume we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations were from a small British outpost built perhaps to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879, or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.
The visit concluded with a large lunch. After we had finished and the food was removed, our meeting was officially concluded with a short prayer.
I drove back a few hours before sunset and was escorted by a truck full of armed citizens. The escort turned back as soon as I hit the hardtop road and was safely on my way back to Jalalabad. Mehrab was my guide that day and faithful friend to me and my children during my entire time in Nangarhar. He was killed this past summer by the Taliban. Several of the men in this photograph have also been killed battling Taliban. Those who remain in Gandamak today are Taliban. That is how it works in Pashtun lands and I still believe it did not have to end this way.