I think it is time to get back into some of the nitty gritty of how things are made in Afghanistan. I remember my first trip out to Aliabad, a District in Kunduz Province. Prior to going there, I prepared extensively by studying everything I could get my hands on, especially those reports that came from infrastructure and economic development experts who were either stationed there at the UN Compound in Kunduz City, or in the nearby ISAF base.
Everything I had read about Aliabad was pretty much the same: Impoverished wasteland, completely deforested, still suffering from the Soviet War, and with no industry whatsoever. Talking to the Kunduz PRT, they told me how hard it is to get out there, and how the last time they went there was 11 months ago. They were excited to use our arrival as an opportunity to get out there again, and gave us the time to leave the next day.
We showed up to the parking lot, and there was a veritable army of armored vehicles, lined up ready to move out in a 13 vehicle convoy. Everyone was fully kitted up, armed and ready for action. As this was the first time I’d ever gone out in a military convoy, I thought to myself, self; this must really be a remote place, with lots of insurgent activity. But as “danger” is my middle name, I jumped in with the brave troopers, and after an interminable wait inside the vehicles, off we rolled.
I was trying to track our progress, and it was then I realized that while I had spent hours poring over maps of Aliabad, I had never fixed the location of the Kunduz PRT in my mind, so I really had no clue how far we were going. I resigned myself to endless hours in the back of this nauseating motion armored vehicle, being able to see very little, when suddenly we stopped. About 10 minutes after starting. the door swung open, and an Afghan National Police officer stood there with a smile on his face. Wondering what this was all about, we were asked to dismount the vehicle. It was then that I noticed the building and the compound we were in; my ISAF escort said “We’re Here!” and gestured for me to enter the building. I stopped, stepped away from the building, and looked into the distance from whence we came and I could clearly see the PRT compound. We had basically left the gate of the compound, made one turn and went a couple miles down the road, before arriving at this “distant place they couldn’t get to for nearly a year.”
I was astounded and astonished. And lots of other “A” words. Like Angry.
I also had the opportunity to look around. What I saw was a lush valley, fed by water from the Aliabad River. The crops looked healthy; the “corn” that was reported as being a major crop was actually sorghum. Trees were everywhere. Birch and other fast growing straight trees were everywhere there was a fence; some being harvested for use as roofs, or for concrete form support. They were also being used in traces on horse carts, donkey carts or Rikshaw (man powered carts). Fruit and nut orchards were amazingly prolific. In every boundary area there were Pampas grass, which is used to make matting. This matting is also used in roofing, or to wrap things in like meat, or mud, or anything you want to wrap up. This matting is also used to make temporary structures like bazaar booths or to provide semi-permanent shade.
The brickmaking industry was everywhere; kilns and the smoke from firing bricks were visible as far as the eye could see. Shopkeepers were repairing equipment, to include reforging gears in roadside shops, over coke foundries. Some enterprising types were also remanufacturing dead car batteries by draining the acid, cutting the battery tops off and lifting out the cells; cleaning out the Lead Oxide and reassembling and resealing those batteries and refilling them with new battery acid. Everywhere, there were repairmen welding, using acetylene they manufactured themselves, using carbide and acid.
Looking further, I found a factory in an abandoned Soviet-era tank park, where a man was selling his own hybrid wheat seed, as well as manufacturing Afghan-made wheat combines, by salvaging old Soviet combines and putting new Afghan-manufactured thresher machines and rebuild miscellaneous engines in them. They were ugly, and crude, but they worked, and were Afghan-made.
We missed the normal meal time, so we hit up the local and small bazaar for some delicious kebab. We were warned by our ISAF escorts that it was sure death to eat the vegetables that came with it, but I’d been eating vegetables for 6 months without ill effects, so I ate them anyway. (And never got sick, of course.)
Let’s just say my respect for ISAF went down appreciably due to their inability to visit a town so close to their base and I learned to discount everything I’ve ever read or heard about Afghanistan. There really is no substitute for going out and looking at things personally.
I spent a lot of time in self-examination after that first trip, and came to realize that those other researchers, were missing something. The reason they missed Aliabad’s rich and varied industry was two-fold. First, they read things, written by people who lied, or didn’t know what they were talking about. Second, they were PhDs or specialists in Economic Development, whose conception of “industry” involved headquarters buildings, and chain link fences, and smoke stacks. Myself, I am just a German farm kid, whose family was too stubborn and/or cheap to buy modern machinery or give up traditional equipment, techniques and methods.