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Ann Jones: Kabul in Winter

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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I picked up Syed Hyder Akbar's Come Back to Afghanistan at a small bookshop in Bath earlier in the year, with the vague thought that I may someday wish to visit افغانستان Afghanistan. The book seemed an appropriate first read, as it was about a fellow Californian embarking on a quest to a tragically misunderstood part of the world. While the writing itself was abysmal, there was some extremely useful content that heightened my interest. This led me to visit the LA Public Library in July, where I grabbed Ahmed Rashid's Taliban, Louis Dupree's Afghanistan and a slew of other books -- among these was Ann Jones' Kabul in Winter. It had a vaguely familiar title and after scanning over the back jacket it seemed like a worthwhile read in the same vein as Theresa Thornhill's Sweet Tea with Cardamom.

Four thousand collateral civilian deaths in Kabul brought no consolation for the death of thousands, from around the world, in the fallen towers of the city that had so long been my home. I thought America had lost its bearing too. So I left. (Jones, p 2)

A trip like Jones' cannot be motivated just by disappointment -- the hundreds of hours of preparation require something much more. Why did she not visit a tropical resort to defuse her perpetual frown? What drove her to actually spend her winters in افغانستان Afghanistan?

Jones did not just grow disillusioned one day by Bush and go to افغانستان Afghanistan as though it were a naturally occurring event. Going as far off the beaten path as post-invasion افغانستان Afghanistan requires personal drive, tremendous planning and plenty of time. Jones left America an entire year after September 2001, after extensive research, networking, practical planning and probably a few calls to her literary agent. Jones omits the effort and challenges that preceded her trip, which is frustrating for somebody like myself who is genuinely interested in the technical and personal dimensions of why and how a Manhattanite would spend winter in افغانستشن Afghanistan.

It is only twelve pages later that Jones gives a hint of the details of her trip, when she mentions staying in a district of Kabul called Share Nau above the office of Madar ("Mother"), an organization founded by Caroline and run by an office manager named Lema. Considering no more details are ever offered (precious page space must be devoted to Bush criticisms and personal indulgences) I was forced to assume that Caroline had no last name. However, six Google searches eventually revealed a Caroline Firestone who I assume is the one mentioned by Jones. How embarrassing for Jones to forget her colleague's last name, but I suppose we all have spells of forgetfulness sometimes.

Jones' ability with words and abuse of quotation marks never improves, and in some instances is downright amateurish. Fortunately, like the clumsy blogs I peruse to find out firsthand information before visiting a volatile region, Jones has a few useful and vivid nuggets for understanding افغانستان Afghanistan.

There were land mines everywhere, more per square mile than any place else on earth. Truck drivers stepped from the road to piss and lifted off in clouds of dust. (Jones, p 4)

Jones describes the same experience taking Ariana Airlines as Said Hyder Akbar in Come Back to Afghanistan,

I flew into Dubai in the middle of the night and snooped around the terminal, looking for an Ariana terminal counter or an office. Nothing. ... She pointed to a young man hurrying toward the café, lugging a big black briefcase. He was dressed in black trousers and white shirt like any waiter in the West. He opened the briefcase at a nearby table and began to write out tickets by hand. Business was cash only, as if even with a plane on the runway and tickets passing into passengers' pockets, the company might still have to skip town. "Kabul," I said and put down $185. "Kabul," the main said, writing out the ticket. When he finished with me and a crowd of men ... he shoved the money into his briefcase and hurried away. For another couple of hours we waited, joined by other passengers sufficiently well-connected to warrant tickest in advance. Then someone at a gate called out "Kabul," and we rushed forward in a mighty wedge, afraid of being left behind. The men shouldered the women aside and jostled one another through the door. I followed with two or three other Western women, and we found ourselves on a bus where the men already occupied all the seats. When the bus reached the airplane, the men jumped up, plowed through the women, and charged up the gangway. "It's the culture," said a young British woman who'd been standing next to me, reading the look on my face. "Men first. ... Wait 'til you see the Afghan airports. They shut the women in a little room and don't let us out until the men are nice comfortable on the plane." (Jones, p 4-6)

The flight attendants were men, except for one young woman who carried a tin teapot up and down the aisle. She clutched a pale pink scarf over her face and politely averted her eyes as she addressed passengers: "Tea?" (Jones, p 6)

At last the plane topped the mountains and swung into a broad deep bowl that opened out before us, pale in the bright sun and thin air. Above the center of the bowl, trapped by a hedge of mountains, lay a mass of black smog, dense and opaque: a tangle of twisted strands of oily soot and smoke, like a great pot-blackened brillo pad. Here and there it thinned to reveal aspects of the city beneath: flat roofs, dirt roads, a ruined fort. Then the plane descended into that soup and the light dimmed. (Jones, p 6)

Jones talks of the illness,

I got sick right away. Everyone does. It's not just the altitude. It's a king of initiation for new arrivals from more fortunate lands that enjoy such luxuries as unleaded gasoline and pollution control. The airport stinks of petrochemicals. Outside the odor is the same, and on the drive into town, my nose closes, stuffed with dust. Breathing becomes an effort and then a struggle. Within days my chest feels bruised and aching from the job of staying alive, and my head hurts through and through. I envy the Afghans their (sic) impressive and practical high-bridged noses, the natural air filters of people in arid lands everywhere. It's depressing to realize that people like me, with small pitiful noses unsuited to life in this high, dry, dusty air, have been winnowed from the local populace over the course of generations by natural selection. And now I'm being winnowed myself, suffocated not just by incidental illness but by inexorable natural forces that find me ill equipped. Under such pressure, my nose wheezes and drips. It cries out for pity and attention. Weeks later, at gatherings of "internationals" -- as Western aid workers, diplomats, smugglers, and spies are known -- I spot the telltale tissue clutched in the palm or thrust up the sleeve of the newly arrived. Some never get well. They always look pained, their eyes narrowed against the grit and glare, their noses dripping, their tissues close at hand. ... Like some fishy creature that learns to live in air, I develop the ability to breathe after all in dust. (Jones, p 6-7)

Jones fluctuates her spellings and capitalizations as she mentions some nice sites such as Pul-i Khesti Mosque, the commercial avenue Jada-e Maiwand, the mausoleum of Timur Shah and Shah-do-Shamshira Mosque.

Dust fills the lungs, tightens the chest, lies in the eyes like gravel, so that you look out on this obscure drab landscape always through something like tears. (Jones, p 8)

The city stands alone in thin air, ringed by mountains. Some small outcrops intrude upon the city itself, scattering houses on their lower slopes; and the bed of the Kabul River, emptied by longstanding drought, slips between them to wind through the heart of town. The sun falls behind the Paghman range to the west of the city and rises again from peaks known vaguely as the Eastern mountains. These neighboring slopes are secondary ranges of the Hindu Kush, the massive mountain chain that extends some seven hundred miles eastward across the heart of Afghanistan, climbing all the while to culminate in the heights of the Karakorum and the Himalayas. To Kabulis, the city sheltered in a broad, shallow bowl at six thousand feet seems to be the center of everything.

In truth, it stands on the way to everything else. One road leads north, over the Hindu Kush, to the Turkistani steppes of Central Asi stretching away toward Russia. Another tracks south to Kandahar, and west across the desert to Herat and Iran. Another heads east, following the old course of the Kabul River as it plunges between the sheer rock walls of Tangi Gharu gorge and runs on toward Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent beyond. (Jones, p 8-9)

At the eastern edge of the city, atop a rocky promontory, stand the ruins of the old Bala Hissar, demolished more than a century ago by British forces to avenge the murder of a British envoy. In return for performing such services, General Frederick Roberts became Lord Roberts of Kandahar, a hero so famous in his own country that when his bust was later placed in London's St. Paul's Cathedral it was simply inscribed "Roberts." (Jones, p 9)

The Kushan treasures long displayed in Kabul's National Museum were thought to have been lost or destroyed in recent wars, but they were resurrected again after the fall of the Taliban and the American invasion of 2001. Museum workers had hidden them away. (Jones, p 10)

Jones regurgitates anecdotes gleaned from An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, published in 1970 by the Afghan Tourist Organization and written by Nancy Hatch Dupree. Unfortunately, it was outdated when it was put up for sale again for the INGOs flooding after the overthrow of the Taliban. In 2002, two humanitarian aid workers put together a pamphlet called A Survival Guide to Kabul. It was given to the boys who sold newspapers in the streets or distribution, and the boys kept the money from sales. By 2003, the pamphlet was expanded and became Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.

They're still there -- the blasted buildings that appeared in newspaper photos and on TV as graphic backdrop for flak-jacketed reporters who couldn't find words to describe what they saw in that ruined city that seemed to them as lonely as the moon. Surreal was a word they used a lot. They compared the devastation of Kabul to that of Dresden after the fire bombings of World War II. They had not personally witnessed the destruction of Dresden, of course, but it must have made them feel vaguely better to be able to locate the catastrophic damage in this way, as something familiar, something quite natural in human history, something that just happens in war. (Jones, p 13)

The paragraph above is vivid, but also confusing. The whole reason Dresden is so famous is because it is not something that just happens in war. Unfortunately, Jones scars what could have been a great description so she can strenuously avoid seeming like just some Western journalist (a hard notion to shake as I read her published journalistic account).

As ruins go, most of those in Kabul aren't particularly dramatic -- not like the snarl of twisted steel and concrete slabs that once was New York's World Trade Center. Kabul wasn't built of steel and concrete, but mostly of mud bricks. So the city's ruins are bare-boned skeletons, like the buildings that housed the Department of Traffic: floors and roof collapsed inward and stacked like pancakes aslant thin brick pillars that lean into air. Or fragmentary facades of business establishments, block after block of storefronts that open into nothing. At what was the finest cinema the circular iron staircase still winds upward, visible through shell-shattered walls. At an old teacher training institute, the roof spills over the entrance. At the monumental mausoleum of King Nadir Shah, high on a hill overlooking the city, the sun shines through holes in the dome that still balances atop shell-pocked columns. The broken marble sarcophagi of the king's family lie tumbled in the grass below. You notice these details, but then they begin to blur as the wreckage goes on, block after block. The rubble of tumbled neighborhoods still has not been cleared away, except in patches as someone finds money and a reason to do it. You drive the city streets perhaps sightseeing as a morbid postconflict tourist, or just trying to get to a meeting, and you see the smash-up stretching on forever -- whole districts leveled as if struck by some great quake the cracked the Richter scale. (Jones, p 13-14)

Caroline had lived in the country off and on for almost forty years, so I figured that she would know better than most would-be helpers what to do. She'd started her life in Kabul in the sixties -- the almost mythical good old days -- as an American wife, part of a lively circle of expats scattered about town, living in comfort with Afghan servants, riding horses for fun, and doing exactly as she pleased. Her children had long since grown up and gone back to America. Her husband too. But Caroline had come to be at home in this place where she could live easily in the moral limbo reserved for Western women and where she could still, even in her seventies, do exactly as she pleased and do some good besides. She had become a sort of Afghan: warm, generous, willful, intransigent, combative, and utterly without fear. But she was a kind of Afghan widow herself, living on her own, which may help to explain why she wanted so much to help the widows of Kabul, of whom there were -- by the time the mujahidin's factional battles for the city ground down late in 1994 -- some forty thousand at least. (Four years later, in the heyday of the Taliban, the ICRC numbered the legions of Afghan widows throughout the country at ninety-eight thousand.) (Jones, p 14-15)

Normally, an Afghan widow and her children would be taken in by relatives, her husband's or her own, but war had decimated families and scattered them. In 1996, when the Taliban captured Kabul, the widows' difficult situation became desperate. The Taliban ruled that no woman should leave her house unless she was escorted by a male relative, but thousands of war widows had no male relatives left. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons -- all gone. Imprisoned in their homes, the widows would starve. (Jones, p 15)

When the Taliban discovered Caroline's secret schools and her program that sold products made by the widows in their homes,

The Taliban found out what she was doing. They raided her office and arrested her staff. Never having seen computers before, they beat the staff women for watching "television" and hauled them off to jail; and when Caroline insisted on going to jail with them, the Taliban expelled her from the country. She moved across the border to Peshawar and kept on working until the Taliban fled from Kabul. Then Caroline returned to find the widows still there -- still destitute, still hungry, still in need of help. She rented a new office and carried on. (Jones, p 15)

There are some poignant moments regarding Jones' first volunteer task. She accompanied Lema as she delivered goods donated by American churchgoers to the US military for poor Afghans, and which were handed over to Madar,

I wasn't prepared for the long drive through the rubble or the hovels where we called, but we had a job to do, Lema said. ... We drove into Karte Se, District Three, where wreckage lay all about us. I felt as if I too had been smashed. (Jones, p 16)

Regarding the Karta Se neighborhood and the houses within it,

I noticed signs of life in the fallen houses: a bit of laundry drying in a window, a kettle on a cook fire in the street, a ragged carpet hung across a blasted doorway. ... The car stopped on a dirt road well away from the main street, and Lema and Nasrin, Madar's staff manager, hoisted two bundles of clothes and led the way along narrow paths between broken mud walls to a wooden gate that opened onto a courtyard. Nothing grew in the hard packed earth; a few thin hens pecked the dust around an old cistern. At the end of the yard stood a tall mud-brick house, its broad window holes covered in lastic, its door with a blanket that was thrown aside by a tiny shawl-wrapped woman who hurried to us with outstretched hands. We followed her under the blanket into a foyer piled with fallen bricks and climbed a flight of stairs to a part of the second floor that was still intact. On the landing a small cooking pot simmered over a charcoal burner, tended by a daughter-in-law whose tiny baby lay swaddled beside the fire like a trussed chicken. (Jones, p 16-17)

Regarding the sandeli,

Five or six children were huddled on the floor under the edges of a quilt that had been draped over a low table to enclose the space beneath it. Later, when the cooking was done and the food served, a brazier of hot coals would be slipped under the covered table to warm the family as they ate. This arrangement -- the sandeli -- is as close as most Afghans come to central heating, and even before the coals are brought, the imagined warmth is a comfort. ... I hung back, feeling the cold from the bare mud floor through my socks. The plastic at the window flapped in the wind. (Jones, p 17)

Regarding گلبدين حكمتيار Gulbuddin Hikmetyar,

An American professor who taught him in those days, or tried to, remembers that Gulbuddin assaulted women students who appeared on campus in Western dress. Some report that he threw acid at their unveiled faces and at the legs of those who wore short skirts. The professor remembers that he more often beat them up. "He's a psychopath," the professor says. "He should have been locked up then. (Jones, p 20)

In light of US doling money to Pakistan's ISI after the 1979 Soviet invasion of افغانستان Afghanistan,

The ISI spread the rewards around among several factions, apparently to incite competition and discourage Afghan unity -- which might have inspired Pakistan's own radical Islamists to rise up -- but Gulbuddin and Hizb-i-Islami [الحزب الإسلامي] always came out way ahead. He became the favorite of America as well, and of America's good chums the Saudis and Saddam Hussein. He used their aid to sabotage his fellow mujahidin parties, even as they fought against the Soviets; and he undermined especially his archrival, Ahmad Shah Massoud [احمد شاه مسعود], the military commander of Jamiat-i-Islami [خميعت الإسلامي]. Another Afghan leader said of him, "Gulbuddin's problem is that he kills more mujahidin than Soviets." Gulbuddin never appeared to care much for the Soviet war. He fought his biggest battle against fellow Pashtuns for control of the poppy fields in Helmand Province. He apparently cared most about advancing himself, his prosperity, and his own notions of radical Islam. (Jones, p 22)

Regarding the rise of گلبدين Gulbuddin,

In 1990, with the connivance of ISI, he [Gulbuddin] teamed up with Shahnawaz Tanai, President Najibullah's own secretary of defense, to stage a coup. The far-left communist diehard seemed an odd comrade for the far-right religious fanatic, but they shared the tribal heritage of Ghilzai Pashtuns in a country where identity counts more than ideology. Besides, Gulbuddin was never one to sacrifice an opportunity for a principle. In preparation for the coup, he tried to buy off President Najibullah's army, bribery often being the surest way to victory in Afghanistan. He got money to do it from Osamam bin Laden, who was working at the time in Peshawar, in collaboration with ISI, to overthrow two presidents, Afghanistan's Najibullah and Pakistan's own Benazir Bhutto, both designated enemies of Islam. But in the event, most of Najibullah's army stood by him and the coup failed. Furiously, Gulbuddin turned once again upon his rivals in Jamiat-i Islami and murdered thirty of the party leaders, including some of Ahmad Shah Massoud's top military officers. He was still casting about for more enemies when, in 1991, the UN came up with a plan for President Najibullah to relinquish power to an Afghan interim government to be selected at a gathering of all the resistance parties headquartered in Peshawar. Remarkably, the leaders of the parties agreed -- though not, of course, Gulbuddin.

Then the Soviet Union dissolved, and with it the Afghan state. (Jones, p 23-24)

Afghans were shocked that an Afghan would destroy an Afghan city, and the capital at that. All these years the mujahidin had tried to fight by traditional rules, keeping their firefights well away from towns and villages so that civil life might go on even in the midst of war. People went about their business and tended their farms as best they could. Even the mujahidin fighters went home to plow and plant and harvest as the seasons came around. When they had to kill an Afghan -- some informer or government collaborator -- they did it in the street. Even in wartime they wouldn't enter a man's house to search or to seize him, for every man's house was his own. Yet here was Gulbuddin month after month, year after year, lobbing rockets into the mud-brick houses of Kabul. Massoud's forces too ran amok in neighborhoods of the Hazara minority, raping, mutilating, and murdering without mercy. (Jones, p 26)

On Pakistan's interest in the Taliban and their support of the take of Spin Baldik by the Taliban,

The Pakistani government of Benazir Bhutto had a different but related agenda: to open a safe trade route through Afghanistan for the transport mafia. So it was not exactly coincidental that the Taliban's amazing first victory took place at a truck shop. (Jones, p 27)

On the early Taliban,

Osama bin Laden gave him [Mullah Omar] three million dollars to buy off mujahidin commanders who stood in his way. Then for ten months the Taliban laid siege to the capital, shelling it from the south just as Gulbuddin had done. They were holy warriors no more, restoring "peace" to lawless Kandahar, but a well-armed, well-trained juggernaut -- Pakistan's proxy army in Afghanistan -- bent on conquest of the country. (Jones, p 28-29)

On the Taliban take of Kabul,

Gulbuddin, realizing that his old benefactors in the ISI had thrown him over for the Taliban, had struck a deal with his longtime enemy Rabbani to join the government, and with Massoud to help defend Kabul. But in the event, in September 1996, having drawn Massoud's forces south of their defensive line in the city, Gulbuddin's men stood aside as the Taliban advanced against them. Seeing the trap too late, Massoud withdrew his forces to his northern stronghold and let the dying city go. The Taliban entered Kabul, took Najibullah and his brother from the UN compound where they had hidden, beat them, castrated them, dragged them behind a jeep, shot Najibullah, strangled his brother, and hanged them both from a post outside the presidential palace for citizens to see. (Jones, p 29)

On the reasons for revery of Massoud,

There was Ahmad Shah Massoud, a man of prayer and a reader of poetry, greatest of mujahidin commanders, leader of the Northern Alliance, "Lion of the Panjshir Valley," nemesis of the Soviets, and -- unheard of among Afghans -- a man who had declined proferred power. Many revered Massoud a national hero, and after his assassination in 2001, arranged by bin Laden, as a shahid, a martyr. Others swept up in the storm feared him and displayed his image as a kind of talisman, a badge of allegiance announcing: "I am on your side. Please don't shoot me." In Kabul his picture was everywhere: in shop windows, in homes, on windshields and car bumpers, on the plastic fob dangling from the office key I'd been given. Massoud's intense, deep-set eyes gazed over the city from an enormous billboard high on the mountain near our office. At night it was illuminated, and as I lay in my bed I could see his bright tragic face rising over the capital like the moon. Historical complexities dissolved in a simple proposition. Massoud was the good guy. And on the other side was Gulbuddin. (Jones, p 30)

On the grain silo,

What Afghans call the silo (pronounced "see-low") is an immense multistoried granary and bakery built in the 1950s by the Soviets in a Cold War foreign aid campaign to win the hearts and minds and bellies of Afghans who, as it turned out, preferred their own traditional naan to heavy "modern" bread. The Soviets built silos in other big cities too, in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, perhaps preparing even then for the appetite of an occupying army. The tall yellow silo in Kabul stands on a broad avenue, and it was here, Nasrin says, that Afghan fighters sometimes set up their guns to mow down citizens in flight from rocket attacks. The windows are shattered now, and the walls are full of shell holes. I know without Nasrin having to tell me. Gulbuddin. But somewhere in the gutted silo someone still bakes heavy loaves of dense brown bread. A metal shipping container in the yard serves as a shop where we select a few loaves from a stack on a makeshift table. (Jones, p 31)

On volunteer opportunities,

About six hundred NGOs were Afghan organizations that relied on the UN and the aid programs of foreign governments for the money and technical support to carry on their work. ACBAR, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, is the organization charged with keeping track of all the others. It prints an alphabetical list of all the NGOs, with contact names and numbers, fat as a big city phone book. (Jones, p 32)

On the living standards of agencies and contractors salaried by the UN and foreign governments,

In winter, generator-powered heaters and blowers warm rooms and corridors alike to temperatures suitable for Americans and Europeans. Afghans entering these buildings for the first time are amazed, believing that houses are not meant to be so unnaturally overheated, nor Afghans either, who are accustomed to keeping their jackets on indoors. Afghans are used to their own institutions, like the high school where I soon bag to teach: without desks, without chairs, without blackboards, without sanitary facilities, without electricity, and without heat. (JOnes, p 33)

Interesting that Jones does not pass judgment on the Afghans' impoverished attitude, while unrelentingly criticizing American perspectives.

On the effect of these outsiders on housing,

The foreigners with the biggest budgets pay unheard-of rents for the privilege of occupying the finest houses in Kabul, with the result that more and more landlords evict their Afghan tenants in favor of deep-pocketed outsiders. The ousted tenants tumble to the next level of housing, and so on down the line until those tenants at the bottom of the rent market are forced out to squat in the ruins or join the city's roving homeless. Sooner or later everyone has to move house. … Civil servants and teachers, at the low end of the salary scale, are pushed farther and farther from their offices and schools. They ride the unreliable buses to work -- men in the back, burqa-clad women piled like laundry bags in the few seats reserved for them at the front -- and every year the trip grows longer. One hour, two hours. (Jones, p 33)

On inflated salaries paid to those serving the foreigners,

An uneducated man driving a car can make more money than a professor at Kabul University or the head of a hospital, the chief of police, or a cabinet minister. The man who drove me to my teaching job every day made three times the salary of the high school teachers in my class, all of whom were on the downward slide in the game of moving house. … Those who have English and computer skills are most in demand. The English-speaking husband of one of my students leaves his administrative job in the Ministry of Education to work for the UN as a driver. A deputy minister becomes a dispatcher, a school principal becomes a translator -- not the work they hoped to do in life, the work they trained for, but at least they don't have to move again. They can pay the rent. (Jones, p 33-34)

Later on the same page, Jones takes a forgiving tone when remembering that the economy is also inflated by the even more powerful drugs trade. However, she is gracious and forgiving when she laments that the drug trade is "a homegrown, traditional moneymaker that doesn't pretend to serve the average citizen."

After complaining that aid agencies' vehicles clutter the streets,

Streets already crowded with fruits and vegetables or old clothes, big wooden flatbed trailers pulled by tough old men, money changers flaunting wads of bills, touts peddling mobile-phone cards, legless panhandlers on makeshift go-karts, beggar women in dirty burqas, and poor boys flogging newspapers or waving tin cans that waft the smoke of burning asafetida to ward off evil and to elicit tips. The streets themselves are bad, full of potholes and piles of rubble and garbage. After a snowfall they grow slick with ice or mud. (Jones, p 35)

It took thirty five pages for Jones to mention two of the most important aspects of a visit to Kabul, and which she probably made use within hours of landing. I am baffled why she found the need to drone and philosophize for dozens of pages like all the other journalists, regurgitating information from the classics. What I really wanted to know was whether there would be readily available SIM cards and money exchange.

On traffic guides,

Guiding vehicles through these clotted streets is the job of Kabul's traffic police. Each wears a handsome, broad-shouldered woolen coat and trousers the color of army blankets, spiffed up by a Sam Browne belt of white vinyl. They have white vinyl hats to match, like members of a marching band, and red and white paddles, suitable in size and shape for ping pong, each equipped with a big red reflector and the words STOP POLICE printed in red in English. … They'd wave their paddles to urge on traffic in one direction while vehicles stuck in cross traffic honked their horns. When they let the honkers go, the newly halted motorists would hit their horns. The din was unrelenting. Drivers rolled down their windows as they crept past to yell curses at the policemen, and occasionally an officer would swing his snazzy STOP POLICE paddle into some snarling driver's teeth. But mostly the traffic cops seemed remarkably restrained, even unconcerned. They dragged easy chairs and sofas to the middle of the traffic circles, where they could often be seen lounging, passing the time of day, while all about them swirled chaos, unattended. Eventually a few traffic lights were installed in the center of town, and every now and then the cops would rev up the generators that powered them and sit back, laughing, to see what the drivers would do. It seemed a kind of revenge. (JOnes, p 35-36)

On U-turns,

To prevent traffic-snarling U-turns, the traffic police put large chunks of concrete down the center of the main streets, but drivers team up to wrestle them aside so they can double back. (Jones, p 36)

On Jones' driver Sharif,

Stopped dead in a traffic jam in the middle of the street, Sharif would lean back, adjust his testicles under his long peahen, and pop a cassette into the tape deck. Islamic prayers. Sharif is devout.

Trying to illustrate the odd concepts of driving regulations, I once told Sharif, "In my country we drive in lines." He said, "In your country is very many foreign customs." He preferred to tell me about Kabul. "In Taliban time," he said, "was no cars. No taxis. Nothing in streets. Now many, many cars." Unlike most Kabulis, Sharif thought this was a happy development. He himself owned three cars and a truck, all of which were part of the daily parade around Kabul, so Sharif made a very good living even when he was stalled at an impassable roundabout or caught in a snarl of pushcarts, playing his pray-along tapes or listening to patriotic country crooners on the US military radio station. (Jones, p 36-37)

Jones discusses the jam caused every Thursday as certified war casualties walk to the Ministry of Martyrs and the Disabled to collect their weekly stipends,

Early in the mornings they straggle through the streets: women in tattered bus faded to a dull dove gray and men wrapped against the cold in pattus of military brown. They come from the side streets singly or in twos and threes, assembling themselves into a grave parade of the lame, the halt, and the limp, like some medieval pilgrimage to the shrine of a healing saint. One-legged men, victims of land mines, hobble on their Red Crescent crutches. … And every week the Thursday procession to the Ministry of Martyrs and the Disabled grows longer and more belligerent. They are Kabul's most aggressive pedestrians. (JOnes, p 38-39)

Below is one of the most riveting anecdotes. It made me laugh at loud and begin to understand and relate to the culture I currently try so hard to grasp through the words of Western authors,

I watched an old man approach, walking toward us at the edge of the street. He was tall and upright, and handsome with his white beard and fine silk turban. Another man bicycled past us from behind and proceeded toward the old man. Just as they were about to pass each other, a car lurched sideways, forcing the bicyclist to swerve. He ran into the old man, who stumbled but regained his balance and stayed upright. He spun around quickly and smashed his fist into the cyclist's jaw, knocking him into the street with his bicycle on top of him. At that, a young man passing by socked the old whitebeard, who went down backward with his feet in the air and his fine turban in the dust. A traffic policeman, waving his paddle overhead, rushed out from among the stalled cars and clubbed the young man, who reeled backward, caught a heel on the curb-stone, and say down hard. In a moment he was up again, yelling at the policeman. A fifth man, who had been casually leaning against a garden wall taking the feeble morning sun, strode forward. He stepped between the young man and the traffic policeman with his arms extended, palms outward, holding the two apart. It is the pose of the peacemaker. It is also the pose of crucifixion. The old whitebeard picked himself up and delivered a burtal blow to the proud, unprotected chin of the peacemaker, who flew back into the wall against which he had been lounging only moments before and slid down to sit in a deflated heap at the bottom. The whitebeard licked his knuckles, set his turban straight, stepped over the fallen bicycle, and went on his way. It was all over in seconds. Sharif was laughing. "Mujahidin," he said. And all at one Afghanistan, which had seemed so baffling, began to reveal itself. (Jones, p 39)

Hamid Karzai's presidency, advertised in America as the advent of "democracy," seems rather to Afghans to be a Durrani restoration, for Karzai comes from a powerful Khandahari Pashtun family of the Popolzai line, the lineage of Ahmed Shah Durrani himself. (Jones, p 39)

Regarding Pashtunwali,

The most important political body is the jirga, or assembly, in which every man is entitled to an equal say, or an equal insult. (Jones, p 40)

Regarding the origin of the name Afghanistan,

One early British emissary noted that Afghans didn't even have a name for their country, but near the end of the nineteenth century Amir Abdur Rahman began to refer to it as "Yaghistan," a name variously translated as "land of the free" or "land of rebels" (Jones, p 41)

As one of the foremost journalists of the new millenium, Jones pens words that are poetic, moving and convincing,

Everybody knows that Bush the Lesser doesn't read history or much of anything else and thus may remain to this day the only person in the world who doesn't know that what followed the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838-39 was the greatest military defeat in all of British history. (Jones, p 43)

After the locals murdered Machagten, the chief representative of the British crown in Kabul,

The British agreed to withdraw, for they had too few troops on the ground to defend themselves against a full-scale insurrection. The Afghans promised the soldiers, their families, servants and hangers-on safe passage through the wintry passes leading out of Afghanistan, then harried them through the snow and slaughtered the last of them at a place called Gandamak. A brigade of 4,500 soldiers, followed by 12,000 civilians, marched out fo Kabul on a January morning. Three thousand are said to have died the first day of exposure, even before the Afghans attacked. By the fourth day, only 120 soldiers and 4,000 followers were still pushing on through the snow. Two days later there were only 80. When they turned to make a last stand at Gandamak, there were only 20. It is said that 6 mounted officers raced on from Gandamak, but only one man, badly wounded, the army physician Dr. William Brydon, rode in to the garrison at Jalalabad.

As things turned out, there were other survivors; the following year, a mighty British "Army of Retribution" that set upon the land to rape and murder and pillage returned with more than two thousand rescued captives and defectors. But it makes a better story if you don't know that, if instead you focus on the misery and terror of the English people straggling through the snow -- the handsome young soldier, the woman clutching her baby, the pathetic little boy clinging to the hem of her cape -- as the pitiless Pashtun tribesmen fire at them, such easy targets, from the rocks above. It makes a better story if you imagine poor, brave Dr. Brydon, bleeding badly, as good as dead really, hanging on the neck of his dying horse as it stumbles on toward Jalalabad, and somehow surviving to tell the terrible tale. That's the version the British have never forgotten. From an Afghan perspective, of course, the story is different. (Jones, p 43-44)

The excerpt above is one of Jones' most brilliant. She is not just regurgitating Dupree, Rubin or Rashid as usual -- she tells an incredible story. Most exceptional is how she takes Anglocentric history, embraces it and then tells the horrific truth of a land tortured by foreigners inebriated with power. She segues into an explanation for Afghanistan's reputation,

As British journalists, politicians, and historians retold again and again the bitter story of the bloody retreat from Kabul, Afghans seemed to grow ever larger and more savage. They acquired in the minds of the British, and by extension the West, an abiding reputation as a race of barbaric and treacherous fighters, without scruple or mercy, inhabiting forbidden territory. (Jones, p 45)

Jones mentions how Peter Jouvenal opened a small hotel for journalists in Kabul called Gandamak Lodge, in a house where Osama bin Laden allegedly visited one of his wives. After this little tangent, Jones' writing only gets better after over forty pages which mostly consisted of Manhattanite journalist frivolity,

Most Western reporters covering the wars lacked the long view of history, but from the comfortable, frustrating distance of their hotels rooms in Peshawar, they were oddly drawn to the notorious savagery of the Afghan guerillas. To many young journalists high on adrenaline, the height of reportage was to travel "inside" with the mujahidin. Smuggled across the border from Pakistan, snuggly bundled in ski jackets, they'd slog along with the Afghans, now known as "freedom fights," moving at night to avoid detection. Encumbered by gear and unused to the altitude, they had a hard time keeping up with the lean, hardened fighters who traveled light and moved fast. Some confessed that the Afghans packed them in on mules, like any other heavy baggage. But somehow their own inability to keep up -- their own softness and flab -- made them all the more enamored of their superhuman hosts. One journalist [Rober Kaplan] wrote, "In them we saw a stronger, more heroic version of ourselves." Reportage sometimes read like fan fiction, tinged with a kind of homoerotic glorification of manliness, yet safely homoerotic because these tough, fierce, idealized bearded warriors seemed the very pinnacle of macho masculinity. Who wouldn't take a chance to hang out with such boys? Charlie Wilson, the womanizing, coke-snorting, alcoholic Texas congressman credited with extracting from the US Congress multimillions in covert aid to the mujahidin, claimed as his reward a short hike with the freedom fighters during which he was allowed to fire a rocket launcher all by himself. As George Crile tells the story in Charlie Wilson's War, it was the high point of Wilson's sorry life, though it's possible that his Pakistani handlers, unwilling to risk a klutzy congressman's neck in Afghanistan, actually staged the event in Pakistan. Pakistan's ISI had played the same trick on CIA Director William Casey, taking him by jeep in the dead of the night to a fake Afghan mujahidin camp not far from Islamabad.

So the Afghans, all through the Soviet war and the civil wars that followed, handily maintained their historic reputation as the most ferocious fighters on the planet. But facts sometimes got lost or skewed in this romantic vision. Poverty, for one thing. Lots of mujahidin traveled light because the clothes they stood up in were all they had. They lived "like Spartans," reporters said, when in fact they lived like Afghans. Islamism, for another. Those fierce freedom fighters, trained and armed with Stinger missiles by the CIA, were Islamic jihadis. And at least 35,000 of them were not Afghans at all but volunteers from 43 Muslim countries in the Middle East, North and East Afica, Central Asia and the Far East -- Algerians and Egyptians, Saudis and Kuwaitis, Pakistanis and Uzbeks, Filipinos and Uighurs -- eager to die for their faith in Afghanistan, or elsewhere on another day. (Jones, p 46-47)

Jones expertly contrasts Afghan and foreign mujahidin,

The Afghans fought for their families, their villages, their land, while the exotic Arab-Afghans fought for a cause. As one former homegrown mujahid put it to me, "We Afghans were fighting to live. They were fighting to die for Islam." (Jones, p 47)

Jones touches on homosex in Afghanistan,

It was a rare Western male journalist who reported propositions received from manly Afghans. How could you square that with official notions of military manhood? (What would it do to Charlie's (sic) Wilson's appropriations if Republican congressmen got wind of it?) But a male Australian journalist friend (very straight) confessed that when he traveled with the mujahidin, he could scarcely sleep for the sound of soldiers bonking. He said the way the mujahidin carried on gave new meaning to the terms "mountain pass" and "strategic advance." It scared him to death. It scared and demoralized the Russians too. Stories abounded of Soviet prisoners of war gang-raped by the manly men of the mujahidin, though the mujahidin switched to raping women once they hit the streets of Kabul. (Jones, p 48)

On Massoud's relatively undiscussed war crimes,

The widespread rape of women wasn't much noticed officially, for many of the rapists in Kabul were thought to be Massoud's men; and by that time -- the time of the civil wars -- Massoud was the lion of Western jounalists. (Jones, p 48)

Jones excels when she discusses women,

In an idolatrous bio-documentary on Massoud, a French filmmaker dares photograph only the bare feet of wives and daughters serving the dinner they've prepared. "They have their traditions," says the English voiceover, as if keeping women locked away is merely a quaint custom and their servitude an effect of nature. (Jones, p 48)

Jones notes the obvious yet unremarked-upon,

You can read book after book about Afghanistan in which the term Afghan clearly means only "adult male Afghan"; and many reputedly excellent books of contemporary reportage and history written by men contain not a single sentence about women or children. (Jones, p 49)

Jones brings to light what may not be fully realized by others,

Sometimes those Western male reporters tracking the mujahidin seemed to suffer subliminally from the absence of women. One saw in the mountains the shape of "a young girl's breasts." Another, [Scott Carrier] reporting for Harper's, described a mountain pass that looked to him like a vagina. Afflicted by similar spasms, Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik describes an Afghan road that "like a hooker, swung its curvaceous hips back and forth."(Jones, p )

Jones pens one of my favorite passages I have ever read, this time on the moronic and unwitting misogyny of visitors,

After arriving unexpectedly, long after dark, at a modest home in a remote village, British author Jason Elliot writes [on page 145 of Elliot's 1999 embarrassment]: "An ample meal appeared. How these minor feats are conjured into existence without any apparent interruption in the rhythm of affairs -- no matter the number of unexpected guests -- is one of the perpetual and mysterious delights of travel in Afghanistan." What kind of journalist can't trace this mysterious delight to its source behind the curtain? To those barefoot women, who carry out, night and day, the hospitality of Pashtunwali that makes the Afghan men such famous hosts? (Answer: The same kind of journalist who doesn't realize that the real function of this Pashtunwali hospitality is to detain him, to consume his time, to keep him from looking around the village.) And what Western woman would describe such hospitality -- preparing an "ample meal" for unexpected guests in the middle of the night without running water or electricity or refrigeration or a decent lamp, without even Minute Rice or a tin of beans -- as a "minor" feat? (Jones, p 49)


When I told friends in humanitarian aid work that I was going to Afghanistan, they all smirked. "Get a good driver!" one said. "So what does that mean?" I asked. "You don't know? My god, where have you been?" And then I got the stories -- perhaps apocryphal -- of this woman or that, working for CARE or Save the Children or the American Embassy, whose assigned driver was just so gorgeous that -- well, what would you do? Everyone knew the story of the newly married wife in the State Department power couple (or was it USAID?) who went to Kabul on a brief mission and ran away with her driver. All the stories end there, like romantic movies, with the chemically charged couple dashing off. Nobody knows, or nobody tells, the "ever after" part. I met one American woman -- a fortyish, twice married, independent businesswoman -- who'd arrived as a charitable volunteer and married an Afghan man in Kabul. I invited her to join me in language lessons I was taking from an excellent male teacher. "My husband would never let me talk to another man," she said. "He loves me too much." I could see she was so pleased. He was very good looking. A few weeks later I heard that her husband had taken a second wife in Dubai. I met another American humanitarian who was obsessed with a slim, handsome (married) Afghan driver. For weeks he did his best to avoid her and escape to other work. She wrote into her project budget a staggering fee for car and driver, and when a lax donor agency handed her the cash, she bought herself the man of her dreams. (Jones, p 50)

The truth,

I don't know if Afghans are any better or worse than any other guerilla soldiers anywhere. I don't know whether they're any more fierce or more ruthless, more courageous or more relentless than any other men under any circumstances fighting for their lives. I do know that the Afghan men I knew, many of whom had fought with the mujahidin -- men I taught, men I employed or worked with or worked for, or met in passing -- were polite, soft spoken, solicitous of their families, considerate, and kind. To a man, they were hungry for peace. And as for my driver -- there was the placid, chubby, hardworking, and devout Sharif. He often brought us eggs from his mother's chickens.

But give a man like Sharif a vehicle and he will drive like a commando. Give a man a horse and he will ride headlong into a wild game of buzkashi, beating off opponents to snatch at a bloody calf. Give him a Kalashnikov or a Stinger missile and he will take to the mountains wit the mujahidin. The impulse is the same -- some desperate scramble for survival grounded in the certainty that despite the claims of kinship and qarm, family and friendship, religion and arty, each man is on his own. This is his psychic state: solitariness, an aloneness, deep and abiding. It's a state of mind bred perhaps by generations of struggle with an exacting land, brutal poverty, and murderous enemies, and confirmed by the recent quarter century of unremitting war. Perhaps because there have never been any lasting sources of authority in Afghan life -- no durable monarchy, no clerical hierarchy, no reliable aristocracy of intellect or wealth -- each man seems to feel that he is on his own against impending chaos. Alone, he will attach himself, if the opportunity presents itself, to some benefactor, some khan or commander -- some landowner or warlord -- some man in charge, to guard against impending violence.

But khans and commandans have only as much power as they can amass in their lifetimes. The landowner's wealth is divided among his sons, so that none is the equal of his father and all are thrown into combat with one another. As for the commandan with his private militia, his power is as ephemeral as his life is short. Even the mullah who may exert some small influence in village life represents no established seat of power, no papacy or bishopric, but is rather a kind of freelance artisan tending to local religious needs the way the village carpenter attends to the need for furniture. The Afghan's nation isn't even a nation really, but a failed state, a mere passageway, a battlefield, a buz -- a goat torn between horses in geostrategic games. As for the men who've tried to rule it in the last century, five were assassinated, four were exiled, two were executed, and one -- the Taliban's Mullah Omar -- rode off on a motorbike and disappeared. The last time a ruler died peaceably in office of natural causes was in 1901, and since then only two men have handed over power, grudgingly, to another lawful ruler, and one of them, Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, had no real power to give up. Life is always starting over, like another round of buzkashi, and each man must grab again and again for the goat. Perhaps he would like ot be gentle, but the game is rough and only one man can win. Perhaps he would like to be loyal, at least to his family and friends, but the pressure of circumstance makes him ever watchful for the main chance. Perhaps he would like to be at peace, but danger lies all about. (Jones, p 50-52)

Jones goes sharply downhill from there and a quick check of her references reveals her massive distortion of facts. On p 57 Jones claims the US "led the Taliban welcoming committee" -- a claim whose reference is a remark by Rashid that "the strategy over pipelines had become the driving force behind Washington's interest in the Taliban" (Rashid, p 159-161). I must wonder if she ever even read Rashid's book, or if she read books more demagogic than her own and just copied their references.
It would upset liberal book clubs if she dragged pesky keywords like Bridas into her critique of anything American. Anybody who finished Rashid's book from cover to cover will be inclined to wonder if she drunkenly jotted down remarks from an angry political discussion with her elite manhattan friends, and then added on reference numbers to make the assertions seem official. Jones wraps up her discussion of oil politics with witty wordplay -- "the pipeline was but a pipe dream" (Jones, p 58).

I had to return Jones' book to the library since somebody else had requested it. A week or two later I checked it out from a different library and am now aiming to complete it. The painful part about reading Kabul in Winter is Jones' historical exposition.
She phrases some things succinctly and vividly, but there is no readon for her to walk me through historical events. She was not present when these happened; much of Kabul in Winter is opinion flavored by regurgitated information.

The US cleverly paid the Chinese to make Soviet-style weapons for the mujahidin, so that captured weapons would not give away American involvement in the dirty Afghan war. (Mujahidin commander Abdul Haq once complained of the waste of having to fire off a lot of SAM-7 missiles to get the hang of how they worked, because they'd come with instruction manuals written in Chinese.) The US also secretly diverted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons allocated as Afghan aid through the back door to Iran as part of Reagan's Iran-Contra scam, but plenty of weapons still reached the Afghans as well. (Jones, p 53)

Regarding the Taliban's ideology,

It was a volatile mix of dictates pinched from such arch-conservative Islamist sources as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and Pakistan's Jamaat-i Islami, from Sayyid Qutb and Abul A'la Mawdudi, from the ultraconservative version of Indian Deobandism taught in Pakistan, and the radical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia promulgated in Pashtunistan by Osama bin Laden and his Afghan mujahidin commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -- all stirred into an idiosyncratic fundamentalism that looked longingly backward to the seventh century and the exemplary life of the Prophet. It was a totalitarian theology that banned toothpaste, all brands, as a product unendorsed by Muhammad and unmentioned in the Quran. (Jones, p 56)

Regarding Jones' references not backing up her statements and forgetting all about Argentina,

At first, the US actually welcomed the Taliban and their fierce brand of law and order. This is where oil comes into the story, in an episode demonstrating that even a country with no oil at all cannot escape the machinations of "American oil interests." They led the Taliban welcoming committee. They had log been scheming to funnel the oil reserves of the Caspian areas -- perhaps the last great oil deposits on earth -- to Pakistani seaports by way of a pipeline laid across Afghanistan. ... The big problem was security. It doesn't pay to lay an oil pipeline through a war zone, and the bloody warlords kept on fighting and holding up construction. (Jones, p 57)

How does she back up her statement that the US led the Taliban welcoming committee? From Ahmed Rashid's Taliban, p 163 -- "It became apparent to me that the strategy over pipelines had become the driving force behind Washington's interest in the Taliban." Unfortunately for Jones, she must have gotten confused. Rashid explains what the Taliban offered the US, and Jones takes this as the US opening some sort of welcome mat.
In fact, long before US oil interests were involved, there was Argentina, Pakistan and a slew of other countries -- as opposed to one US company, Unocal, which spent a relatively small amount to have experts meet fruitlessly with the Taliban. I never appreciate an author like Jones, who banks on the ignorance of her readers.

Jones disregards Bush's policy as an irony and couches it in a tragedy,

It's an irony of this long sad story of slapdash American foreign policy that the Bush Two team -- who knew nothing about Afghanistan and cared less, except of course for the oil pipeline -- would be the ones to back the better man. But it's not the last irony. Five days after the new national security plan was adopted an al-Qaeda suicide bomber aimed a fake TV camera at the chest of Ahmad Shah Massoud and hit the detonator. Two days after that was 9/11. (Jones, p 62)

Jones returns to form by speaking of مسعود Massoud then quickly goes downhill again by bringing up interesting topics but failing to back them up, instead insinuating that Osama bin Laden was on the US payroll and referencing a highfalutin exposition that Osama bin Laden was an American wunderkind. Zingy remarks are memorable, quotable and damning -- but at best, they are also unintellectual.

His hair was salted with gray and his back was bad, and his life had been spent at war. Among men who glamorize war, he had become the greatest hero; but he must have known that among women, who scavenge the shards of war, he seemed another gunman, like the rest. In his last years, he designed and built a modest home for his family with a library for himself. The library had big windows that looked out over the Panjshir Valley and bookshelves to hold the works of the Farsi poets he loved. I read somewhere that he laid the carpet himself. He was a weary soldier who must have wanted to go home. He lived with his wife and children in that new house for only twenty days. Then he was murdered by outsiders in the pay of an outsider, another "former protégé of the United States," Osama bin Laden. He hadn't even finished unpacking his books. Whose fault was that? (Jones, p 63)

Speaking of hiring a car,

We set off before dawn for the marketplace on the northern outskirts of Kabul where trucks and private vehicles-for-hire waited for passengers. ... For half an hour he went up and down the line of vans and SUVs for hire, negotiating with drivers until he struck a deal for a Toyota Town Ace -- Afghans pronounce it "Tunis" -- and a dreamily handsome driver named Marouf. We climbed in, arranged out water bottles and our bags of bread and hard boiled eggs and tangerines around us, and settled in for a lovely drive. It was to be our little holiday. (Jones, p 63-64)

Speaking of the drive to Mazar-i Sharif via the main road along the Salang River,

In the gray light of dawn we drove north across the Shamali plains, past the rusted tanks and overturned personnel carriers along the roadside, the barren farmlands and broken vineyards, the orchards of skeletal trees, the mud-brick walls of farming compounds melting into the land. Dust to dust. At Jabal ul-Saraj, where the road forks northeast to the Panjshir Valley -- where Massoud had stood again and again against the Soviets: six times before he reached the age of thirty -- we crossed the river on pontoons aid beside the shattered brick piers of the old blown bridge, within range of the rusty gun of a Soviet tank half submerged in the stream. We kept to the main road, heading due north into the foothills along the Salang River, and the land began to rise. The river ran clear and glacially blue. At each bend, flat-roofed mud houses clustered on a south-facing shoulder of mountain. There the stream was edged by terraced patches of garden, and where it pooled into eddies, dotted with duck decoys cut from sheet-metal and fixed in place. The sun overhead was bright in the clear air, the sky a brilliant cobalt that deepen as we climbed higher and higher into the snow. (Jones, p 65)

A brilliant pass on the Salang tunnel,

When we'd left Jabal ul-Saraj, about two o'clock in the afternoon, Hasan said we'd reach the Salang tunnel in an hour. Built by the Soviets in 1964 to ease the flow of goods (and soldiers) between Afghanistan and the Soviet republics of Central Asia, this highway, crowned by the tunnel, was the main route between Kabul and the north, and in winter the only one. War with the Soviets had nearly wrecked it, and later, in 1997, Massoud blew up the southern end of the tunnel to trap fleeing Taliban troops who had captured Mazar-i Sharif only to have the people rise against them. Most of the rubble had been cleared, but the tunnel hadn't been fully repaired. Traffic moved officially in one direction only: north one day, and south the next. Now the road we traveled grew rougher, slowing us down, and the traffic thickened ahead of us. One hour. Two. "There it is," I said, when I saw that at the top of the long snowy slope before us the road disappeared behind a wall of concrete posts. But that was only the first gallery, Hasan said -- the first of many stretches where the road had been cut into the side of the mountain and covered with a concrete roof supported at the outer edge by concrete pillars. The galleries were meant to protect the road from avalanches, which in theory at least, could spill over the roof, but we came upon one gallery that had been completely swept away only the day before. A few surviving pillars canted out at odd angles over the slope, and far down the mountain others lay scattered near two upended trucks protruding from the snow. "Barfkuch," Hasan said. He was always ready with a lesson in Dari, the language Helen and I struggled ot learn. Barf, we knew, meant snow. But kuch? "Kuch, kuchi," Hasan said. Kuchis are Afghanistan's wandering nomads. Barfkuchi is snow on the move. (Jones, p 66)

What of the people arriving on the wrong day? Upon exiting the Salang pass,

The inside lane of the narrow road ahead was filled with hundreds of trucks headed south, parked now with the engines swathed in tarpaulins for warmth, waiting for morning and their turn at the tunnel. Forced into the outside lane, we crawled downhill in the dark, creeping from one icy switchback to the next. The other drivers, perhaps exhausted by combat or fearful of the drop that lay at the edge of the icy road, fell into something like a line to inch down the mountain (Jones, p 68)

While still in the Salang pass, though, Massoud was omnipresent,

Occasionally Marouf reached out quickly to touch the photograph [of Massoud hanging from the middle of the windshield], whether for luck or in homage I couldn't tell. (Jones, p 64)

I caught a flash of stars overhead, shining through a hole in the ceiling -- a "Massoud hole," Hasan called it -- and then we were out again in the still, cold night. (Jones, p 68)

Regarding driving and masculinity,

He punched up a tape at top volume -- some double-time pummeling of drums -- and revved the engine. He swung wide toward the edge of the road, gunned the Town Ace forward, and spun the wheel hard to cut in front of the cattle truck, leaning from the window to curse the other driver. Someone in the back of the cattle truck threw a rock that thunked on the roof, but Marouf was already skidding past the fuel tanker into the dark gallery. A little Corolla sped around the other side of the tanker into our path, cutting us off, and Marouf howled with rage. "Look at this," he shouted. "There is no one in charge. It is shameful." He bashed the rear of the Corolla and laughed when it skidded and sideswiped the gallery wall. I glanced at Helen, who was clutching the seat. Caroline shook her head and said apologetically, "They like to be first, these men." ... "A melee," Helen said. Caroline said, "Mountains can be so peaceful." (Jones, p 66-67)

The drive to Mazari-i Sharif continues,

When at last we left the gallery, it was night and the stars were brilliant in the black sky, the air thin but clean and cold. Soon we were stuck again. Before us the road disappeared in a long pool of water that stretched away between sheer walls of snow and ice as tall as a house. It was the entrance to the tunnel, blocked by a Corolla that had sunk to the door handles in the icy wash. Drivers stood all around, barking orders at the Corolla driver. "Help me, my brothers," he cried. "In the name of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, give me a push." The men hollered back, "Push yourself." At last three passengers crawled out of the windows of the Corolla, sank to their hips in the icy water, and pushed until the car rose up and disappeared into the tunnel. Marouf gunned the Town Ace and we plunged into the little lake. The water covered our headlights and we sailed on in darkness until the Town Ace rose again, slithering up a ridge of ice, and dropped into the tunnel. (Jones, p 68)

The following day,

We wound through a long narrow canyon -- Hasan said this pathway through the last mountain had been magically made by the Caliph Ali himself -- and then there were caravans of camels in the road and domed houses of red earth and at last the broad Turkistani plains that stretched away in one long, clean line to Mazar-i-Sharif. (Jones, p 69)

Regarding respecting law enforcement,

They finally reached the tunnel only to find that the military commander in charge had closed it indefinitely because fo the threat of avalanches. The drivers, in a fury, attacked the commander's soldiers and seized their weapons. They broke down the door of the commander's office and beat him nearly to death. The soldiers produced the frozen bodies of three men who had been caught in the last avalanche, the one that had swept away the tumbled gallery we had seen. The drivers were not impressed. They beat the soldiers. Then they got back in their trucks and drove through the tunnel. The next day Hasan reached his home in Kabul where his wife restored him by massaging his frostbitten feet and legs with salt. That same day a series of avalanches closed the Salang Pass, and it remained closed for a month. (Jones, p 69)

Buzkashi is played in Mazar-i-Sharif at Dasht-i Shadian.

A timeless scene,

Turbaned men were already gathering in the concrete bleachers, greeting their friends with a hand to the heart and a barrage of salutations. "How are you? How is your health? How is your family? How was your night?" They clutched their brown woolen blankets around them to keep out the winter chill ... (Jones, p 70)

Jones' description of the event was not so clear. There was no sense of motion or activity, but instead static descriptions of events -- I was unclear that anybody had risen above a trot until somebody mentions a lot of dust. Yet there was some greatly helpful vocabular, and some nice tangents that were in some cases irrelevant to the buzkashi,

"He's the tooi-bashi," Caroline said. "He's like the master of ceremonies, or something. ... He rides around. He runs things for the tooi-wala -- the khan who sponsors the games -- so the khan can sit back and look important. I suppose it's a ceremonial thing, but somebody always has to be seen to be in charge." (Jones, p 71)

Of Caroline, Jones has a few amusing words and then segues into one of the best parts of the entire book. Despite its painful metaphors that lift like dust in the wind to add a drippy facade of weight, the passage is memorable. However, Jones also reveals her mean side when discussing the notion of presentation. It is an issue which seems intuitive to somebody with any degree of intelligence and experience, yet she lays it out with the brutality of somebody who is already in the midst of a cloister of Manhattan friends despite physically remaining in Afghanistan -- why would she specify Afghan men in the last sentence? Is she really so other that she must clarify that locals of which she speaks are Afghan?

She'd been a horse ride herself in earlier days and imagined that she was one still. ... Caroline, lost in nostalgia, spun tales of thrilling horseback rides she'd taken in the fields of Kabul forty years before. Then meadows lay all about and the grass was green and the brimming irrigation jouies just right for jumping. That was before the land was laced with mines, of course. Before the rocket attacks and the bombs. Huddled by the woodstove in the darkened office on winter evenings, sharing a meal of leftover rice and bread, Helen and I would listen to the voice burbling out of the shadows. It came to me then, slowly, that Kabul in winter is a state of mind, a mix of memory and desire that lifts like dust in the wind to hide from view the world as it is.


'Afghans are very creative," she said. "Very poetic. Wonderful storytellers." No one loved Afghans more than Caroline. They could do no wrong. She too would carry in her mind the image of the proud tooi-bashi on his prancing horse, cutting a sharper figure -- bigger and more handsome -- than he appeared in the digital photograph where I could clearly read the frayed edges of [sic, no the] saddle blanket and chapan, the scarred face of the horse, the grizzled look of the old man's beard. You could not be in Afghanistan very long without learning that facts are feeble things. Never mind that you are old and poor, and your horse is too thin and wheezy. Presentation is everything, a display of the dauntlessness that keeps an old man, or a crippled country, going through the darkest times. Make your horse stand on its hind legs and dance, and you may make a name for yourself, a name that may be mentioned when Afghan men gather in the evenings to tell tales. (Jones, p 71-73)

Preparing for Kabul by e-mailing Caroline, though I fail to understand why Jones would ask about the weather when she can just check reference material -- just bring some boots and a few layers.

I'd sent her an e-mail to ask about the weather. "What's the winter like in Kabul?" I was packing. I had practical choices to make. "Do I need boots?" The answer, when it finally came, said nothing about the weather or the vexing issues of footgear and the proper weight of a winter coat. It said, "Please bring some good potato peelers and mouse traps for very small mice that are eating the kitchen towels. If you want to ride, bring your own saddle." As the winter wore on, a dozen potato peelers disappeared form the kitchen in the cook's pocket along with a dozen traps for very small mice ... (Jones, p 72)

A rank of horsemen disengaged themselves from the pack and rode forward to salute the khan. They were big hard-faced men, dressed in dark tunics and high leather boots and leather skull caps edged in fur, the outfit of professional buzkashi players, the chapandazan. Most of them probably were farmers, but when the cold weather came on and the crops were gathered and the buzkashi season began again, a local landowner would send out a message to his fellow khans who in turn would summon their best riders, and the farmers would put on their spurs and their leather hats and ride away to vie for the prizes -- silk turban cloths and piles of money -- provided by the generous host. ... All around them closed a pack of a hundred or more eager horsemen -- the khans for whom the chapandazan rode and the khans' followers, the sawarkaran. (Jones, p 73-74)

Jones continues her crusade against the United States, omitting other countries and certainly not mentioning the presidency of Jimmy Carter -- heaven help this party-liner.

Despite Amin's murderous efficiency -- or perhaps because of it -- the Soviets concluded that the American-educated Amin was "working towards a defeat of the revolution and ... serving reaction and imperialism." They suspected then, as many Afghans do to this day, that he was in the pay of the CIA. [Jones' own notes reveal this was not the case -- Ewans, p 202. According to Coll, the Soviet KGB originally attempted to discredit Amin by planting false rumors that he was a CIA agent, but in a classic case of blowback, they later came to believe their own disinformation and acted upon it. Coll, p 47.] By that time, the American secretary of state Zbigniew Brzezinski was also "working towards a defeat of the revolution" by starting a secret program to aid the Afghan counterrevolutionaries, the Islamist mujahidin. His devious plan was to draw the soviets into an unwinnable [sic] war in Afghanistan, to give the Soviets "their Vietnam," and it seems to have worked. (Jones, p 80)

Regarding the people who romanticize Afghanistan, this is the best response regarding the state of things in 1992,

Nearly two million Afghans had been killed, according to the UN, and another 600,000 to two million maimed. More than six million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran to become the world's largest population of refugees of a single nationality. Another two million Afghans had become internal refugees, in flight within their own country. And at least a million and a half had been driven insane by ceaseless war. Considering that there had only been about sixteen million Afghans to begin with, at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979, the UN figures meant that in the midst of the brother wars half the people of Afghanistan had already been killed or wounded, or driven from their homes or out of their minds. And still the battles went on. (Jones, p 81)

Later, Jones mentions views in and around Kabul -- Share Nau, and old citadel and the distant mountains of the Paghman range.

The US, getting things wrong again, had rehabilitated the discredited commanders by inviting them to a conference in Bonn in December 2001 to reconstitute themselves as the new Afghan regime. (In March 2005, President Karzai -- the same President Karzai who had vowed repeatedly to disarm the warlords -- would name Dostum chief of staff of the army; and US ambassador Khalilzad would commend the choice.) The presence of men like Dostum in the cabinet -- men who might just as well be tried for war crimes -- was a peculiar feature of the Afghan peace. (Jones, p 85-86)

Afghanistan, we learned from the TV, had been "rebuilt" thanks to millions of dollars of international aid pouring into the country. Where was it? That was the question we'd heard asked of American ambassador Finn only weeks before. At a big meeting of international aid agencies at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Afghan head of an Afghan NGO had stood up and barked his rude, ungrateful question at the ambassador who was even then going on about all that American aid was doing for Afghanistan. "Where is it?" the [sic, capitalization] Afghan said. "We have not seen it." The room went quiet with embarrassment. All the internationals present knew how aid works: that most of it goes to support the experts and contractors and bureaucrats of the "donor" nations, providing cover (and more tax dodges) for the rich in the guise of helping the poor. Ambassador Finn explained to the impatient Afghan that the "lion's share" had been spent on necessary "start-up costs" such as renting and refurbishing "appropriate work facilities" -- all those nice big houses -- and equipping them for "appropriate standards" of international living and work. Perhaps next year, he said, the benefits of aid would "trickle down" to ordinary Afghans. (Two and a half years later a candidate for the Afghan parliament would run on the slogan, "Where did the money go?") But at the time there was an unofficial freeze on humanitarian activities in Kabul; no one knew whether funds appropriated to rebuild Afghanistan would actually be delivered, or whether programs once started could be finished. International aid, such as it was, was on hold or drying up -- diverted to the looming war in Iraq. (Jones, p 86)

The morning after the bombs bega to fall I went down to the street as usual and found Sharif sitting in his car at the curb. How could I say "Salaam aleikum" -- Peace be with you -- when my country had just started a war? I said instead, "Chittur asti?" -- How are you? -- and climbed into the front seat. He didn't answer. He didn't return my greeting. This in a language and a country where ritual greetings are a prolonged ceremony as essential to life as air. The shock of Sharif's silence took my breath away. He threw the car in gear and we bumped down the street past the mosque where the loudspeaker was blaring another message from the mullah, though prayer time was long past. "This day is different," I thought, though the pale sun soaking the dusty morning air seemed to cast the same thin gray light as yesterday and the day before. Sharif pointedly turned on the radio news in Dari and cranked the sound way up.


I reached over and turned down the radio. "You're very angry this morning, Sharif," I said. "It's about the bombing, isn't it?"

He was silent for a long time, chewing the ends of his mustache. Then he said, "You bomb Afghanistan. Many people killed. But we also happy Taliban go away. You say you help us. Now you bomb Iraq. Go get oil. Next maybe Iran? Syria? Will you bomb our brothers everywhere?"

"I don't know," I said.

"Already you forget Afghanistan," he said. "Just like before. Russians go. Americans go. What you care about Afghanistan? Nothing. Let them fight. Let them kill each other. You can watch. Like chicken fight in Babur's Garden." Sharif pushed a tape into the deck and a high, keening voice filled the silence with unutterable grief. It was a familiar Shi'a lament about the slaying of the Caliph Ali's son Husain and infant grandson on the plain of Kerbala sung by a woman whose voice seemed to groan with pain. He had played it before one cold, rainy day when he'd driving me to the Panjshir Valley to see the place where Massoud lay dead. It was the saddest music I have ever heard.

"You Americans," Sharif said. "You are children. You think of today only. What about years to come? What about promises you made in year last?"

So there it was. He had believed in the American promise -- that this time we would not abandon his country, and we had betrayed him. We promised aid that most did not see. We promised reconstruction that didn't happen. We promised a new democratic government and installed the same old warlords. We promised peace that didn't come. We promised loyalty that lasted no longer than General Dostum's alliances. Yet Sharif would have been loyal to America, and President Karzai, if we had given him the chance. (Jones, p 87-90)

Of the women's prison,

The long, low prison building lies at the back of a walled compound housing the provincial administration: the Welayat. The compound is crammed with shabby office blocks: the governor's office, the court, the men's detention center, the headquarters of state prosecutors and investigators. It takes up two or three square blocks near the center of Kabul, yet it is inconspicuous; almost every building in Kabul crouches behind anonymous walls. (Jones, p 93)

FDH [Frauen die Helfen] psychologists and doctors were especially skilled at sorting the dark strands of multiple traumata and helping women reweave something like a life. But how is that to be accomplished in the aftermath of war that lasted nearly a quarter century, in a country where women and girls are by custom routinely confined, raped, beaten, sold, and murdered? Drowning in such violence is a kind of dying, fast or slow -- depression, anxiety, suicide, violence and more violence visited upon the self. Physicians for Human Rights tried to assess the damage and reported that in 2001 "more than 70 per cent of Afghan women suffered from major depression, nearly two-thirds were suicidal, and 16 per cent had already attempted suicide." But what exactly troubles this woman with wracking pains, that one with numbness and lethargy? Why does this one scream so much and that one tear out her hair? What makes this one run away from home, and that one set herself on fire? How can they be helped? In Afghanistan there was no end of such women, and some of them were here in this prison. (Jones, p 94)

Under the windows, were what appeared to be bundles of rags or laundry piled on the floor. Then I saw that each bundle was a woman wrapped in a shawl and huddled against the wall with her knees drawn up under her chin. Each bundle was a prisoner.


She [Marzia] greeted each one by name, and picked up the scattered details of their lives. "How is your baby, Zara?" she asked, crossing the room to kneel on the floor, peel back the edge of the blanket, and peer at a knotted face. "Are you giving her the medicine? Does she sleep? And you, Merhu, have you seen the doctor? Fariba, did your mother come to visit you?" The women timidly mumbled their relies, as if they were afraid to get the answers wrong. The baby seems a little better, thank you. The doctor has not come. Nor the mother. Thank you very much. (Jones, p 95-96)

I'd spent a lot of time in women's prisons in the United States, interviewing the inmates ... each of those American prisons was equipped with running water, central heating, electricity, lights, toilets, hot showers, hot meals, medical care, rehab programs, extension classes, TV, radios, beding, cigarettes, shampoo, legal aid, library books, telephones, chaplains, counselors, playing cards, hair-dryers, Coke, candy bars. Every women had a cell -- a harsh and lonely room, but her own. The worst moment, always, was walking out the door, hearing it clang shut behind me, knowing that I had just exercised a privilege the women I'd left behind, on the inside, might not know again. I left them, on the inside, to their private anguish. But this was worse. These women, huddled on cheap, filthy beds, some clutching swaddled babies as small and silent as loaves of bread, crowded together in dank, freezing rooms like steerage passengers in the hold of some dismal ship, adrift. This was misery. (Jones, p 98)

The numbers of women in prison amounted to only a few dozen, though some women may have been held at local stations and abused; further, most women were undoubtedly punished directly by their families,