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Story Publication logo September 1, 2013

Afghanistan: The War from Behind the Wheel


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Foreign troops are leaving Afghanistan. As the decade-long effort to secure the country draws to a...

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The remains of a bus are hauled away after a bombing in Kabul. Image by Jeffrey Stern. Afghanistan, 2013.

Kabul is not kind to drivers. It's a city still expanding between mountains from which rival warlords used to lob ordnance at one another, and the legacy of those men who once laid waste to what was below remains here, on the streets, in the craters they left behind. Here, being a driver means knowing intimately—feeling, even—the history of a country and its conflict, as it's written in every little dimple in the street. And you can learn a lot about the place from the people who spend their days navigating it.

My first friend here was a driver, a kind, hilarious kid named "Aimal," but whose name was so often bungled by foreigners that he courteously offered to let us call him "Email."

Email worked the roads with such skill and precision that after our rides across the city I would get out of the car feeling actually inspired--he never hit a pothole, not a single one in all the time he took me around his country, and it wasn't because he was blessed with any kind of exceptional vision. He just seemed to know where they all were. He must have known by heart the location of every last surface anomaly, because there are no signs to tell you where a ditch or speed bump is, and in all the time he spent driving foreigners around his country, he never once bottomed out.

And Email modeled for me an attitude about the foreign presence that, over the years, I came to find generalizable across much of the population: He was gracious to foreigners, thankful to most of them, and friendly to the ones in his cars, but not the ones in armored convoys. Those he would taunt and tease; he would follow them too closely, and when they waved their weapons at him, or flashed their spotlights to blind him at night, he would anger quickly. "This is my country," he would say. "These are my roads." He was possessive in those moments, and he judged both foreigners by how they used his roads, and his leaders by who built the best ones. "Daoud Khan was great man," Email said once, "he built roads and they last 40 years. Now you know the roads are not great but okay; now they make road and one year, one half year later it's bad already."

Today, the roads in Kabul run the gamut—progress has been impressive in places but uneven (this too is an apt allegory for the country as a whole). The municipality has widened, paved, and repaved roads, even invoking its own kind of eminent domain—in the fall of 2007, I watched people deconstructing their houses, pulling out all the wiring, salvaging every last piece of value from their homes, because they lived on land the government was claiming for a road that would connect Kabul around its perimeter.

I watched people disassemble their houses and carry them away, and I thought, how uniquely Afghan, leaving no square centimeter to waste, like how goatherds let their flock pick protein from the garbage, or how bicycles carry families of five or six, with one on the handlebars.

This brick by brick, wire-by-wire disassembly was a perfect portrait of the unique desperation and the unique resourcefulness of the Afghan people, I thought. And then a few months later, the mortgage bubble burst back in the States, and I saw Americans doing the exact same thing.

But now that road through Karte Parwan is built, and there are parts of Kabul that three years ago you couldn't reach without four-wheel-drive and you can now get to at pace. (For an overview of Kabul's city planning issues, see this piece by Kathy Gilsinan at our sister site, Atlantic Cities.)

There are also parts that haven't changed at all since the Taliban fell, and here's one of the counterintuitive things about roads in a warzone: It's not always the poorest neighborhoods that have the worst ones, sometimes it's the richest. Driving down the lanes that run between the "poppy palaces" is like driving down a mogul track. They're moonscapes of craters and ridges and often of standing water, because guards hose down the street to keep the dust from rising. These are streets you have to downshift to traverse, and you grind over the terrain that tosses you about like a toy, as you pass multimillion-dollar houses on either side. It's a common lament of the Kabul driver that people pay millions of dollars for houses, hundreds of thousands on fleets of armored vehicles capable of going off road, and not the twenty thousand it would take to pave the one that's there.

And it's one of the little tragic ironies that the big up-armored vehicles capable of making it over the craters are also heavy enough to dig them deeper. So after their cars make the roads worse, the residents of big houses wait for the government to come fix them, but the government has bigger problems than to provide municipal services to rich people it collects tax revenue from irregularly at best. Meanwhile, foreign donors like to pay for road projects, especially when they reach underserved populations, so some of the slums now have streets as smooth as silk. I like to think the streets represent something like democracy.


The roads can cost you in two ways. If you hit the ridges at speed, you break an axle.

So you slow down, but potholes draw beggar women, who will stand in the middle of the street if there's a wide enough ditch there because they know you have to move by at a crawl. So in a slow-motion pan, you move past the woman; you are provided a close-up of her head tilted pitifully, her outstretched arm, a smudge-faced child emerging from her burka, and you hear her sad, singsong lament. You give her money.

And sometimes there's more to her gambit. Last month while driving at night I heard a sound behind me like someone smacking a door panel with a broomstick, and then a woman shrieked. I looked in time to see a young boy in a baseball cap on the ground, rocking back and forth and holding a leg bent at the knee, while glancing up at the woman, like an actor who had forgotten his lines and was looking for a cue. "It's not real," said the man next to me. "They know it's a government car, so they try to get money." In the span of 20 seconds the scene was swallowed by a gaggle of onlookers five or six people deep, and I'm still not sure whether the injury was real, feigned, or suffered on purpose, but I did register this: The woman seemed more angry at the driver than she did worried for the boy. Everyone here has a hustle.

But to make it behind the wheel you can't concern yourself with such things. You assume kids are nimble enough to make it out of the way, because if you stop for them they'll ask you for money or try and sell you something you don't want. You drive aggressively and without mercy. You never let anyone pass, and you honk constantly because people here use more senses to drive than Americans do. They use not just their eyes but their ears as well to locate other cars, driving by sight and sonar, so honking constantly is doing your part. And you drive as fast as you can over the good roads to make up for time lost to the bad ones, or time lost to traffic, because in a city still besieged by Taliban attacks, sitting still in a crowd of cars is uncomfortable. When you break free, you fly.

If other cars are flying too, no problem: you move in a flock, you fly in formation with strangers. Unless the other vehicles belong to security folks, the Ford pickups with the soldiers holding on in back, or the Humvees with the turrets swinging around like they've come loose--for those, you keep your distance. Although Email never did. It was one of the ways he kept himself from feeling colonized.

There are of course things you slow down for; it's just that pedestrians are not necessarily among them. Two weeks ago a driver and I accelerated around a rotary and a pedestrian came into view, saw us, stumbled, and then froze, unsure how to avoid the arcing car. The driver slammed on the brakes so that we went skidding into this young man, his palms slamming down on the hood. He looked up, and a kind of recognition passed between him and the driver. He was unhurt, but he looked unmistakably guilty, like it was his own fault, and he was embarrassed about it.

"He must be fasting," the driver said to me. Which, during Ramadan, is everyone's excuse for every kind of lapse. Including getting hit by a car.

It was Idris, a driver for the company Email started a few years ago, and who became available when the NATO contract he was working on as an interpreter wasn't renewed because of the withdrawal, who told me about one piece of etiquette he does abide by. "I let him go first," he said to me one day, when we were late for a meeting but an elderly man was standing on a sidewalk, trying to cross. "Because my father too is old."


The most valuable lesson I learned from Email was that to survive on the streets, your car has to be just the right amount of shitty. There are a handful of traffic lights in the country, most of them don't work, and the ones that do no one really pays attention to anyway, so driving is an exercise in a million little games of chicken. In a nice car, you lose every time. People will pull out in front of you, cut you off, and never let you into the flow of traffic because every other driver knows you care more about your car than he does about his.

But drive a car that's too shitty, and you'll look suspect to soldiers. The cheaper the car, the easier to imagine it being sacrificed for the purpose of delivering a bomb. Email's strategy for security folks was stuffing his glove compartment full of of Davidoffs and Seven Stars and then handing the cigarettes out like party favors at checkpoints, and whenever we left the city, stopping just before we got back to Kabul to wash the car. He said it made getting through checkpoints easier; that a clean car looked looked less suspect than a dirty one.

But now things have changed. Email's methods don't work anymore; the men at the checkpoints are more nervous and less impressed by charm. Having proper papers, having a clean car, having cigarettes--these things don't shield you from suspicion like they used to. Talibs can make fake papers, they can be charming, and they can fool you with their appearance. A kind of collective hypertension has settled over the city. Talibs keep jabbing at the capital, and none of the men at checkpoints want to be the one who lets the next attacker past.

And no one feels the effects of ramped-up vigilance more than drivers. For people who've worked hard to learn languages and taken risks to support the foreign presence, this business of being an insurgent until proven otherwise is hard to stomach. Two of the drivers for the company Email started worked for the U.S. military, one in combat as an interpreter for Marines in Helmand. He said he quit when he had to take a friend to the hospital, because what he saw there turned his stomach. "If you die it's no problem," he said "but if you lose arm, your leg, if you become blind, life become very difficult." It was the landmines that scared them the most, these things designed to take off legs, but Talibs had taken to putting them on donkeys, hanging them in trees, so that they'd mangle you in other ways, and he'd had enough. He quit and came to Kabul to drive. "Anyway they don't hire translators now, because everyone is leaving."

Add to that the theatrics these people less educated than you put on to demonstrate their authority, and it's unsurprising that more and more of the people who drive Westerners around want to be in the West themselves. Most won't find ways to leave, but some will, and for them, it will be only the final step in a process of draining capacity that I and everyone else who has ridden shotgun around this country has contributed to. Afghans, the ones with educations, have, for the past 12 years, often been able to make more money driving and translating for people like me than they could as teachers or engineers or doctors. So we came, we sucked a little capacity from the system, and now we're leaving. And it may be that we're not just leaving drivers without enough passengers, but patients without enough doctors.

That's the worry, at least. Idris told me that over the past couple of weeks, he's helped five or six of his company's regular customers pack up and ship out, their contracts having finished. When businessmen I talk to here tell me about their concerns for the future, it often has to do with money drying up. Not only--not even mostly--because they're afraid for what comes next, but rather, because they think we are. When our armies leave, the rest of us will be scared; we'll all follow them home, and we won't be here to pump money into all the little capillaries of the economy that keep Email and Idris and the rest of the people who helped me going.

And the drivers notice other ways their world looks different as we move towards the withdrawal. There are fewer MRAPS on the streets, the big armored personal carriers, because as we begin to leave, we're getting rid of them. As it turns out, getting equipment out of the theater doesn't always mean bringing it home; many of these vehicles are being destroyed and then sold off as scrap, because shipping them across the world is expensive, but we don't want to leave them here. They might fall into the wrong hands. They're designed to get across roads without being damaged by explosives--the "MR" in MRAP stands for "mine resistant"--and that'd be nice for drivers like the one who stopped translating for Marines and started driving in Kabul because he was haunted by what mines did to people.

Especially because the roads around the capital have become more and more dangerous, to the point where places I drove to four years ago without a second thought you now have to get to by air, because Talibs control the roads. "It sucks, you know," one young American-educated Afghan told me, "when you know you can't drive in your own country. It's stupid."

As for Email? A few years ago his company started getting attention from the wrong kind of people. He received threats because he was working with foreigners, and at the same time, he saw the writing on the wall, what was going to happen when we began to leave. So one day in 2010 he got on a plane, dumped his passport, landed in Calgary, spent a few nights in jail, and now, Email is trying to become Canadian.





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