Kandahar province — “Close up the fucking gap!”
I’m driving a lav iii armoured personnel carrier, a tank on wheels the size of a small hotel room, weighing as much as ten cars and bristling with firepower. The fuel tank isn’t totally full, but gimme a break — we had to get going. My driver’s compartment, right beside the engine, is the size of a fighter jet cockpit and pitch black; my view of the outside world comes through three periscopes. Everything’s going smoothly until our convoy hits an Afghan National Police checkpoint. Not that we’re going to stop: our lead vehicle races over the speed bumps at sixty kilometres an hour. Problem is, I’ve got ten soldiers in the back, including my crew commander, and the suspension on this baby isn’t exactly cushy, so I ease up on the fuel pedal. I see the space in front of my lav widen — standard operating procedure is never to leave enough room for a suicide bomber to split the package — and instantly my commander is screaming at me through the intercom.
Except for the section commanders, who went on reconnaissance yesterday, most everyone in this twenty-vehicle caravan, myself included, is out in the real Afghanistan for the first time. Our mission is to follow the infamous Highway 1 through Kandahar City and Ambush Alley to Patrol Base Wilson, our home for the next few months, named after the fallen Master Corporal Timothy Wilson. Semis, cars, motorcycles, and donkey carts jockey with us for space on the road. I get the feeling that half the people here just upgraded their licences from horse-and-buggy class to motor vehicle. The roads are old and worn, as if they are being blown away with the wind; the landscape has gone too long without water.
My screw-up at the checkpoint has launched me from calm and collected to nervous, half panicky. Okay, come on, get yourself together. Focusing all my energy on keeping the spacing tight, I suck back cigarette after cigarette, smashing them out on the strut bar beside me, not caring if I set myself on fire. My carton of smokes is supposed to last three weeks. I should have packed two.
• Following an elevated tarmac, drive north across the Shomali Plain, an 80-km stretch of ruins that was once Kabul’s great fruit basket, to the town of Charikar.
• Cross four bridges and turn west on a gravel road, part of the ancient Silk Route; follow it for eight hours up the Shibar Pass, which peaks at about 3,000 m above sea level.
• When you see the remains of two giant Buddha statues, you’ve reached Bamian. Say “salaam” to the local Hazara people, the rumoured descendants of Genghis Khan’s army.
Courtesy of Afghan Logistics and Tours
“Noble, get in the middle of the fucking road!”
For Christ’s sake, I scream back, silently, to myself, I’m only human. This is my first time driving in this fucked-up country, and some asshole is making it a lot worse. I’m starting to feel like this whole thing is a little unfair — reminds me of my teacher at school giving me shit for needing a bathroom break. If my commander keeps stressing me out, I’m just going to stop the fucking truck and get out. But wait a second: we’re in Taliban country. This truck’s all I got; if I screw up, everyone could be dead.
“Close up the spacing for the last fucking time, and turn the goddamn AC on.”
My pupils are pinpoints from scanning the bright desert through the periscopes, and I can’t see shit inside. I reach down and flick a switch.
“Hey, you idiot, don’t open the fucking ramp — there’s people back there.”
“Shit, fucking shit, okay.” I reach behind me with one arm and rip apart my day pack to find my flashlight, but this makes me swerve, and I get yelled at again.
“Okay, calm down. I got it.” I turn on my mini-light. “There we go. The AC’s up.”
“Hey, turn that shit off! It’s just blowing dust back here.” Great. I’m sweating buckets, our AC is bust, and the engine is roaring beside me, making my compartment feel like a sauna.
As we near the gate of Kandahar City, a landmark known as the Golden Arches that dates back to the Soviet invasion of 1979, the traffic thickens even more. A family of five, all piled up on one motorcycle, whizzes by. We pass a semi stacked sky high with anything and everything. Horse-drawn wagons are sharing the road with shiny new Honda Civics. People everywhere, most of them dressed in the kind of gown your grandmother sleeps in, are looking at us, and we don’t have the foggiest fucking idea who’s friendly enough to let us through and who’s so holy they just want to blow us up. Gardens of marijuana flood the alleys and streets. The smell, mixed with those of feces and rotting meat, is so pungent it would make a dog turn and run. Everything except the mosques and old Taliban property is run down, dirty, and bombed out; from the people to the buildings, the city looks tired from the fighting and weak from the unrest.
As we pass into Ambush Alley, our panic shifts from the urban chaos to the intercom chatter. “From reliable source, attack is imminent, attack is imminent, possible ambush from grape huts to the south, keep eyes on. Out.” I train one of my periscopes on the huts, supposedly where they make raisins but often used as hiding places, waiting, almost wishing for something to happen, just to replace the awful, quiet tension. Nothing does. We’re through.
And suddenly, there it is: Patrol Base Wilson, a ramshackle, poorly fortified staging area that we can fight out of. The middle of the compound has three modular tents with cots, which is where we’ll be sleeping. South of us is Pashmul, a Taliban stronghold. We pull in, and a voice comes over the radio: “Shut her down, fuel up, get some food.”