When the United States initially entered Afghanistan after September 11th 2001 it primarily came in through the Northern region. Our allies up North weren’t the best of friends but they cooperated long enough to help push the Taliban out of the North before resuming their own battle over territory.
Two critical cities in Northern are Mazar-e-Sharif (Mazar or MeS for short) and Sheberghan.
Blue Mosque and Shrines, (Mazar-e-Sharif means Noble Shrine)
At the center of Mazar-e-Sharif sits the Blue Mosque pictured above. The first shrine was probably built there around 1100 AD under the Seljuq Dynasty. After Genghis Khan decimated Afghanistan the holy site was restored in the 1400s. It gives the city its name, Noble Shrine. Multiple tombs have been added to the complex over time and it is a popular tourist attraction every spring when Nowruz (New Year) celebrations marking the beginning of Spring are held. People travel from all over the country to celebrate the pre-Islamic traditions of honoring the Spring. One festival called the Guli-Surkh (red flower) occurs during the bloom of the red tulips in the North.
There is a local legend that the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law who was a later leader of Islam was carried to this site to protect his body after death. Ali and another line of religious leaders were in disagreement over succession of power in Islam. The majority of Shia Muslims believe that Ali is buried in Najaf Iraq next to Noah and Adam.
Here is a better look at the painting behind my head above.
Back to the trip…
The untrusting allies in the North when we visited were Abdul Rashid Dostum in Sheberghan located in Jowzjan Province and Atta Mohammad Noor in Mazar located in Balkh Province. We had attached Special Forces and Intelligence Officer teams to each man during the invasion, where one team was part of one of a unique horse-cavalry skirmish.
Dostum, an Uzbek, is currently a Vice-President in the Afghan National Government, while Atta, a Tajik, remains the Provincial Governor of Balkh where he has held power since our visit. We visited the contested area of these two powerful Northern leaders while they both had militias battling for power against each other and soon after an assassination attempt against Dostum. Shortly after our visit a truce was made and the men shared power in the North, for the most part.
This map shows the two major cities and their proximity to the Northern border of Afghanistan. Far to the south of the Hindu Kush (Hindu Killers) Mountains is the Afghan Capital of Kabul. Between the two cities we were visiting sits the ancient city of Balkh which was one of Alexander the Great’s cities as he stretched his empire from Macedonia to India.
Created from Google Maps
Our first trip to the area was in Mid-June to meet with Atta Mohammad to get an understanding of his views on the area and his vision of the future. Additionally we were discussing how many men he could send to join the Afghan Army and how much equipment from his militia forces could be shipped to Kabul to outfit the Army.
We arrived by aircraft and were met by the usual mujahedeen Afghan caravan of Toyota pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Along on our journey were diplomatic leaders from the Japanese and German Embassies along with our key interlocutor from the Afghan Ministry of Defense Atiqullah Baryalai. Baryalai was the Deputy Minister of Defense and was our travel partner for dozens of trips. We coordinated with him every week during 3-4 hour talks about the development of the New Afghan Army. As I type, I am standing on a small red Persian carpet he gave me when I ended my tour.
After we loaded the vehicles we took off at break-neck speed and hit the roadways headed to a guest house for a small meeting. Every week we rode with another group of Afghan militia leaders and one common trait was the ability to treat every trip, long or short, as a NASCAR race. On this leg of the journey we were able to get the senior leaders into the SUVs while the rest of the team including myself jumped into the backs of the pick-up trucks among the milita fighters. We had learned that two major forms of death confronted us in these situations. First we could flip the truck at 80 miles per hour and be tossed out on the road. But they were great drivers so the second option seemed more likely–one of the Afghan fighters in the truck bed, who never placed their weapons on safe or took their fingers off the trigger, might accidentally shoot us.
As we whipped down the road from the airfield we got to see the plains of the North as they brought in a wheat harvest.
We arrived at the Guest house and we got our boss and the entourage into the small facility to talk with Atta. The majority of the team was outside in the sunshine realizing how hot it gets on the still, flat plains of Northern Afghanistan compared to Kabul perched in the mountains. We sweated off a few pounds in the 110 degree heat and then all the Afghan militia started to run out of the guest house yelling to each other and waving at us. This was the usual signal that the meeting was over.
We waited for General Eikenberry to come out with the Ambassadors and I shuffled him to another SUV and settled him in with our German guest. As I looked up and down the line of vehicles to make sure all the team was getting on board one of the Afghan militia men grabbed me and led me running to another SUV and put me in the vehicle. I sat there enjoying the air conditioning for about a minute when the other rear door was thrown open. Atta Mohammad started to slide in next to me and gave me a big smile. At the same time my door was ripped open and one of his bodyguards grabbed me by the arm to toss me from the vehicle to make room for another senior Afghan official. Atta gave him a quick command in Dari and a stern look and I was shoved back in the SUV as he shook my hand and said welcome. We were off again on our way to a lunch feast.
We got everyone safely through another road race and piled out of the trucks and into the hall to eat. We had a typical meal of rice, meats, vegetables, bread, sweet-rice pudding, mangoes, and of course coke and pepsi. The food was delicious as always but also would give half the entourage some stomach issues on the flight back.
Our next stop was across town at another meeting place to hear from local Mazar-e-Sharif elders and to let the Atta the pseudo-governor of Balkh Province speak. Additionally our partner Baryalai spoke about the new Army being trained in Kabul and Major General Eikenberry talked about how the U.S. and its allies were helping the Afghan government. The local leaders sat patiently listening and asked a few questions. One elder confirmed when asked that they would send their young men to join the new Afghan National Army.
After the public meeting the speakers and the hosts spoke and shook hands over tea. For about 30 minutes everyone talked and then people started to depart the event.
We got back into the caravan of trucks, SUVs, and HMMWVs and began the next road race to the airfield where we would catch a flight back to Kabul.
We traveled from the heart of the city near the Blue Mosque out towards the airfield and again were greeted with miles of flat plains like a trip through Kansas. More than a few of the residents watched us carefully as we flew through the streets.
It would not be the last trip we made to the North but it was memorable because most of the visitors had only seen the Afghanistan that existed between the Hindu Kush mountain range and Kandahar.
In less than a month we would be back on a plane to meet the other power holder in Northern Afghanistan.
Part Two: Back to the North, July 2003
On this visit we would bring a very large delegation as Dostum had promised to show us the militia men he was going to send to join the Afghan National Army and also because he had switched sides so many times during the last couple decades many people in the current Afghan government knew him as both and ally and an enemy. People wanted to find out which way he was trending these days.
Along with the usual team from the Office of Military Cooperation (OMC-Afghanistan) we brought a representative from each of the five Security Sector Reform pillar nations: US, UK, Japan/UN, Italy, and Germany. Together these nations each focused on reforming a piece of the Afghan security apparatus. In Order: The Army and Ministry of Defense, Counter-Narcotics, Demobilizing militias, Justice system and the Police.
This trip was also full of Afghan government members that had an interest in the security sector. Members of the General Staff to include the Army Chief of Staff GEN Delawar and future Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army MG Karimi who I would work closely with again on a future tour. Also along for the trip was a man (Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai) I knew in passing on this early tour in Afghanistan but would work and travel with a lot in 2009 and 2010. In 2009 he would learn to trust my team and we would also put our lives in his hands. My later tour would include a visit to his hospital bed in Kabul and later a memorable meeting in Washington DC after he survived a suicide bomber that killed the former president of Afghanistan, Berhanuddin Rabbani in 2011.
Today Mr. Stanekzai (far right above with hand on his beard) is the Minister of Defense in Kabul. He is one of the most trustworthy Afghan leaders in the country. The relationships that so many officers forged with their Afghan partners would serve us well during later tours in the country.
After being met at the airport by Commander Dostum our crew loaded into the usual assortment of vehicles in a 40 car convoy to move towards Sheberghan City. After getting another good look at the unique roofs used on the mud homes in the north and west of the country, we passed by more crops this time and watched the farmers and their families as they worked on the roadside fields.
Along the east-west road we traveled you could see one of the large pipelines running across Afghanistan as well. Oil and gas pipelines are an important feature in this part of Asia.
Much like America’s rural areas the children are often farmhands as well.
Modern and traditional methods of farming and transportation are mixed throughout the country. I remember one mission farther south seeing a fleet of Massey Ferguson tractors driving across the fields by dozens of construction-material entrepreneurs.
After our uneventful trip we entered the outskirts of Sheberghan.
Our first stop was to a cemetery but, now as then, I am not sure why we needed to go by the place. I believe it may have been to see the graves of the warriors that Dostum lost fighting against the Taliban. I do know that the Mercedes Benz in the photo was not the vehicle I rode in on the trip.
After this short stop we drove across the town to an assembly area to view the men that Dostum had pledged to send to the National Army and heard some speeches from Dostum and the Afghan Generals that we were traveling with.
We weren’t sure of their health or skills but this was one of the largest formations of men we had seen assembled in our travels that would likely be fit to serve in the Army.
Maybe the message he was trying to send to his visitors from the Afghan capital was just how many militia aged men he could muster as he continued to vie for control in the North and attain some kind of meaningful position in the federal government.
After this display we moved again through the streets of Sheberghan to Dostum’s personal guest house complex.
This would be the site of our welcome feast. I have lost track of the number of meals that I ate across Afghanistan because no matter how much or how little money an Afghan has if you are their guest their will be a suitable meal to honor your presence. It is a most humbling event when you see how poor some of your hosts are. But to turn down a meal or tea when offered is the worst of offenses. In this case the host was not hurting for money.
It was the typical fare of meats, rices, bread, soft-drinks, and fruits. Although I cant recall any other hosts have their own portrait in the dining room…especially not of them with their horse.
After lunch we all moved to a large room to allow the guests and Dostum to speak to some of his closest colleagues in the North.
To get to the speaking hall we passed beside his swimming pool and outdoor entertaining area.
I am not sure what the compound was before he took it over, possibly it was something he built. Likely it was something borrowed.
The discussion was the usual long version that put all the speakers and the audience to sleep at varying intervals so I remained standing. It was also very hot that day.
Before we departed Commander Dostum gave all the guests in the visiting party a beautiful coat similar to this one pictured below. It is a Chapan and is worn in parts of South-Central Asia. President Karzai made the coat one of his signature looks as he tried to incorporate clothing from across Afghanistan into his wardrobe. The coats are often striped, have bright colors stitched along the color and sleeves, and the inside is a soft material of intricate design. The sleeves are not meant to be used as the jacket is more of a cape and the sleeves are long enough for two arms each.
After this more intimate gathering we loaded up in our convoy once again to travel back into the city to hold an open town hall style meeting with the citizens.
Before departing the guest house we took a few pictures of the guests and hosts.
As we neared the center of the city we got out of our vehicles and were forced to walk in most of the way because it looked like a street festival. Security as always just got stretched beyond the breaking point as we never had a large enough team to secure where we were and where we were going. In this case when you have thousands of people in the streets it doesn’t really matter how much security you bring.
This was a bigger event than we expected.
Once everyone was inside that was going to listen I took a look around the building and neighborhood to get a feel for the place.
One of the traditions during these delegation visits was to bring out the various clubs that the children participate in and introduce them to the government leaders and guests. This trip was no different.
Down the road a bit was a sports stadium that I stopped to look at and found a gentlemen that would take a photo of me in exchange for his own.
After walking around the town I went back to the meeting hall and listened as everyone wrapped up their speeches.
After a long goodbye process and a few more photographs we all made our way back to the vehicles that would return us to the airport by way of the ancient city of Balkh.
We were told that some of the structures along the sides of the roads were built upon the original site of Alexander the Great’s once famous Asian city.