Mutually armed interactions at security checkpoints have a way of encouraging civility between opposing parties. Even when there is great disproportionality, rational actors usually want to avoid any risk of bloodshed on their side. Mogadishu comes to mind: cruising up to an intersection partially obstructed by AU troops with RPGs and NSTVs aimed directly at you. You cruise along in an SUV led by a flatbed truck loaded with small arms aimed their way. A laminated security pass is flipped up in the windshield, a nod to the rocket-wielding AU soldier, and you casually drive right past them. There is a tenseness to that interaction, but nothing like when you are passing a similar checkpoint unarmed. In that case, there is a reliance on both the law and the goodwill of the person wielding the weapons. This is exactly how we rolled in Afghanistan though: just us and a couple of locals, no security, no armed guards.
Mentioning this lack of armed escorts upfront reveals a bias coming into the trip. While Afghanistan is certainly a dangerous landscape to navigate, it is by no means in the realm of “failed state” like Mogadishu or (in most of the country) an active warzone at this moment. In other words, demanding a big security contingent is not only expensive, impractical, and unusual, it may actually defeat the purpose by attracting MORE attention to you. In major cities like Kabul and Masir E Sharif, there is enough activity in the urban centers and the population is ethnically diverse enough that you can actually throw on some local clothing and stroll around without attracting much attention. It sounds absurd to even say, as I certainly picture my appearance broadcasting “American” or at least “foreigner”. However, at multiple checkpoints they insisted on speaking to me in Dari while recognizing my partner from India more readily as the foreigner. Your mileage may vary of course, and I’m certainly not meaning this as an endorsement of solo travel in Afghanistan, if you could even accomplish that. My point is that a fair-skinned westerner, dressed appropriately and not speaking loudly, is not going to attract as much obvious attention as you might think.
So what to do in Afghanistan? Well, your first stop, and our first stop, of course, would be Kabul. From headlines you might think that you’d need to haul ass out of there ASAP, but you’d be wrong. Like much of Afghanistan, Kabul seems to have reached a fairly stable stalemate from a security standpoint. There are military, police, private security, as well Hesco and Bremer walls topped with concertina wire at every corner. Things are secure enough to mitigate large-scale assaults but at the same time preventing free movement of citizens and encouraging new development. That being said, strolling down the street on pleasant sunny days as well as shopping at night at souvenir shops and street stalls on our way to a decent restaurant was not what I expected of Kabul ahead of the visit.
Oh, and “souvenir shops” you say? I really didn’t expect to find any of these shops, let alone rows of them. You can buy local jewelry and handicrafts. Lots of Lapis Lazuli jewelry and wares. Much of the goods on offer are unsurprising. The one thing that was though, and was a must purchase for me was something called “war rugs”. These are small wool rugs with motifs related to war and even the events of 9/11. “Unique” is an understatement.
As I mentioned in the last post, we had the good fortune to roll up into Kabul along with the Pakistani Prime Minister and his delegation. What this meant for us was absolutely tons of security, traffic, and theoretically a chance for an “incident”. It was interesting to see the immense show of force, but at the same time I was good that things were a bit limited around town during this time. You can take in the vibe of the place pretty readily and it’s fascinating to people watch: boys playing soccer with makeshift balls on roads held open by military vehicles, women in burqa obstructing traffic with children begging for money, men with machine guns at every intersection, patriotic murals painted on Bremer barriers next to rows of kebab and sweet shops. From a safety standpoint though, Kabul just doesn’t lend itself very well to leisurely street photography. You have the potential to really piss off both locals and security personnel.
So before moving on, how about a little story-time, no? This trip had us gallivanting around Afghanistan in ways that I absolutely didn’t expect ahead of time. I really didn’t think it was possible from a security standpoint. Hell, maybe it shouldn’t have been. My case in point would be a 9-hour road trip that brought us back into Kabul after some stops further afield. More on that later, but I really didn’t expect to be driving all around the damn country.
How about some fun facts for background? There are a number of ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The largest group at around 40%, is the Pashtun tribe. The current President of Afghanistan is Pashtun. Guess who else is predominantly Pashtun? The Taliban. So, when I’m told that there is a permanent Taliban security checkpoint at this specific location of the map, or that at this location on the map there will be a Taliban checkpoint after sunset, I have to imagine this is with the knowledge (and likely blessing) of some number of authorities. We had multiple long road trips that just casually drove around these known checkpoints. On the way back into Kabul late one night though… the police checkpoint came early. Very early. Why would they position themselves out on a dark road in the snow away from everyone else? When they don’t want their bosses to see what the fuck they’re up to, that’s why.
In the United States, I have a mode that I flip into for law enforcement interactions that I think has served me fairly well. Let’s call it the “Polite chucklehead.” Never act aggrieved, no matter how much of an insufferable prick you’re dealing with. Your job as a citizen is to deescalate. As we’ve seen in countless cellphone videos now, American cops are basically hopped up on meth with hair triggers and will resort to deadly force with the slightest provocation. So, treat them like a toddler handling a loaded firearm and do your best to set them at ease. Now, apparently keeping shit light is NOT the approach to dealing with crooked Afghan police. Apparently… getting right in their face, screaming, hitting yourself, and tearing off your shirt in the snow like a maniac can actually yield results. I’m not saying that I personally have the cajones to bust out the “Do you know who the FUCK I AM?!?” white privilege card with machine guns aimed at my head, but apparently this is actually a viable option that may not actually escalate the matter. It seems that the polite jokester routine is just blood in the water for them… not only that, but it begs the question: is this motherfucker actually up to something? Because apparently if you’re pissed off, you should just show it. Imagine that.
The good thing about this interaction is that while an unmarried couple traveling through the dark night might have raised hackles, the goal here wasn’t to reclaim the chastity of womankind. Rather, these were some dudes after a bribe. Our guide was a well-known Afghani MMA fighter and cocky enough to fight any one of these motherfuckers, but thankfully reason prevailed and a modest bribe was paid. Or maybe that was the plan, I dunno. I’m someone who gets tense haggling over silk carpets, let alone the screaming that goes into a bribe with guns aimed. The interesting part is that not only are bribes like this illegal (hence the impromptu checkpoint) but they are also associated with a fair bit of shame. As such, these police made a point to never reveal to us (the two foreigners) that this is what they were after. All bribe haggling happened in Dari, and the money exchange happened quietly out of view after all the extended conflict. Basically, they saw American passports and dollar bills flashed before their eyes. Afterwards, the thought of preempting the whole thing with “gifts” that encourage them to fuck off a bit more quickly has occurred to me. In North Korea, some very solid advice had you bringing cigarettes, cosmetics, and fresh fruit. I’m not sure that all of that (save the cigarettes) would be appropriate, but the idea seems plausible. They’re standing guard on a barren, dark, snowy road all night breathing in car exhaust and trying not to get shot or blown up. Their job definitely sucks, so acknowledging that seems fair. Just a thought. On to the next stop in beautiful, mountainous Afghanistan…