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49: Bridge to heaven or hell

Musbahullah Gwakh
Guest contributor to Afghanistan Today Musbahullah Gwakh recounts a tense journey from Khost to Ghazni to attend a jirga on local uprisings.
16.08.2013  |  Khost
"Ghazni, city of peace and friendship", reads the inscription at the gateway marker, a welcome sight to travellers arriving from Kabul. (Photo Gwakh)

Before Ramadan, I made a last journey before the rigours of the fasting month. Travelling from Khost via Kabul to Ghazni, I accompanied a procession of tribal leaders about to convene for a jirga assembly to discuss the fate of Ghazni after its 2013 year of Islamic capital status and the departure of international forces there.

Organized by the Council for the Solidarity of Afghan Tribes, the event also examined the role of local movements and shura councils in post-2014 Afghanistan. And it had a special focus on the spate of local revolts against the insurgency which began in Ghazni in spring of 2012, and whether these could be replicated elsewhere.

Convoy

The convoi of 20 vehicles left Khost City at 11am on the 230-kilometre journey to Kabul. This stretch of road is one of the most dangerous and volatile in the country. But it is the second leg of the journey from Kabul, on the Wardak-Ghazni highway, that leads as Afghanistan’s most dangerous road.

Traffic is acutely vulnerable to insurgents, bandits and kidnappers, and clashes between Taliban and ISAF convoys are frequent and endanger all passing traffic. Adding to the hazards, the road surface is potholed and damaged, facilitating the planting of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which are intended to hit the security forces but often claim civilian lives. 

Apart from anything else, the constant rattling and bumping keeps you awake and uncomfortable, especially on the 160-kilometre stretch from Khost to Gardez, which is the only viable route to Paktya Province and the capital. Asphalting and construction of the K-G Highway has been a pet project of the United States, but due to high insurgent activity work has been halted repeatedly in the past decade and is still not complete. But the pace notably picked up since tribal leaders and civil society members from Khost met with President Karzai and complained about the delays.  

Low profile 

As Soviet forces also discovered in the 1980s, the Khost-Gardez route is as vulnerable to attack as it is crucial to central governance of Khost Province. (Phot: Gwakh)

After four hours the convoy reached Kabul via Paktya and Logar provinces and all were greatly relieved to check into a hotel for the night before the trickiest leg of the journey. The initial plan was that the procession would leave for Ghazni together. It was a weigh-up between the ‘safety in numbers’ principle, or the risks of ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. It was finally decided to break up the convoy and keep a low profile rather than draw attention to ourselves.

The stretch of highway we would use is part of the Ring Road around the country, passing through Wardak, Ghazni and on through Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz, and then up through Farah and Herat to the north. In view of its reputation, the group was tense as we set off, mindful of the danger of IEDs and ambushes with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on tankers, cargo trucks and other targets.

Logistics convoys are escorted by private security forces, but these are often specifically attacked near  police checkpoints as a demonstration of audacity. Insurgents often block the highway and search for government employees and police and army personnel. Persons identified as such may be summarily executed by the roadside, and even having numbers of foreign or government contacts in your phone can carry dire consequences. 

"Bridge to heaven or hell"

Heading south on Highway 1, or the Ring Road (Photo: Gwakh)

We are almost in Ghazni Province when we see an ambushed tanker blazing on the road near a police checkpoint. The police were unable to save the driver or the load of fuel. My natural instincts as a journalist prompted me to get out my camera as we passed, but my companions did not allow me to record the scene, saying such photos would anger police and insurgents alike

.In Ghazni I later raised the issue of highway security with the provincial governor, Musa Khan Akbarzada. He was direct in his appraisal: Despite establishing numerous checkpoints, the security forces are still unable to secure the highway, which as a result has become the “bridge to heaven or hell", he said, also describing an ambush of his own convoy two days earlier while returning to Ghazni from Kabul. The attack resulted in the destruction of one police escort truck. 

To business! 

The jirga I attended as an observer was partly aimed at supporting local uprisings against the Taliban like those that flared last year in Ghazni with varying degrees of success.

Ghazni Governor Musa Khan Akbarzada addresses jirga participants (Photo: Gwakh)

A succession of speakers, fronted by the governor and the head of the Afghan Tribes Solidarity Council, Mawali Abdul Qayoom, urged participants from Ghazni, Khost, Paktika and Wardak provinces to encourage similar movements.Emphasizing the need for decisive indigenous action when most Coalition forces are withdrawn in 2014, Ghazni Parliamentarian Mohammad Omar demanded more government accountability for supporting revolts.

And hailing the “extraordinary courage” of everyone who opposed the insurgency, Governor Akbarzada said: “We are fortunate to have some tribal leaders who take responsibility and stand against evil in their villages and provinces.” 

Khost tribal leaders I spoke to also seemed defiant about the issue. One elder said: “Just as the ancestors of the people of this province defended the country against enemies during the reign of King Zahir Shah and Amanullah Khan, it is possible that they rise against the Taliban and their foreign supporters to ensure peace is brought to the region and country as a whole.”

The chairman of the tribal solidarity council in Khost, Haji Ghazi Nawaz, said the success of public uprisings depended on the will of communities to decide what is right for them.  “No one has ever been to disobey, or to stand against people’s will,” he added.

But participants also urged the government to pursue direct negotiations with the Taliban and welcomed the establishment – albeit short-lived - of a Taliban office in Qatar as a positive step in the peace process. Talks should be held only among Afghans and solely be an Afghan-led process, they agreed. 

Long road home

Meanwhile, concerns were growing about our journey home following reports that insurgent ambushes were being prepared on the highway to Kabul. I joined a group that left before the close of the jirga. Setting off in two cars we were told to remove everything from our pockets other than money, such as badges and ID cards. Yet our escorts were strangely unconcerned about my camera and press ID, and seemed to think no one would touch a journalist. I was not so sure, and kept both items well out of sight. 

Insurgents often attack heavily escorted supply convoys near police checkpoints as a demonstration of their audacity.

Again we set off around 11am, but progress was slow due to the passage of a heavily guarded convoy transporting fuel and other logistic supplies for NATO. Half an hour after we managed to overtake the convoy we heard it had come under attack in Wardak’s Assad Abad District. No media reported this, but we were informed that 12 loaded tankers were destroyed and that the escorting force took a number of casualties.

Later that day, we heard De Azadi Radio report significant gains by the Taliban in renewed fighting in Andar and other districts of Ghazni. 

Eventually we checked into a Kabul hotel and rested up before the four-hour drive back to Khost. Thankfully it passed without incident, apart from a spot check by security forces following a roadside bomb attack on a fuel tanker in the Dwamanda district of Khost.

Civilian traffic is especially at risk on the Khost-Gardez highway when Coalition vehicles are passing. (Photo: Nick Allen)