Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
On the road to Bagram, a glimpse of Afghanistan’s war economy
Returning to Bagram, the massive U.S. and NATO base north of the Afghan capital, after an interval of two years is an instructive experience. The first thing that hits you as you drive through the dusty Shomali plains, framed by snowcapped mountains, is the war economy. All along the road out of Kabul are huge container depots and trucks — either on their way to Bagram or returning — lined up by the road. Most of the trucks are from Pakistan, marked by brightly decorated exteriors that have become an art form which lightens life on the road.
The U.S. military transports everything from the gum that soldiers chew almost incessantly to the armoured vehciles they use to fight the war — there is virtually nothing the military can source from here yet. For all the troubles in Pakistan, anything up to 80 percent of the military supplies into landlocked Afghanistan are routed through there. That’s the geographical reality with supplies shipped to the warm water port of Karachi and then driven up through Pakistan and into Afghanistan most of it through the northwest, but also the crossing in Baluchistan, further south.
“Everything comes from Pakistan; the Taliban also come from Pakistan,” a U.S. army soldier assigned to escort us into the base says only half in jest as we wait for a long line of trucks to enter in a cloud of dust. The logistical tail has certainly grown bigger with the surge announced by U.S. President Barack Obama in December to stabilise Afghanistan before a gradual military withdrawal slated to begin mid-2011. More troops means more food to keep them going, more temporary structures to house them, more split air conditioners to beat the heat, and so on. Transporting supplies is a mega business, and a large part of it is clearly being done by the Pakistanis.
The heightened security around the base is another change from the last time around. It was tough then too, but the walls seem to have gone higher — like elsewhere in the country, including the capital Kabul. You don’t even enter the base from what used to be the main gate facing a a local bazaar. Now you get in from the another side through a maze of blast walls, transferred from one vehicle to the other, checked and rec-checked several times before you can get anywhere near where the soldiers are. There are more walls inside so you can’t even see the planes taking off from the runway. Base security is such that even a simple visit can take hours to conclude.
You have to wonder if this is an army looking over its shoulder even more than when it first got here in 2001.
Early this month Taliban suicide bombers carrying rockets and grenades launched a complex attack on Bagram, which also served as the main base for the Soviets during their disastrous occupation of the country. Apache helicopters took off from the base to hunt down the militants, one of who apparently lost his way and was being followed by children until he simply blew himself up in a nearby orchard. An American contractor was killed and six U.S. army soldiers wounded in the attack, which was then followed by a raid on the Kandahar airbase, although that assault was smaller in scale and sophistication.
The other thing that has changed is that you no longer see the mine warnings that were placed all along the road to Bagram in what was one the heaviest-mined parts of the country, first by the Russians, then the mujahideen fighting them, then by the war lords during the civil war and even in some cases by farmers trying to protect their homes and land. There used to stones marked with red, warning you not to walk in that direction. Somebody could just as easily turn the stone the wrong way and you could be heading straight into a minefield in a rather grotesque game.
Mine clearing is painstaking work and that stretch at least appeared to have been completed. A large part of the country, though, remains mined and a large part of the problem is that there are no records kept. So you just have to probe inch by inch every bit of the unfortunate country.