Saturday, November 15, 2008

A full description of the Mountain Ranges of Afghanistan

Climbing with Bruce Watson from Hokitika, in the Kohi Anjuman Range in August 1996. We were at about 5000 metres when I took the photo. Photo Bob McKerrow

It is a warm sunny day in Christchurch, New Zealand, the 15th of November 2008. I have been back in New Zealand for four days which has given me a chance to put together and publish a few articles I wrote when I lived, worked, trekked and climbed in Afghanistan in 1976, again from 1993-96 and visited in 2003-04 and 05. I also spent two years working in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and was able to visit the Afghan borders and look into Afghanistan and study the complexities of the mountain systems. See map of Afghanistan below.

I was fortunate to be able to do some climbs in Afghanistan, as well as some mountain skiing between 1994 and 1996 and the article Various Short Walks in the Hindu Kush can be read on my blog:

Bob McKerrow on skiis in the western Hindu Kush an hour or so from the Salang Pass. January 1996. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I hope this article adds something to the knowledge of the Mountains of Afghanistan.

Writers and geographers have wrestled with descriptions and the location of the high Hindu Kush. It has been called the solar plexus of Asia, the Pamir Knot and in the second century was thought to be the source of the Nile by the Greek geographer, Ptolemy. Afghanistan is roughly quadrilateral in shape, with the long finger called the Wakhan stretching east wards.

A satellite image of the Hindu Kush taken in 2006

Afghanistan is a land-locked country lying between 29o 35' and 38o 40' northern latitude and between 60o 31' and 75o 00' eastern longitude on the mountainous and desert areas where the Iranian plateau borders with the mountainous systems of Central Asia.

The country is bounded on the north by the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (9238km), on the north-east by China (96km) and India ? (102)km, on the south and east by Pakistan (2310), and on the west by Iran (925 km)

The cover of the book I wrote on Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The system of folded mountains is quite complex and erratic, but generally run north-east to south-west. The north-east and central parts of Afghanistan make up a huge highland area covering over half the country with an average altitude of 2000 metres. The dominant mourn-tain system in Afghanistan is the Hindu Kush which commences in the extreme north-eastern corner of the Wakhan corridor and stretches in a south-westerly direction for more than 700 km finishing at the Shibar Pass. On the western side of the Shibar Pass the Kohi Baba curves south-westwards and can almost be called an extension of the Hindu Kush. This huge mountainous region descends on all sides quite abruptly to flatter regions, except to the north-east where it becomes the Pamirs.

To the north the Hindu Kush falls into the plains of Bactria which stretches as far as the Amu Darya (The Oxus River). East it drops to the Indus basin, to the south is the dry deserts of Seistan and Garmsers and to the west, about 140km from the border of Iran the mountains de-scend into the steppes and Namaksars (salty deserts) of Herat province. The huge tract of land north of the Hindu Kush

The boundaries of Afghanistan have changed dramatically in the last 200 years. At the start of the 19th century, Afghanistan stretched from Meshad to Kashmir, from the Oxus to the Satlej River and to the Arabian Sea. This greater Afghanistan was built by Ahmad Shah Durrani (1747-1773) and was known as the Durrani Empire.

Unfortunately, the British colonialists in playing the great game and wanting to feed their politician's paranoia of the Russians, placed a buffer between Lahore and the Afghan border. The north-west frontier province was carved out of eastern Afghanistan and was incorporated it into the Indian Empire. In placing this formidable barrier between themselves and Russia, they left the highest peak of the Hindu Kush, Tirich Mir in India, now Pakistan. As most Afghans still regard everything in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province across to the Indus as rightly belonging to them and knowing that the 100 year agreement (forced upon Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893) over the artificial border known as the Durrand Line has expired, they believe one day they will get back all their lands illegally seized by the British.

Early writers refer to the the area where the Hindu Kush abuts the Pamirs as the Pamir Knot. or the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia. Lowell Thomas saw it thus:

The system of folded mountain ranges that spans Asia from east to west radiates out from the Pamir knot, " a region of wilderness, of rock and wind and dizzy peaks." Westward it extends from the Hindu Kush to the Elburz Mountains, south of the Caspian Sea, and to the Zagros Mountains that form Iran's southern frontier. Branching out from the Hindu Kush to the south and east are the four major ranges-the Karakorams, Himalayas, Altyn Tagh, and Kunluns, which continue into China as the Tsinling Mountains. To the north range the Tien Shan and the Atlai mountains, the latter extending from the Gobi Desert to the southern edge of Siberia

This photo shows what early explorers called the Pamir Knot. The coming together of the Pamirs, Hindu Kush and Karakoram Ranges

The English explorer Colonel Schomberg describes the meeting point of the world's great ranges.

"As the traveller climbs up to the passes on the frontier, he gazes over an expanse of snow and rock. To the east are the Karakorams, the Kun Lun, and the Himalayas: to the west and north are the Hindu Kush and the down-like windswept Pamirs. To the south are the great snow ranges of gilgit and Kashmir. He has reached the solar plexus of the mountain system of Asia, baffling and most repelleFor the purpose of defining the Hindu Kush, I use Moham-med Ali's definitions, the the Oriental Hindu Kush and the Occidental Hindu Kush. Mohammed Ali was a former Professor of History, Kabul, and a prolific writer of books on Afghani-stan.

In deciding where the two divisions occur I amalgamate both Mohammed Ali's and Ludmig Adamec's dividing lines, the Khawak Pass. However Adamec goes further and divides it into three sections, the eastern from the Pamirs to the Dorah Pass, the central from the Dorah to the Khawak; and the western from the Khawak pass to the termination of the range near the Shibar Pass.

Hindu Kush ( Oriental)

The start of the Hindu Kush oriental. A view of peaks near Noshaq taken from the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Starting on the north-eastern extremity of the Wakhan corridor where the Pamirs abut from the north and the Karakorams from the south east, this is the meeting place of four countries: Remote, mysterious and seldom visited the countries of Tajikistan, China, Pakistan and of course Afghanistan meet. With its starting point in the Wakhan, the Oriental Hindu Kush con-tinues through Badakshan to the Khawak Pass in the Panjcher Valley, the graveyards of thousands of young Greek soldiers, who were led by Alexander the Great in the spring of 327 BC over the Khawak Pass. The soldiers died, frozen to rocks as they dropped from cold, exhaustion and frostbite.

It contains the highest mountains in Afghanistan. Noshaq, 7485 metres is the highest point, of the Afghan Hindu Kush.

In an area surrounding Noshaq are many peaks over 7000 metres. The highest peak in the south eastern limit of this Oriental Hindu Kush is Mir Samir, 5,800m, made famous by Eric Newby in his book "A Short Walk in The Hindu Kush," based on his eccentric journey in 1956 with Hugh Carless. Mir Samir is a magnificent peak, close to the Chamar Pass, and a two to three day walk from the Khawak Pass. I attempted to climb this peak in 1995 and climbed an unclimbed 5000 metre peak nearby.This is the upper part of the scenic Panjcher valley and contains the Anjoman Pass, 4200 metres which conects the Panjcher valley to Badakshan. This pass I have crosed four times and affords one of the most spectuacular views of the Hindu Kush, and the Tirch Mir can be seen in the distance in Pakistan.

A Lake in northern Badakshan near the Tajik border

A subsidiary range runs south off the Hindu Kush into Nuristan and another to the north the Khuajeh Mohammad Range with peaks up to 5,800 metres.

Hindu Kush (Occidental)

The road leading to the Salang Pass, which has the highest road tunnel in the world. It conects Kabul and the Shomali plains to the plains of Bactria. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The western section of the Hindu Kush starts at the Khawak pass and continues another 200 km to the Shibar Pass in a south westerly direction. Halfway between the Khawak and Shibar passes is the Salang Pass and the Salang tunnel, supposedly the highest road tunnel in the world. There is no peak over 5200 metres in this section, but what it lacks in height, it makes up with spectacular scenery and hospitable mountain people, particularly in the lower Panjcher valley.

The Hindu Kush occidental, was first named by Persians in their language of the Avesta, well before the coming of Alexander of Macedonia. They called it Paropanisadae, and means, a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle's flight. Alexander's men graecised it to Paropanisus. However it seems the Persian and the Greeks, were referring to the part of the Hindu Kush seen from Koh Daman, the plains north of Kabul, and is what we call, the Hindu Kush Occidental. The sheer size of the Hindu Kush is hard to gauge from a map. From 1993 to 1996 I criss-crossed the Hindu Kush countless times in the course of my work and the best viewpoint always was flying south to north over the Salang Pass at over 20,000 feet early in the morning. From the air, the Salang Pass appears in the middle of the mountain massif. To the north-east the Panjcher valley, narrow at the start and broadening later, dominates the low foreground. Thousands of peaks, increasing in height towards the eastern horizon dominate the jagged landscape. Two peaks are easily recognisable, Mir Samir on the southern side of the Panjcher and to the north, Kohi Bandak. As your viewing perspective nears the eastern horizon a jumble of indistinquisable high peaks merge into a mysterious white world. The width of the range is astounding, over 190 km including the subsidiary ranges.

To the west the Hindu Kush diminishes in height and later merges imperceptibly into the Kohi Baba which in turns spreads in all directions into the wild and desolate tablelands known as Hazarajat. From the air the snowcovered tablelands look as though the concave mountain faces have been shaped by an ice-cream scoop. Standing alone to the west-north-west is the Turand-i-Turkestan, isolated. impressive and clearly separate from any other range, except for a spur running south-east, named the Hesar Range.

The author wearing a turban at a wedding ceremony in the mountainous Panjcher valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Kohi Baba

Starting 25km south-west of Bamian, it extends in an westerly direction for 120 kilometres miles, curving like a boomerang. From the air its looks like an extension of the Hindu Kush with its highest peak Falodi 5135 metres prominent in the centre of the range. South and south west of the Kohi Baba is a very mountainous plateau area from which various tributaries of the Helmand river starts. To the north-west of the Kohi Baba is a mountain range from which the fist trickles of the Balkh River start. The peaks reach 4555 metres in height and appear from the air as a continumn of the Kohi Baba.


The Kohi Baba is in the centre of a region that early Afghan geographers described as the Central Block of Hazarajat. A number of explorers and geographers have likened it to Tibet. Mohammad Ali's description cannot be bettered. "This is a vast table land extending from Herat to Kabul and from Ghazni to Bamian. It is a high, bleak, and intensely inhospitable country, where snow lies for a greater part of the year, and where little or no fruit is grown, and the cultivation is confined to the narrow banks of rivers and streams. This irregular table-land has been scored and eroded for centuries by river action. From here emerge some of the greatest rivers of Afghanistan. To the north the river Khulm (Tashqurghan) and the Balkh take a hurried start for the plains of Bactria; westward the Hari Rud streams off to Herat; south-ward extend the long curving lines of the Helmand, Harut, Khash Rud and Arghandab, and eastward flows the Kabul with its various branches. A rugged mountain mass, called the Koh-i-Baba and Firoz Koh, the lineal continuation of the Hindu Kush."

Camel trains carrying loads in the Central Hindu Kush, near Hazarjat. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The southern extremity of Hazarajat are Shah Massoud and Kafar Jar Gah ranges which run along the southern border of Oruzgan provinces.

Firoz Koh

To the west of the Kohi Baba is a twin range named the Firoz Koh. It runs parallel to the Tir-band-i-Turkestan, which lies to the north. The northern branch of the Firoz Koh is called the Safid Koh (the white mountain) and the southern branch is called the Siah Koh (the black mountain) It lies within the Hazarajat region.


The name Parapomisus is a confusing name and it pops up in history books going back as far as Alexander the Great. One writer says " Continuing meanwhile his own advance, Alexander arrived at the foot of the colossal mountain-barrier, the chain of the Paropanisos, which separates Kabul from Bactria.

The natives designation was Parapamisos, or, as Ptolemy more correctly transliterates it, Paropanisos. "(J.W. M'Crindle) In the course of time this range gets shifted to the west. Ali describes it as " a small range lying to the the extreme west, between the districts of Herat and Badghis. Its local name is Siah Babuk.".

Ludwig Adamec in his Historical Dictionary seems to agree with modern maps: He spells it Paropamisus and says" the name given by Western writers to the Safid Kuh and Band-i-Baba, the range bounding on the Hari Rud (q.v.) valley on the north." A number of cartographers, particualrly the Polish during the Soviet occupation, leave the name off the map altogether and stick to the more specific ranges, the Safid Koh and Band-i-Baba.

The Paropamisus is specatcular when driving from Qala-i-Nau to Herat. It takes on the appearance of the Italian Dolomites with it sheer-sided pinnacles. The Sabzak Pass is the main pass and is usually cut off in the winter.


This impressive range forms a mountain border between southern Fariab and Sar-e pol and the northern border for Badghis and Ghor provinces with peaks reaching up to 4161 metres. Approached from the north, the Turband -i-Turkestan breaks the lunar-like landscape of Fariab province by providing a stately-white mountain range that dominates the high south-ern horizon. A number of villages at altitudes of 2000 metres are inhabited by mountain Tajiks who plough and plant the treeless mountainsides with a hardy variety of wheat. Pockets of Hazara and Uzbeks families also live in the villages at slightly lesser altitudes. The Tur-band-i-Turkestan is frequently racked by earthquakes, and is situated on an active faultline. At its eastern extermity an outlying range, the Hesar mountains run south easterly where the bor-ders of Ghor, Sar-e-pol meet Bamian province. The highest point of this range is 4539 m.

Lowell Thomas writes about the early history of the geography. "The source of the Nile and the location of the Mountains of the Moon were two of the earliest geographical enigmas. Both puzzles lasted into the nineteenth century, for not until central Africa had been penetrated and mapped did it become possible to solve them. ..... In the second century AD., Ptolemy, with the accumulated wisdom of the astronomer, mathematician and geographer, was more positive.In the fourth century BC., Alexander the Great had consulted the oracle of Jupiter (Amen-Ra) in the Siwa oasis of Egypt about the success of his expedition into the East-and about the sources of the Nile (which he thought he had found in the Hindu Kush mountains of Asia, near the headwaters of the Indus River.

It's a wonder Alexander knew where he was at the time, because he referred to the Hindu Kush as the Caucasus. On later maps they were referred to as the Indicus Caucasus. Probably, "Caucasus" was bandied about in the same way the name "Alps" is to-day, Aristotle further confused the issue by calling the Hindu Kush the Asiatic Parnassus. According to Babur, founder of the Mogul Empire, Hindu Kush means "Dead Hindu." Today we render it "Hindu Death."

Kohi Paghman

Possibly the most photographed mountain range in Afghanistan for from most parts of Kabul the north-west skyline is dominated by Kohi Paghman, a jagged range with summits reaching almost 5000 metres. Kohi Paghman forms part of Kohi Daman, Daman meaning skirt, a skirt of mountains that circle the north of Kabul. On a winter's day there is cannot be a more impressive capital city view in the world than standing in the mountain Lion capital Kabul, looking at the ring of mountains in all directions, the most prominent being Kohi Paghman.

Bushkashi, the mountain metaphor. It is a wild game played on horseback where a goat is used as a ball. Photo: Bob McKerrow

From the village of Paghman a main river valley leads up and forks, one valley leads into Parwan and thence, Bamian, (a well known packing route) the other into Wardak province.

This was the favourite region of the first Mogul Emporer, Babur. Here he wrote his poems, held wine parties, visited friends and soaked in the beauty.

Speen Gar and Safed Koh

This is an off shoot of the Sulaiman range. Sikkaram, its highest peak, is 15,600 feet.A magnificent range when cloaked with winter snow and from the air and ground it dominates the landscape of Nangahar provinces and acts as a divide between Nangahar, Lowgar and Paktia provinces. There is a discernable pass between the eastern Speengar and the connecting range, the Safed Koh, (not to be confused with the Safed Koh in the Parapomisus, which divides Nangahar province from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. The Safed Koh curves from its predominent west-east direction to the north east as it descends down to and finishes at at the lengendary Khyber Pass.

Kashmund Range

When flying from Jalalabad to Kabul's Bagram airport it is possible to see the Speengar and the Safed Koh to the south and to the north a craggy range running from Assadabad in Kunar province to near the town of Metarlam in Laghman province. The south-western end of the Kashmund range drops into the southern end of the Alingar valley which leads to the high peaks of Nuristan. Further westwards is the fertile Tagrab valley which has an impressive un-named twin peak with a spot height of 4420 , trees cling to its steep sides up to 3,500 m. In winter the twin summits look similar to New Zealand's magnificent ice peak, Mt Tasman and its lesser peak of Silberhorn.

Sulaiman Range

This range is the barrier between the Indus basin and the Helmand River. It starts in Paktia Province at the Shutur Gardan pass 11,200 feet and runs in a south-south-easterly direction where it takes on additional names, the Mangal and Jadran hills. The highest points reach up to 12,000 feet. It is likely the mountain range got its name from the Sulaiman Khel Ghilzais, the name of the tribe whose land it passes through. There is another range of this name which runs along the Baluchstan-Punjab border.

The bones of thousands of over-ambitous conquerors and their followers lie strewn across the heights of the Hindu Kush as they tried to take Afghanistan, but few were able to hold the mountain lands for long as the Soviets found out in the 1980's. This current war, like so many earlier ones against Persian, British and Russian armies, will be decided in the mountain valleys and passes where fanatical warriors momentarily put aside tribal feuds and joined together, displaying a unique brand of mountain guerrilla warfare which is based on hawk-like instincts, circle, swoop and loot. The spoils of war provide important resources. Of all the mountain passes in Afghanistan, the Khyber pass has a long history of conquests and death.


There are thousands of significant mountain passes dotted throughout the country and it is not possible to name them all. However, the important ones have been mentioned in this article already.

The road winds up to the Khyber Pass, Landi Khotal and Torkham.

The most famous of them all is the Khyber Pass as it is weakest chink in the great chain of mountains stretching across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is the most famous of all passes in Asia, the Khyber Pass. Lowell Thomas describes the Khyber's strategic importance:

"The fabled Khyber cuts through the mountains south of the Hindu Kush, west of the Pamir Knot, connects the northern frontier of West Pakistan with Afghanistan, and links Turkestan in Central Asia with the subcontinent of Hindustan."

Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass became the nineteenth century's legendary Northwest Frontier, patrolled by British military units like the Bengal Lancers. Campaigning through the "hills," their deeds of glory provided colorful material for Rudyard Kipling. In his "Arithmetic on the Frontier," Kipling paid tribute to the price paid by those early "few" with slightly racist overtones, not uncommon of that ear.: "

With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troopships bring us one by one
At vast expense of time and steam
To slay Afridis where they run.
The "captives of our bow and spear"
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear

Landi Kotal Cemetery

A reminder of the huge loss of life can be seen today, when you head towards the Khyber Pass you pass the Landi Kotal Cemetery where soldiers of the British Army, mainly from 1879-80 (Second Afghan War) and 1898 and 1919 (Third Afghan War), are buried. Many regiments and battalions are represented here. Two stone obelisks stand in the middle each bearing a plaque. The inscription on one is almost faded and the other records: "Sacred to the memory of the British soldiers of all ranks who lie buried near this spot 187 of whom died at Landi Kotal from the result of wounds received in action and from disease during the Afghan Campaign of 1879-80 and the remainder since the reoccupation of the Khyber in 1898"

Wherever you are in Afghanistan it is impossible to escape the influence of the mountains. The success of crops depends on adequate winter snows, millions of sheep, goat and cattle rely on the lush summer alpine grazing for their survival, the country's economy depends on the gemstones lodged in deep mountain recesses, transportation is reliant on the condition of the alpine passes, avalanches, spring snow melt and the resultant floods can wipe out a village and its total crops with a flick of its icy tail.
And, with the heavy deforestation and overgrazing up to the snowline all year round, local eco-systems and the biodiversity have been so impacted that the mountain habitat is degrading so quickly that landslides, flooding from bursting natural dams caused by blocked rivers, have wreaked havoc in mountain regions. Local mountain inhabitants complain that changing weather patterns are affecting their lifestyle. The result is a major ecological disaster occuring in the Hindu Kush.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Kuchi or Kachchhi nomads - India and Afghanistan

Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan

In late 1993 when I moved to Afghanistan for 3 years, I started taking a deep interest in Kuchi nomads and over the years traced their roots and routes to Central Asia, Kachchh district in Gujarat, India, and places beyond.

A map of Gujarat showing the Rann of Kachchh where the Kachchhi nomads live and graze and nmove to the fringes when feed disappears.

I quote from my diary in June 1995. One of the memorable aspects of this trip was our contact with Kuchi (nomads). On our way up the Panjsher valley on 3 June 1995, our way on the narrow dirt road was constantly blocked by up to 50 Kuchi extended families moving their livestock - camels, goats, sheep, donkeys and horses - to higher pastures for grazing. Most of the Kuchi we saw were in the area from Rokhah to the road pass of Rawat. Their black, low-slung tents, made from goat hair, were dotted all up the valley.

Goat hair tents in the hills of Herat

They tend to go in large extended family groups with one of the men leading heavily laden camels, between, 2 to 5, carrying tents, pots, water jars, bedding, firewood and materials to trade etc. The men were dressed in the way of normal Afghans but the women were conspicuously different.

First of all the striking colour of the baggy trousers, either dark green and a red, near maroon red top/dress over the trousers. The head scarf was usually a bright colour. The younger women, under 30, had their hair parted in the middle and broaches/hair clasps on the fringes.
Facial tatoos were noted on all women, probably done at or around puberty. In most women seen, they had tatoos on either cheek, sometime one on the chin and forehead.

Young girls seemed to all have dark black hair cut in the page boy style. Eyes very large and striking, ranging from the predominent dark brown to a few with blue eyes.

They cared well for their animals. Young goats were in the tents being protected from the elements, women tenderly carrying lambs in their arms, an old sheep, probably lame, riding on the back of a camel. The camels were usually adorned with colourful braids, goats had bells on their necks and the donkeys carrying saddle bags.

Babies and young children were tied on to backs of camels or donkeys and wore intricately embroidered hats/bonnets. The children seem so content sitting on the backs and thrive on their mobile geography lessons.

The children and young women seem to be gatherers of wood, berries, leaves, wild vegeta-bles, powdered lime/rock.

Carpet making is clearly an activity. Ian saw one women making a kilm runner. One old man was preparing wool from a sheep skin.

The above is merely from observations on the trip.

Louis Dupree, the great authority on Afghanistan wrote this :

"Before the war started in 1979, it was estimated that about two million Afghans are either fully nomadic or semi nomadic, and an increasing number of these two types join the already numeropus semi-sedentary groups.

These are herdsmen who move as a group from summer to winter pasturages and back again. Most nomads are either Pashtun, Baluch, or Kirghiz. The Pashtun and Baluch move more horizonatlly than vertically; but the Kirghiz in the Pamir Mountains move more vertically than horizontally."

It is likely that the nomads we saw were mainly Ghilzai, Eastern Pashtuns.

Actually, the nomads have a functional symbiotic relations with the villagers along the routes from grassland to grassland.
Sheep and goats supply meat, dairy products, wool for clothing, rugs (Khilms) and goat hair for tents. Nomads often trade these items for grains, vegetables, fruit, and nuts, and although cash exchanges increase every year, barter is still common when the migration routes leave the modern lines of communication.

Trade items (tea, sugar, kerosene, matches, guns, ammunition etc.) are offered to villagers by the nomads; itinerant peddlers function only where the nomads do not control the monopoly.

Money lending is a major economic activity of the wealthier nomads. Even landowning
village farmers need extra cash for birth, circumcision, marriage, or other ceromonies and rituals; the nomads happily lend money at exhorbitant rates. etc

Animal dung, a primary source of fuel and fertilizer, is liberally spinkled on farmers' fields by the nomads flocks after harvesting. etc.

Communications flow from region to region through the mouths of nomads... the nomads also serve, contrary to popular belief, as the maintainers and perpetuators of marginal grasslands.

When you delve deeper into where the word Kuchi came from, it is from Kachchh, the far western corner of India in the north of Gujarat. Tejinder Singh Randhawa an authority on the Kachchhi people says in his book., " Katchchh has been a significant confluence point for different races and people. The nomadic pastoralists are certainly the most interesting and their links can be traced on one side to the Marwar and Mewar (regions of Rajasthan, Saurasht and, on the other side, Sindh and beyond to Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia."

I lived in Bhuj, during the Gujarat Earthquake in 2001 and spent a lot of time with Kachchhi people and the similarities in dress, embroidery, pastoral nomadic life were so similar. I studied the embriodery closely and compared it with the Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan. Virtually identical. The similarities were astounding. I would like to quote my my good friend Bernard Dupainge, Ditrector of the Museum on Man in Paris. His words on embroidery are revealing about culture.
He says this about embroidery:

" The richness of its history, the diversity of the landscape, everything inspires to make Afghanistan a stronghold of traditions and art forms. Each valley has its own cultural identity, it own orininality. In a country where the main route of communications were overrun by invaders, the mountaineers turned in on themselves. Access was difficult and uncertain, the valleys isolated."

As Louis Depree says earlier in my piece, that the nomads traded, bartered and influenced culture. Embroidery would have been traded, and of course copied. Hence similar embroidery a thousand miles or more apart.

Kuchi children in Afghanistan. The embroidered shirts on these Afghan Kuchis are almost identical to the designs i saw in Katchchh district, Gujarat, India.

The largest group in Katchchh district in India are the Rabari who are Hindu cattle herders and shepherds. The other main group of pastoralists are consist of two dozen nomadic or semi-nomadic Muslim groups who trace their roots from Sindh and beyond. The Jath are the largest of the group.

Kachchhi nomads near Bhuj in Gujarat India with their camels.

But despite the seemingly romantic way of life the Kuchis appear to have, the situation in Afghanistan is grim as Paul Garwood reported recently from Kabul, Afghanistan
One man lives penniless in a field under a patchwork tent with baying dogs roaming outside. Another, wearing a suit jacket and tie, glides past his silver Mercedes as he welcomes guests into his plush Kabul villa.
Both are Kuchis, which means "nomads" in Pashtu language. Yet they have little in common, except their shared heritage and the view that the life of Afghanistan's wandering peoples is fading.

Kuchis on the move in Afghanistan

Few of the itinerant tribesmen have settled down and prospered. For the majority, life has been pushed to the brink by poverty, war, shrinking access to land, ethnic tensions and leftover land mines.
"We are the last of the true Kuchis, but because of the hardships we are fed up with this life," said Fugal Khan, a 50-year-old Kuchi who has hit the road with his family and five others, heading for higher country to beat the coming summer heat.
Officials estimate there are about three million Kuchis among the 25 million or so Afghans, with about 60 per cent of them still following the nomadic life. They are among the poorest of the battered country's poor, owning little more than a tent and a few sheep and cows.

For more than 3,000 years, Kuchis were Afghanistan's pre-eminent transporters and traders, serving as a mobile bridge between South Asia and the Middle East.
But now Kuchis like Khan, who recently arrived on Kabul's outskirts after walking 100 kilometres from eastern Laghman province, are a largely forgotten people, neglected by government.
Armed villagers and warlords often chase them off the land guaranteed to them under the new constitution. Hospitals refuse their sick, and graveyards reject their dead. They earn money by selling milk from their animals, but many also make their children work or beg. Even if they wanted to settle down, most couldn't afford to buy or rent a house.

An elderly Kachchhi women near Bhuj, Gujarat

Yet not all Kuchis share the same lot.
Some have bought property and use it as a base to return to after several months of travel. And there is a smaller, more affluent group that settled down long ago, leaving the roaming lifestyle behind.
Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, chief of the Grand Council of Kuchis, is among the wealthiest and most influential Kuchis, thanks to a large family inheritance based on land ownership as well as a successful transport company. He is also a vice president of an American security and reconstruction company.
As chief of the Kuchi council, which represents the interests of largely settled Kuchi tribes, Ahmadzai deals with important Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. But he says ideas he has put forward to improve life for the poorest nomads, such as providing community centres and integrating them into settled societies, aren't being taken up.
"Nomadic life is coming to an end. Ninety-eight per cent of the Kuchi lifestyle has changed," Ahmadzai said, sitting in his luxurious Kabul home filled with deep red Afghan rugs and dark brown lacquered tables. "The grazing land is not there, transportation and trade has changed so much. Kuchis are not needed."
Kuchis played a key role in Afghanistan's post-Taliban political revival, throwing their support behind Karzai in 2005 presidential elections.
The nomads' most influential figure, Naim Kuchi, was detained by U.S. forces in early 2003 for being a Taliban commander, then freed in late 2004. Karzai feted him on his return, a gesture many Afghans believe was aimed at courting Kuchi support at the ballot.
Ten of the 249 seats in Afghanistan's parliament have been allotted to Kuchis, but many are filled by people who aren't nomads because few actual Kuchis stepped forward to contest the election.
Warlords with records of war crimes and serious abuses during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s, such as parliamentarians Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and current Vice President Karim Khalili, have been allowed to hold and misuse positions of power, to the dismay of ordinary Afghans.

Kuchis were also promised a government department to handle their affairs, but it never materialized.
Shahbuz Ahmadzai, a prominent tribal leader hand-picked by Karzai to advise him on Kuchi and tribal affairs, accuses the government of doing nothing to help nomads.
"Kuchis have the hardest life of all Afghans. These people have no possibilities even after giving their vote to President Karzai," he said. "If my advice keeps being ignored and I continue to be disappointed I will resign."
Nomadic life on Afghanistan's high plains has become more dangerous amid the proliferation of weapons and scattering of land mines, particularly during the mujahedeen uprising against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and the ensuing four-year war to topple a communist government.
"Before the revolution, we Kuchis had a very good life and were free to use huge areas of desert," said Alim Jan, a 45-year-old nomad.
"But things changed with the war between the communists and the mujahedeen. Everyone took up guns and nobody now listens to the government. Now when we enter the desert, men approach us with guns and say: 'Go away, Kuchis.' "

This is just a snippet of information I have gathered on Kuchi or Katchchh nomads and would appreciate feedback. Next article I would like to elaborate on the embroidery of Afghanistan.

Monday, November 10, 2008

To sit by the Samovar

Nomadic Kyrgyz boiling water in a Samovar for tea. Note the silver coloured Sanovar at the ankles of the man who has a wood supply around him to keep it going all day. Note the pipe on the Samovar which helps the fire draw better.

Tea made from water heated in a Samovar has always tasted better than any other type of tea. Perhaps the charcoal and the smoke flavours the water. In my travels in Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan and India, I must have drank thousands of cups of tea from Samovars. But I rarely get the chance to talk about Samovars but a few weeks back, Satya Tripathi and Bill Nicol came round for dinner and began admiring my Samovar collection.

The Russian expression "to have a sit by samovar" means to have a leisurely talk while drinking tea from samovar. Satya, Bill and I did just that and we had a wonderful evening talking about tea, tea shops (Chai Khannas) and the origin of Samovars and of course Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and India. I recall some vodka and red wine being produced at some stage too. Two of my favourite Samovars are a beautiful brass one with the Royal Seal of the Czar and Czarina of Russia and dated 1895 (below in front of me on the right) and a home-made silver one I found in a bazaar in Afghanistan (in frony of Satya on the left below).

A samovar мовар, Russian pronunciation: [səmɐˈvar] literally "self-boiler") is a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water in and around Russia, as well as in other Central, South-Eastern and Eastern European countries, in Iran, Kashmir and Turkey. Since the heated water is usually used for making tea, many samovars have an attachment on the tops of their lids to hold and heat a teapot filled with tea concentrate.

By the time Catherine the Great died in 1796, Russia was consuming over six thousand camel loads of tea per annum-better than 3.5 million pounds! This is especially impressive when you reflect that nobody had invented a faster camel. What they had invented, probably as early as Elizabeth's tme, was the samovar, a Russian word that means "self heater."

The likeliest explanation I can come up with for this invention is that the samovar is a modification of the Mongolian firepot, which operates on the same principle and was used by the trans-Ural nomads for cooking. Be that as it may, the samovar soon became a feature of everyday life throughout Russia. For reasons of tradition and economy, Russians were accustomed to a single, if mammoth, daily meal, and high and low resorted to the samovar the rest of the time, generally sipping their tea from glasses through a sugar cube held between the teeth.
Though traditionally heated with coal or charcoal, many newer samovars use electricity and heat water in a similar manner as an electric water boiler.

Tea plantation in India

Samovars come in different body shapes: urn- or krater-shaped, barrel, cylindric, spherical.
A traditional samovar consists of a large metal container with a faucet near the bottom and a metal pipe running vertically through the middle. The pipe is filled with solid fuel to heat the water in the surrounding container. A small (6 to 8 inches) smoke-stack is put on the top to ensure draft. After the fire is off a teapot could be placed on top to be kept heated with the passing hot air. The teapot is used to brew the заварка (zavarka), a strong concentrate of tea. The tea is served by diluting this concentrate with (кипяток) kipyatok (boiled water) from the main container, usually at a ratio of about 10 parts water to one part tea concentrate, although tastes vary.

A conical urn-shaped silver-plated samovar
It is particularly well-suited to tea-drinking in a communal setting over a protracted period. This compares with the Japanese tea ceremony, but only superficially.
In everyday use it was an economical permanent source of hot water in older times. Various slow-burning items could be used for fuel, such as charcoal or dry pinecones. When not in use, the fire in the samovar pipe was faintly smouldering. When necessary, it was quickly rekindled with the help of bellows. Although a Russian jackboot сапог (sapog) could be used for this purpose, there were bellows manufactured specifically for use on samovars.
The samovar was an important attribute of a Russian household. Sizes and designs varied, from "40-pail" ones of 400 litres (100 US gallons) to 1 litre (1 US quart) size, from cylindrical to spherical, from plain iron to polished brass to gilt.

So whether it was Elizabeth or Catherine the Great of Russia who promoted the invention of the Samovar, it didn't really matter as Bill, Satya and I sat round the Samovar the other night. It was tea for all and not one slip between the cup and the lip.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Buzkashi, the mountain metaphor

Buzkashi, the mountain metaphor

A frentic crowd of 10,000 gathers in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. A few fruit trees display the first pink and purple blossums of spring.. The crowd includes the President of Afghani-stan, Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Defence Minister, Ahmed Shah Masood and a handful of diplomats. To get a better view of "the game of the year" many people stand on the top of buses and trucks while the more daring cling to the high branches in nearby trees. The land-scape is spectacular, basic, rugged and elemental like the game. The Hindu Kush encircles the northern quadrant of the rough field, less than five kilometres away. Fresh avalanche debris score the mountain faces.

Many of the spectators like myself left Kabul early this morning, some 90 kilometres south where the sound of outgoing mortars and aerial bombing by the government against the Tali-ban militia south of Kabul could be heard. And while one war continues another is about to start, one which epitomises the Afghan warrior spirit. " It constantly reminds the sedantary farmer of his former nomadic ancestry, and helps the nomad relive the greatness of his past cavalry victories," wrote Loius Dupree. He continues, " Buzkashi, like baseball to the Ameri-can, cricket to the British, and soccer to the French, characterizes and often caricatures the es-sence of Afghan culture."

Buzkashi is a game which originated on the plains of Mongolia and Central Asia where it was believed that they used prisoners of war instead of goats or calves and is played primarily by Uzbeks, Turkomen and Tajiks. The Persian name Buzkashi means "goat-pulling" and is played on horseback by two opposing teams. The rules vary a little from the north, the home of Buzkashi where there are few rules, to the south in and around Kabul where during the King's time the Afghan Olympic Federation tried to clean up the game with the introduction of more rules and a referee on horseback. The game embodies the Afghan's love of horses and the oneness he developes with his trusted stead.It takes years of training to reach the necessary skills to play the game safely. The Af-ghan proverb " better a bad rider on a good horse than a good rider on a bad horse" sums up the need for the horse to be well trained. When a good rider and horse are one, a chapandaz is born.

It is March 21 1996, Nawruz, the first day of the Afghan New Year, the start of the Buzkashi season. The best horses from the Panchjer valley, the plains of Parwan, Kapisa and Kabul provinces Most of the players are Tajiks, many mountain Tajiks. The finely trained horses and proudly trot towards the grandstand as each team of upwards of 15 players are introduced to the President. The headless goat (sometimes a calf) is placed in the circle close to the stand. At the shout and whistle of the referees the chapandaz (master players) try to grab the goat out of the circles while the rest of the team hover round. The experienced players try to rear the horses, who snort, bite and kick as a melee developes. Riders slash the opposition horses and riders with their whip as the experienced chapandaz try to grab the goat and pull it up to-wards the pommell and then tries to break clear of the melee. Once free he is hotly pursued and rides furiously to the first corner turning post. The game is at its best as the horsemen with his goat heal steadily races across the face of the mountainous landscape pursued by op-position riders who try to wrest the goat from his grip. The object is to ride around the corners posts of the field and to drop the the goat in the circle When the chapandaz breaks free there is a magical moment of oneness, man, horse and landscape merge. All else is forgotten.

It's a quiet Thursday afternoon in Kabul. Today and tomorrow Kabul celebrates the 3rd anni-versary of the Islamic revolution. It was in April 1992 that the various mujehadeen factions overthrew the communist-backed Kabul government.

This morning we were invited to the Kabul Olympic stadium where the celebrations started with a Bushkashi game, the toughest sporting game in the world. I think I've explained in pre-vious letters that is a cross between polo, rugby, wrestling where whipping opposing horse riders until they bleed from the face is quite common. Instead of a ball you have a headless goat or calf, and the object is to wrestle, ride, fight until someone gets the carcass clear of the melee and the gallops to the goal (circle) in front of the grandstand and drops it in. I was per-mitted to go into the arena and film whatever I liked. Imagine 50 highly trained horses with their aggressive riders divided into two teams, the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. The main game lasted one and a half hours and was a highly competitive contest. On a number of ocas-sions I got too close and I found five or more galloping horsemen in my viewfinder heading towards me with hooves flaying, less than 10 metres away. I got out of the way once, but the second time I was jammed between 10 horses and the crowd watching from seats a metre above the playing field. I was grabbed or plucked by the spectators to safety and managed to get some great action shots of the fiery struggle for the headless goat. During the half-time break one man dressed in traditional black and white Pahtoon (Pathan) clothing, came in front of the grandstand and asked for two knives. He then danced, working himself into a frenzy with swirls and wheels and with each movement the knife grazed his throat. Before long an-other ten men joined him and a small band started up providing umpah-pah music. The crowd was clapping and chanting and the stadium reverberated with laughter and joy. I was so heartened to see people enjoying themselves after so many years of suffering.

Three days ago Ahmed Gizo came to join me in Kabul. Ahmed is our finance, administration delegate and is from the Sudan where he worked for more than 10 years as Deputy secretary General. He comes from the border region of Sudan where it bordersChad. His father is a tribal chief and Ahmed inherits the title. Tall, graceful. chiefly and wearing a long white cot-ton gown and turban, heads turn where ever he goes. We went to the Buskashi match yester-day and everyone looked at him.. I walked at his side and felt like the King's aide as we took our seats in the VIP box.


Afghanistan's mountain ranges developed in the alpine Orogeny, though some traces of previ-ous uplifts had also survived. During the orogenic movements the area was wedged between the rigid blocks of central-Asiatic Hercynides in the north and Precambrian blocks of India in the south. The geological structure of the mountains is very complex; both Palaeozoic rocks (granites, genisses) as well as Jurassic, Cretaceous and Tertiary (limestones, sandstones) de-posits have been have been identified there. Around one-sixth of Afghanistan's contains Eocene and Quaternary deposits. Quaternary sands and gravels occur in the north, whereas loess covers the Neocene conglomerates, sand-stones and siltstones. Intermingling siltstones, sandstones, conglomerates, sands, gravels and loess are also found southwards of the mountain ranges.

Orogenic processes are still active as evidenced by seismic vibrations taking place in Af-ghanistan's mountains, in particular in the eastern part of the Hindu Kush and its foothills. Kabul lies in a most active seismic zone.

Due to a diversified geological structure Afghanistan is quite rich in mineral resources, which include deposits of uranium, crude oil, gas, iron ore, copper, chromium, zinc and lead, beryl, barite as well as gold, precious and semi-precious stones.

The relief of the high Afghan mountains is youthful; narrow valleys and steep, rugged peaks are there characteristic features; in many places the effect of glaciers is evident. To the west the mountains become lower and their slopes gentler, they often turn into plateaus with the surrounding peaks protruding above them. In a dry climate the steep peaks are well preserved, but the slopes are covered by the weathered rock. The valleys are often closed by alluvial cones, while numerous faults are clearly marked in the relief. Dunes of wandering sands have developed in the sand deserts (National Atlas of DR of Afghanistan)


For centuries Afghanistan has been known for its quality gemstones, particularly lapis lazuli. However in recent years, there have been significant finds of fine emeralds, tourmaline, kun-zite and very recently, rubies.

Emeralds come mainly from the Panjshir valley. Considerably quantities of blue, pink and green tourmaline, as well as significant amounts of kunzite and some aquamarine, have been taken from the pegmatites of the Nuristan region. Smaller quantities of fine ruby have been discovered in the Sarobi area. In addition, there have been small finds of garnet, amethyst, spinel and morganite.

An expert on Afghan Gems, Gary Bowersox, from Honolulu, Hawaii, believes the prospects for future production of emeralds and pegmatite gems, are excellent.

Most of the recently produced gems have come from the north-eastern part of Afghanistan, Badakhshan, Kunar, Laghman, Kabul and Nangahar provinces. In recent years the Hindu Kush and Karakoram range in Pakistan have yeilded spectacular finds of gemstones. These gem bearing regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan "are located in one of the most geologically dynamic regions of the world - at the juncture along which the Indo-Pakistan and Asian crustal plates collided to give rise to the Himalayas. The geology of this region is quite com-plex, and it has been investigated in detail only recently.These investigations indicate that the Hindu Kush area represents the western end of a succession on important gem-producing re-gions that stretch all along the Himalayas through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and into Burma. " A Status Report on gemstones From Afghanistan. by Gary Bowersox. Gems and Gemology Winter 1985 Due to the insecurity and remote of these sites in Afghanistan most of the gems are smuggled across the border into Pakistan's north-west frontier province.


The soils in the high mountains are desert-steppe or meadow-steppe; in the river valleys the
soils are alluvial or meadow-alluvial: Serozems and brown desert soils cover large portions of the country in the north and south; loess is also found in the north. The deserts are covered by sand and regs.


Afghanistan's vegitation is mostly that typical of semi-deserts and steppes. Ephemerid vegeta-tion grows in the sandy semi-deserts and halophilous vegetation is found in the salt semi-deserts. the most common trees on more humid soils are oaks, ashes, willows, poplars, planes and fruits trees in orcahrds. Forests of the Himalyan type, including evergreen oak woods, grow in the borderland between Afghanistan and pakistan (in Nuristan and Paktia) lying at an altitude up to 2400m above sea level. Pines, spruces and cedars grow at an altitude of 3500m. Alpine meadows extend above that level. The slopes of the Tirbandi Turkistan are covered by pistachio woods.


The fauna of Afghanistan is similar to that of Central Asia and the Mediterranean sub-kingdom of Palaeoarctica. Beast of prey, like the snow leopard, the brown bear, the wolf, the striped hyena, the jackal, the fox live in the mountains. Hoofed mammals are represented by Marco Polo sheep, the goitered gazelle and the ibex. Numerous species of birds, rodents, rep-tiles and amphibians have been recorded. There are also many insects


Afghanistan has mainly a dry, continental climate. The amplitude of temperature between day and night is very large. The great variety of terrain elevation results in different climatic types. Areas, such as north-eastern and central Afghanistan, lying over 2,400 m have long winters (over 6 months). at an altitude of 1300-2400m (eg the zone of Kabul) the climate is temperate or almost temperate, four seasons are clearly marked, and annual precipitation is up to 400mm.
The zone at an altitude between 900 and 1300m is characterized by hot summers and annual precipitation below 200 mm. In areas lying at an altitude below 900 m it is less than 100 mm and the climate is dry and hot. Some small portions in the country's east (Jalalabad, Xost) are influenced by south-eastern monsoons and the climate is subtropical. the highest temperature was recorded in Zaranj (51oC,) the lowest in Sharak (-52.2oC) The higest amount of precipi-tation (1212 mm) was noted on the station Salangi Samali, the lowest was measured in Zaranj (34 mm)

Return to Afghanistan 2003

4 April 2003


On 10 March 2003 I returned to Afghanistan for 3 weeks to work with the Afghan Red Crescent Society.

It was a mixture of emotion and joy as I returned to Afghanistan after having been away for six and a half years.

There are many highlights that spring to mind but one that stands out, was when I saw a young girl of about 11 leading her blind father into the Federation compound. Slowly I recognised the man, Khan Mohammed. We embraced and for what seemed eternity, we exchanged greetings about our families, our lives and we reflected on the time we first met in 1994.

I looked at his daughter and asked, " Are you Saliha ?"

" Yes, " she replied shyly.

My mind went back to that day in early 1994 when Kabul was under heavy rocketing during fractional warfare, and one of our drivers said to me there was a blind mother and father trapped with two starving children, in a building which had been heavily shelled. The rest of the occupants had been evacuated. I visited with ARCS friends and found Khan Mohammed and his wife, both blind, and a severely malnourished baby and a little girl, Saliha, who looked about two.

We examined the baby who was getting low quality milk from her Mother who hadn't eaten properly for weeks. The baby looked in a very serious condition. Saliha was also severely malnourished. The only food items in the house was some tea, no sugar and stale strips of bread. The children were shivering in the below freezing temperature as the fuel for the heater had finished three weeks earlier. Only a few tattered blankets kept the family warm at night.

We got medical treatment for the children and arranged for food, clothing, new bedding, blankets, fuel and toys for the children.

Visits to Khan Mohammed and his family became a regular feature of my three years in Afghanistan between 1993 and 1996.

Seeing Khan Mohammed again with his daughter leading him by the hand, both looking so healthy, was something that I'll never forget.

I asked Saliha about her life and she said, " I go to school now and I like that." She said she has four younger brothers and sisters, but one died a few years ago.

I talked to Khan Mohammed about his life and he told me how things had improved and how he was so grateful to Red Cross for helping him over the years.

We talked about his sight and he said, "Some years ago a Russian doctor said it might be possible to get sight back in one eye."

" If I could see it would take so much pressure off Saliha who has to look after not only my wife and I, but her younger brothers and sisters."

I have decided that all profits from my recent book will go to helping selected families in Afghanistan, who have family members who are blind. I have already arranged with eye surgeons in Kabul and Delhi who have agreed to assist.....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Spies, soldiers, diplomats and ordinary people

An old Tajik man at Jami's gravesite in Herat, prays for peace. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Shabibi Shah in Afghanistan during the 1960s

The old woman was gazing out of the glass doors into her small, neat, English garden. But as she talked, she was reliving a moment from her traumatic Afghan past.

"He was beaten," she said. "He lost his four front teeth."

Shabibi Shah was remembering her husband Zafar's emergence from prison. He had been jailed by the Afghan communists, who were then in power.

"He wasn't himself. We had to admit him to a hospital - a mental hospital.

"He went crazy for a while, until he got better - and then they put him in prison for other reasons. They were just trying to destroy people who were against them."

Eventually the family fled in 1980. Mrs Shah endured some of the hardest days of her life as she walked through the mountains with her children to the safety of Pakistan, before eventually settling in Britain.

I had asked her to tell me her story in the course of making a radio documentary - a history of modern Afghanistan.

Our project involved raking through three decades' worth of the BBC's archives. We contacted Afghans in Kabul and elsewhere, and spoke to soldiers and diplomats and former spies - Russian, American, British and Pakistani.


I was repeatedly and powerfully reminded of the sheer extent of the suffering that the many years of war and political upheaval have inflicted on the Afghan people.

Like Mrs Shah, almost every Afghan has an extraordinary story.

Abdul Baseer was just a teenager at the start of the communist era.

He told us how he was picked up on the street and flown by helicopter to a remote outpost in the mountains.

He was meant to be turned immediately into a soldier and put on the frontline in the regime's fight against the mujahideen guerrillas.

The mujahideen drove the Soviets out in 1989 with the help of US weapons

"They had mined the whole area around the garrison so you couldn't escape," said Mr Baseer. "People were obviously thinking about how to get out of that place rather than enthusiastically thinking about being part of that wonderful army."


One Russian officer, Oleg Kulakov, knew all about the brutal realities of life on Afghan battlefields.

He told the programme of the ambushes, and the fear and frenzy of mujahideen assaults in the night.

"Sometimes there was very close combat - hand to hand," he said. "That was very difficult. You are thinking about survival."

He spoke of dust, and blood and men crying out in the darkness.

"I know of no-one who would like to live it again," he said.

After being wounded for a third time the officer remembers convalescing in a military hospital in Afghanistan.

He took a walk in the grounds and came across a stack of coffins. He asked who they were for, and was told that they were being readied for Russia's "future losses".

Inevitably, he wondered if one of the coffins might one day be his.

But of course, the Russian officer was lucky enough to survive, whereas perhaps around a million Afghans were killed in the war that his army waged with much brutality.

There were many reports of villages being laid waste, and of atrocities.

I asked the officer if he was ashamed of that.

After a long pause, he replied: "Sometimes."


The mujahideen, with the help of American-supplied weapons, won their great victory and drove the Soviets out in 1989.

But they went on to disgrace themselves after eventually ousting the Afghan communists and seizing the capital.

A former soldier in the communist regime, Sami Dinarkhail, told us of the day that he watched his old enemies march into Kabul.

He said some in the city had looked forward to the arrival of the fighters, but that they were soon disappointed.

He described seeing gunmen who had perhaps never driven a car before taking vehicles and crashing them, then finding another - and then crashing it too.

Along with the looting, there was the start of the fighting between warlords that would ravage the country for years to come.

And from that chaos emerged the Taleban movement.

Initially their restoration of a kind of order was widely welcomed in their heartlands, and even in Kabul.

But again there would be much disappointment.

The Taleban brought with them an austere, narrow interpretation of Islam that involved banning what they saw as corrupting distractions, like television, music, dancing and kite-flying.

There were strict regulations on dress and appearance, and women were banned from most education and employment.

And even more darkly, a young ethnic Turkman, Rahmat Wali, told the programme about the Taleban oppression of ethnic minority groups in northern Afghanistan.

He talked of how his uncle Hamid was dragged from his home, forced into a pickup truck and taken to a detention centre.

Later the family identified his body, one among many. Rahmat Wali told me that marks on his uncle's corpse showed that he had been tortured.

Holy war

And of course the Taleban attracted a dangerous friend - Osama Bin Laden.

The whereabouts of al-Qaeda's Saudi-born leader remain a mystery
He had been among the young radicals from across the Muslim world who had been drawn to and inspired by the Afghan holy war against the Soviets.

Now the likes of Bin Laden were ready to focus on that other superpower, the United States.

We talked to the former CIA man Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit set up by the agency to track the al-Qaeda leader as he moved across Afghanistan.

Mr Scheuer told me of his deep frustration at the Clinton administration's passing up of what he believes was an extraordinary opportunity to kill Bin Laden in the governor's palace in Kandahar one night late in 1998.

And after studying his target very closely for years, Mr Scheuer drew conclusions about Bin Laden's motives that you might not necessarily expect from a CIA man.

"The war that America is fighting now has nothing to do with what any American political leader has been willing to tell the Americans," he said.

"We're fighting people who believe that our foreign policy is an assault on their religion and on the people who believe in that religion. You don't have to agree with that, but you have to be an adult in the sense of understanding what motivates your enemy if you hope to defeat him."


Among our interviewees there was much criticism of the strategy that the West has pursued on all fronts in the aftermath of the ousting of the Taleban.

It was argued that far too little in the way of troops and resources were thrown into the project, and that the Americans too quickly moved on to the Iraq war - imagining that their work was largely done in Afghanistan.

There was criticism too of the West's collaboration with the former warlords who have done so much damage to Afghanistan in the past.

But the former British diplomat Rory Stewart (below), who now lives and works in Kabul, took a slightly different line.

"To govern Afghanistan is a bit like being a Chicago ward politician in the 1920s," he said.

"It involves being very good in understanding power, understanding who has power in a local area, and an understanding that if you are going to remove them you have got to think very carefully about who you are going to replace them with."

Mr Stewart said that the aim in the long run must be to phase out the warlords. But, he said: "You're not going to get to the long run unless you make some compromises and are prepared to work with people who you might not like to have dinner with."

Thanks to Alan Johnston of the BBC for permission to use this.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Three bloody summers in Afghanistan

Some of the fiercest fighting has been in Helmand province

I lived four years in Afghanistan. 1976 and again from 1993 to 1996 and did many short visit after 9/11. I published a book on Afghanistan called " Mountains of our Mind " published by India Research Press.I am appalled at the continuing loss of civilian lives, and the lives of soldiers on all sides. Did the British not learn from three Anglo-Afghan wars ? Did the US not learn from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. in 2003.

Buskashi has been part of Afghan life for hundreds of years. If only foreign leaders had of read the famous book on Buskashi by Whitney Azoy, they would have never entered this country. Who advises world leaders ? Indiots in ivory towers ?

Below is one of the better articles on the matter I use with permission from the BBC.

Three summers ago, Britain's war in Afghanistan began in earnest when 3,300 troops set up camp on a small, remote patch of desert in a little-known place called Helmand.
Some of the fiercest fighting has been in Helmand province

It's now a name most associate with war - a place where more than 100 British troops have died - and where efforts to bring stability and defeat a fierce insurgency have so far failed.

Some say there aren't enough troops, others say there are too many, and even commanders now admit this war won't be won by military force alone.

President Karzai questions Britain's tactics in Helmand

Based in Kabul, I have followed British troops over the last three years, and before leaving my posting in Afghanistan, went on one final trip to Helmand to try and answer the question of whether this mission is worthwhile.

In April 2006 it was sold, politically, as a peace-building mission.

"We'd be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot," the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, announced in Kabul.

But the following day the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler gave another insight: "The greatest danger is we know very little about Helmand province, so it is a lack of information that will be the greatest challenge."

Just a few months later, troops were fighting for their lives, defending small isolated bases from wave after wave of attacks, dropping bombs on their doorsteps to keep insurgents at bay.

2008 has been the bloodiest year yet for coalition troops

Since then, the nature of the fighting has changed, but the violence has continued.
2008 has been the bloodiest year yet for coalition troops

We experienced first hand the violence again this year - a third bloody summer for British forces in Helmand and at a forward base on the fringes of the town of Sangin.

We were met by incoming fire, as rockets crashed down close to the camp and British forces scrambled to return fire.

The next day, out on patrol, troops were dropping mortar bombs just ahead of their own positions as the Taleban moved forward into battle.

One mortar fell short through some technical fault and a soldier was injured, and the troops scrambled back to base with the insurgents in hot pursuit.

The next day they did it all over again, and on that occasion a 24-year-old dog handler was killed.

Since 2001 more than 120 British servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan.

Finding a way to win

The Taleban have lost many more men in the fighting, among them key commanders. They may wear flip-flops and fight a guerrilla war with old-fashioned weapons, but they are still a force capable of taking on the world's finest armies and not losing.

The definition of "winning" or "losing" is vitally important when it comes to what British and other international forces want to achieve in Afghanistan.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who commanded British forces in Helmand this summer, told Panorama: "There is no exclusively military solution to the nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan."
This power turbine will help provide electricity for more than a million

It's become clear over the months and years that this counter-insurgency campaign can't be won by fighting alone.

What then are the options for troops who are taking on a force prepared to die in battle, to blow themselves up in suicide attacks, and to plant roadside bombs in an effort to kill international and Afghan soldiers?

British forces came here to stop Afghanistan from again becoming the haven for al-Qaeda it was when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11.

Troops are supporting the Afghan government, helping them to bring peace and prosperity and at the same time trying to tackle the huge problem of opium production, the raw material for most of the heroin on Britain's streets.

It has meant fighting to bring enough security to allow civilian experts to bring development projects to the people and better government to their town halls.

The strategy is to persuade Afghan people their lives will be better in a stable, secure, democratic Afghanistan.

This year more than £20m ($32m) will be spent on development projects in Helmand, including a river scheme which will bring irrigation water to 20,000 people and schools, clinics and wells.

However money has also been spent on a £300,000 road that, so far, goes nowhere, and a £400,000 park which few people use as security is so bad.

We met farmers and businessmen who laughed at the idea there was security in the towns and villages across much of Helmand.

People's opinions of the international efforts to help their country have changed over the past seven years.

In 2001 after the Taleban were forced from power, optimism was overflowing as first a new democratic constitution, then a president, then a parliament all took up office.

Millions of Afghans, living in exile after nearly 30 years of war, headed home with high hopes that finally their country was on track.

Millions of girls went to school, billions of dollars arrived in aid and the West felt confident it could change regimes and stabilise countries.

The battle for democracy

President Karzai questions Britain's tactics in Helmand
But this is Afghanistan: a fiercely tribal, staunchly Islamic, traditional society where warlords and drug barons, human rights abusers and criminals held sway amid the chaos and gained power as the Taleban fled.

Afghans were disappointed as the West failed to meet the expectations or bring the basics such as security and justice, but they now put up with the foreign involvement knowing it would be civil war if they left.

The Afghan government is struggling to keep a hold as the situation is gradually deteriorating.

President Hamid Karzai believes the British in Helmand have taken the wrong approach.

"The problem in the West was they felt they could copy in a day a system of administration and management which has been practiced in your country for more than a century," he told Panorama.

The troop presence continues and more US forces will soon be deployed to Afghanistan, an important and strategic country wedged between Iran and an increasingly chaotic Pakistan.

Can the multinational forces "win" in Afghanistan? Only if winning means staying and not "losing" long enough for Afghanistan to shape a stable future.

However, with the insurgency filtering into the vacuum left by poor governance and security, time is on nobody's side but the Taleban.

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul