Opinion » Ted Rall

Holiday In the Sun

Travel planning for Afghanistan


NEW YORK—How are things going in Afghanistan? The best way to find out is to go see for yourself. I'm doing that in August.

You can tell a lot even before you go.

"Whatever you do," a friend e-mailed me from Kabul, "don't fly into the Kabul airport." He wasn't worried that my flight would get shot down by one of President Ronald Reagan's leftover Stinger missiles. His concern is corrupt cops. "[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai's policemen are crazy," my buddy, who works for an NGO, elaborated. "They'll hold you up at gunpoint right in the airport."

One option is to hitch a flight on a military transport to the former Soviet airbase at Bagram, but war reporters shouldn't tag along with soldiers. So I'm not flying into Kabul. Which works out, since getting to Taloqan, in Takhar province near the Tajik border would have required traveling toward Mazar-e-Sharif from Kabul. Among the highlights of the road are landslides and a trek through the war-scarred Soviet-era Salong Tunnel. It also offers an assortment of thugs both political (Taliban) and apolitical (bandits).

Instead, I'll fly into Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. It takes a full day to drive from Dushanbe to the Afghan border. I'll be in Dushanbe for two or three days waiting for government permits. You can't travel to the "security zone" along the border with Afghanistan without a permission from the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

No journalist in a war zone is safe without a fixer to make things happen: government permits, cars and drivers, places to stay. I've accumulated a set of fixers throughout Central and South Asia over the years, but it's hard to arrange a fixer in advance in Afghanistan. There's hardly any mail, phone service or electricity outside Kabul, much less e-mail.

Nevertheless, I contacted another Kabul-based friend about lining up fixers in Takhar, Kunduz, then northern Afghanistan en route to and around Herat (near the Turkmen and Iranian borders) and finally Nimruz province.

There's heavy fighting in Kunduz. The Taliban recently beheaded four guards working for U.S. forces near Herat. In Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz, suicide bombers just took out the governor's compound.

"No one wants to go where you're going," my friend informed me.

The average salary in Afghanistan is $30 per month. "I pay $150 a day," I replied.

"I know a guy. But he's a whiner. He'll complain about it the whole time. And you'll have to promise a death bonus to his wife if something happens."

I can rent a satellite phone and use dial-up. It won't be fast; at 9,600 bps it takes an hour to send one a simple cartoon. The search for power will be endless.

Of course, the biggest inconvenience is danger. Everyone worries about me. "Keep your head down." "Come back alive." "Don't get killed."

They're sweet and loving sentiments. But they're also kind of funny. Most of my friends still think of Afghanistan as the Good War, the one that had something to do with 9/11. They think we're there to help the Afghans. They think the carnage is in Iraq; actually, it's more dangerous for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

If the Afghanistan War is going so well, why is everyone so worried?