Afghanistan Part IV – An Allegory of Departure
The winter of 1976 saw a lot of snow in Kabul. I had been in the country for nearly two months and had already required one visa extension. Despite the hand-made leather boots I purchased in Herat and the Russian-style fur hat I traded for an old blue jean shirt at a shop on Chicken Street, the freezing temperatures proved too arduous for me to contemplate a longer stay.
While lodging in a cheap unheated guest house near the center of town, two Australian women asked me to accompany them overland to Tehran. One of them had a crush on me, I believe, but frankly the attraction was not mutual. Besides, I had already covered the route by car, and the notion of returning on the same roads didn’t really grab my attention. So, wishing to spend more time in the Middle East but not looking forward to the lengthy bus journey back to the Iranian border, I decided to fly to Tehran directly.
My mother had sent me a care package to Poste Restante in Kabul, the contents of which included a large bottle of Vitamin C. I had opened it and was taking one pill daily as directed on the bottle’s label. I thought little about the vitamin supplement as I climbed on a city bus to the Kabul Airport for my Ariana flight to Iran.
At the airport Customs post, my bag was searched with a thoroughness that must have been the product of an American anti-drug manual. In short order the overdressed and brass-buttoned officials found my bottle of Vitamin C, detaining me while they “tested” its contents. After a wait of fifteen minutes they returned to where I had been sitting patiently, reading a book, and began to shout.
“You have illegal drugs in your possession!” they yelled.
“No, I don’t,” I replied truthfully.
“Yes, you do. We have tested these pills you are carrying and we have found that they are barbiturates.”
“That’s ridiculous. Look.” I grabbed the container and put a pill in my mouth, wanting to swallow it and show them that the substance was indeed Vitamin C and not a prohibited drug.
“Stop!” one of them shouted again. “You are consuming an illegal substance. Spit it out!” He snatched back the bottle.
I shrugged and said, “Fine,” popping the pill into my right hand.
“Come with us; you are under arrest.”
“No, I am not leaving the public area. You are making a big mistake.”
“You are a criminal and a drug addict. Come with us now!”
“I most definitely will not. And give me my bottle back. My mother sent me those vitamins because she is concerned that I stay healthy.”
Again they spoke, “You are under arrest.”
“I am not and I want my pills back.”
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
“The hell with that, the hell with you, and why don’t you learn your job so you don’t harass innocent tourists who bring money to this country that benefits your citizens.”
“We must confiscate the drugs and you will have to pay a fine after you appear before a judge.”
“I will not leave the airport and I’m telling you that the bottle is mine, not yours.”
“Keep quiet or events will turn very bad, you hippie unbeliever.”
“My beliefs are my business and I am not a bum. Give me my bottle!”
By now I was livid at the rude treatment they had demonstrated. And I had no intention of getting any doors slammed behind me in some back room where they could steal my money, my freedom, and perhaps even engage in what these days we term “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
“Ok,” I said finally, allowing my anger to subside. “I will make a compromise. You can keep the bottle, and I will continue to the gate. If I do not arrive at the plane in a few minutes, I will miss my flight.”
“You are not going anywhere,” the guy with the most gold braid said, but now this same Customs Man seemed less sure of his authority. I raised my voice to a higher decibel level and declared, “I am walking out of here right now and don’t you dare try and stop me.”
“You must pay a fine,” the man insisted.
“I will not pay you even a dollar. I am a poor traveler and I need my money to eat and to find a hotel when I arrive in Tehran.” I turned my back to these nasty men and walked away. They did not attempt to restrain me or to follow. I hastened quickly to the departure gate, showed my boarding pass to the waiting flight attendant, boarded the aircraft and sat down in my assigned seat. Twenty minutes later the doors of the airliner closed and the plane taxied down the runway. Soon we were in the air, making a wide turn as the plane headed west toward the border and Iran.
As I consider this unfortunate situation today, I realize that my experience was similar in many aspects to what a variety of foreigners have faced when they decided to leave Afghanistan. Threats, bluster, demands for bakshish, all actions then followed by indifference. To the Afghani police, I acted firm and confident and so they did not try to hinder my escape.
Now consider the plight of in-country foreigners today. They abound in large numbers, unappreciated by the thugs who run the government, threatened with terrible repercussions if they don’t behave, but in the end, allowed to depart as long as they play the game of bluff with sufficient talent.
That’s what American military should do now. Just turn its back and leave. Afghanis have managed their affairs for better or worse longer than most western countries have even existed as independent nation-states. Perhaps our foreign troops should follow my humble example and ignore the lying politicians and warlords who claim dominion over the landscape.
The NATO armies have to leave sooner or later, and if they get out of Afghanistan now, they will leave with their dignity intact, even if they end up minus a few unremarkable possessions. The threat of the Taliban seems akin to the threats I faced so long ago in Kabul. A few angry misguided individuals who will pay for their sins eventually through the wrath of their subjects. In the long run, Afghanistan will remain intact and pull itself together. They don’t need us to interfere, and we should not encourage their wars and endless fratricide by imitating their self-destructive behavior. Killing innocent civilians with robotic flying Darth Vader Predators and laying waste to the Pashtun homeland will not endear its denizens to our way of life.
Our best option now is to get on a plane and taxi to the end of the runway, rotate and fly west.