Many of my early travels around Afghanistan were part of an effort to understand the infrastructure problems that the Afghan National Army (ANA) would face to see how the U.S. and its allies could help them deal with their future problems. This journey in November from Kabul, the Capital city tucked in the mountains, across the plains north of the city and up the Salang Valley to one of the highest tunnels in the world was no exception. First, we were trying to learn about the extent of the landmine problem in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Second, we wanted to see the road system that crossed the mountains dividing the Northern militia strongholds from the Central and Southern part of the county. The road link between Kabul and the northern cities was vital to the new Army and the new government. The Salang Tunnel was the key to that route. (photos from the travel team)
The main party for this trip included Marin Strmecki an OSD advisor on Afghanistan, LTG Retired Crocker who was helping develop a training program for the Afghan Army, MG Karl Eikenberry the officer charged by the Secretary of Defense with developing the new Army and coordinating the entire security sector reform process. Our guide was a gentleman from the British HALO Trust demining NGO named Gerrard. His team was working up and down the plains and valleys north of Kabul and he was one of the best-suited people to describe the status of the demining operations in the country. Our usual patient and daring team of security personnel, drivers, and interpreters were also along for another adventure. None of them were very excited about entering a minefield on purpose or driving a road that kills hundreds yearly in due to avalanche or suffocation near or in the tunnel but they were amazing as always.
You may recognize The HALO Trust logo or name from the late Princess Diana’s partnership with them to bring awareness to the number of landmines buried worldwide. Today Prince Harry is a patron of The HALO Trust and the team is still very active today in “getting mines out of the ground” in over 16 countries. To date HALO has removed over 12 million explosive devices from the ground which means they have possibly stopped the death or maiming of at least 12 million living beings.
We started our trip out of Kabul where there was no snow on the ground and the temperatures were around 40 degrees.
As we neared the Bagram Airfield area we approached our first minefield undergoing de-mining. We had already passed through miles of red and white stone lined roads. Red painted stones marked the areas that still retained mines while white painted stones marked areas that had been cleared.
The HALO Trust team took us into the villages where some people were starting to move back into the cleared portions. We saw many people with missing limbs, as well as animals that had found hidden explosive devices over the years. The villages were part of the front line of major battles that had been fought near the mouth of the Panjir valley over the decades. It made for one of the most daunting minefields I have ever seen as an engineer officer. It was literally a 3D minefield. The mines were embedded in the mud walls, on trees, and of course in the ground. But the ground had been re-seeded with mines over the years so even if you cleared them down 12-18 inches you may still find a lower level of mines from an earlier minefield at the 24-36 inch level.
These de-miners were some of the bravest men I would see in Afghanistan. They were Afghans trained and paid by HALO Trust to reclaim lands that had been lost to years of warfare.
After touring the mined village and pasture we moved to a disposal site where the mines we sent down a long conveyor belt to a machine that literally chewed and shredded them (hopefully without detonating them).
We also got some demonstrations of the various low cost modifications they did to standard construction equipment to turn it into de-mining equipment. It was sobering to think about how many villagers in this country had lived for years in these villages dodging the mines and explosives as they went through their daily routine of gathering food, raising livestock, washing clothes, and walking to nearby villages to shop, trade, or work.
After we spent a few hours in the minefields and talking to the de-miners our team packed back in the vehicles and started to climb up the mountains towards the Salang tunnel. We left the crisp cool of the brown plains and entered valleys that contained rushing clear cold water. The houses were built into the sides of the earth and there was plenty of green to be seen in the gardens surrounding the homes.
The snow started to thicken after we crossed a series of makeshift bridges that used military equipment to span the valleys. We always inspected the rickety bridges to assess how an 18-wheel truck would navigate it as we would soon be hauling tanks from the North into Kabul for refit so they could be used by the new Army. Below most bridges were the remains of previous bridges and vehicles that unsuccessfully navigated over the structures. This area was near the Panjir Valley made famous by one of the leaders, Ahmad Sha Massoud, who led a faction against the Soviet Union and then held out until the U.S. arrived against the Taliban government. His activities during the civil war in Afghanistan are a topic for another time. Massoud was assassinated by AQ just days before September 11th 2001 but his allies would partner with the United States during invasion.
The roads, as we travelled further northward and higher in elevation began to twist and turn up the valleys and with only a few concrete guardrails along the miles, were very dangerous.
As we neared the Southern end of the tunnel we ran into the traffic backed-up waiting to enter the tunnel that was not yet open to two-way traffic. We were waiting in an area that was notorious for annual avalanches that wiped dozens of vehicles and hundreds of people off the 11,000 foot roadside. We could only hope that our timing was good.
The tunnel was state of the art when it was built with the assistance of the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It is 11,200 feet above sea level and the trek through it is 1.6 miles long. Most of the tunnel is 20 feet wide and at its highest points its 16 feet high. When we entered the tunnel we discovered two things, it had no lighting and no ventilation. That is when our guide started to describe the deaths by suffocation that often occurred when a vehicle breaks down and blocks the tunnel. The other cars stuck in the tunnel don’t turn off their engines so the tunnel quickly fills with dangerous gasses that cause people to pass out and die. It was at that point a call over the radio ensured that all the military drivers keep their protective masks handy in case of stoppage.
We moved slowly through the pitch black tunnel without incident as we traveled North. Once on the other side we all quickly rolled down the windows to get some fresh winter air. We turned around our caravan at the next available spot and joined the line of trucks and vehicles heading South through the pass. We would be awhile so everyone got out stretching their legs and breathing some clean air.
It was one of the most breathtaking views I had seen so far in Afghanistan.
As the trucks started to move slowly forward we remounted our vehicles and the drivers prepared to drive and slide downhill through the tunnel that was a bit icy.
This time we were not as lucky as the vehicles stopped as we neared the center of the tunnel. Our drivers donned their protective masks as the gasses built up in the tunnel and started to make everyone groggy and nauseous.
The drivers avoided any major accidents as we passed safely to the south side of the mountains without passing out.
The trip back to Kabul was a reverse of the northern route and we ended the day with a dinner for the team. The Salang Tunnel is still active today and after much construction is a bit safer for drivers. Nearly 7,000 vehicles pass though the mountain daily shaving off 200 miles of driving to go around the mountains separating much of Northern Afghanistan from the capital region. It may not be one of the wonders of the world but the Salang Tunnel is an unforgettable piece of the earth that is invaluable to the Afghan people.