The party boarded a variety of U.S. and Afghan aircraft as we started the journey from Kabul over 3 provinces to arrive in dusty and hot Ghor province. The mission was to explain the new security units in Afghanistan, talk about new Afghan governance concepts, and to hear from the people of Ghor. Along with a very large Afghan Government presence the top Japanese and American diplomats to Afghanistan rounded out the travel team.
We landed in a cloud of dust that seemed to hang around all day. There was a river running though the town providing for some agriculture, but Ghor Province seemed to be one of the brownest in Afghanistan. We were whisked away in a fleet of Toyota SUVs and pick-ups and carried to the site where hundreds of citizens awaited their visitors from the Capital.
Ghor was a desolate place very much removed from most conversations about Afghanistan. Surrounded by the more famous provinces of Herat, Helmand, and Bamian it was one of the last provinces on the weekly outreach and recruiting travel list.
(Map by Joshbaumgartner-Own work, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
The first thing we noticed were the low rolling hills and dusty plains. Also unlike many places we had visited more women were mixed among the men and they were not afraid to show their faces. We were used to seeing young girls, but uncovered women were still a rarity in public since the fall of the Taliban regime and their violent radical Islamist ideology.
This was one of the largest outdoor audiences we had seen so far and it was very orderly in comparison to many of the security situations we encountered. That sounded good to me for a change. Everyone took their time getting out of the vehicles and shaking hands with the Ghor residents as they moved to the microphones.
Along on this journey were both our primary interpreters and cultural advisors Dr. Najib and Ahmad. We were nearing the end of our travels together after a very hectic 10 months. They both taught me so much about their country and the people who inhabited it. That foundation of Afghan knowledge would be critical to the rest of my career in the Army, as little did we know in 2002 and 03, Afghanistan would involve U.S. Soldiers longer than any other war. Afghan-Hands, as those who heavily focused on the country were to become known, were always in high demand. The U.S. would even later start a program to specifically develop leaders in this specialty and spark many ideas about regional expertise that would involve creating “hands” for other regions, regionally aligning non-Special Operations Forces, and expanding the foreign language capabilities of the security and intelligence forces.
Once all the principals were settled at the speaking platform I took a quick hike up the hill behind it with one of the security members to see how the Afghans were securing the area. The hill was clear except for Afghan police and a few un-suspicious locals. so we sat for a bit taking in the view below. Beyond the hundreds of gathered Afghans was a snaking river and then the main town.
I hadn’t been counting how many provinces I had now visited but was sure we were nearing the 75% mark. Afghanistan was truly a diverse terrain. This was not the most beautiful place but the kindness and hospitality of the people would compensate for the bleak terrain.
Up on the hill top there were the typical array of buildings, people, beasts of burden, and vehicles functioning (and destroyed war relics)
One last look at the public meeting below and then down the hill and past the vehicles as e walked around behind the crowds towards the river beyond. We took a look at the route the vehicles would take back into the village center.
We took a walk down the bank of the river to check out the water and say hello to some of the kids playing along the edge. Friendly as always the kids were happy to take a picture.
The water was fairly clean and was likely the source that we would be sampling at lunch. Something we ate was always going to be boiled in water and we could always count on some semi-warm tea.
After scouting out the next move we went back to the speaking platform and listened as MG Eikenberry and Charge de Affairs Sedney gave their speeches. Then I walked to the vehicles where I waited for the talks to end to load my boss into an awaiting seat.
We drove slowly through the narrow dirt streets of the village as we wound towards the guest house of our host.
Once we arrived on the upper floor through the twisting staircases we were sorted into rooms for a meal with our new friends from Ghor. It was a grand feast as always. Bread, rice, meats and some delicious grapes. Some of the best grapes and raisins are raised in Afghanistan. I never did try any wine from their fruits but I think it would be good. Without an interpreter our meal conversation was a series of hand gestures and facial expressions plus some head nodding.
As we made our past the hand washing station being run by an elder Afghan man with a pitcher of water, another man with a basin catching the water as it fell and yet a third holding the communal towel we heard quite a commotion outside. People rushed to the windows to look at the river below.
We walked out of the guest house and around to the road to find out what was happening. A young boy had disappeared during an afternoon swim. A father and his friends dove frantically seeking him out.
After 30 minutes of searching the residents went back about their business. There was no police dive unit to call to search the depths for his body. He may or may not have ever been recovered. This story wouldn’t make the evening news for life has a different meaning in a country that spent 30 years trying to jut simply survive. I hoped it wasn’t one of the boys I met just hours before.
On a more somber note we walked through the markets and streets of the town with our hosts as they showed us their humble village with pride. There were mechanics at work, men loading goods on their transport, and lunchtime plates being washed. No different than life in any small town.
It was a busy market after lunchtime prayers on a Saturday. We looked at the market stalls and even got to talk to the local police to find out what their needs were and how life was for them under the new government.
One of my favorite moments in Ghor came as we were standing talking to the police and then a donkey walked by on the dusty path between the market stalls carrying a most unique load.
We returned to the guest house for the obligatory group photo that seemed to signal the end of every day trip.
The people of Ghor were friendly and inquisitive. Their’s was a bleak existence but they carried on and raised families and eked out a living.
I hope the recipient of that donkeys load enjoyed the trike.