Trek through Afghanistan's mountains

AfghanistanVehiclesTerrorismUnrest, Conflicts and WarArmed ForcesTalibanDefense

The Afghan pony's hooves sank into the first winter snows blanketing this strategic pass deep in the Hindu Kush, the awesome mountain wall that blocks the anti-Taliban armies facing Kabul from their vital supply lines to Tajikistan.

Exhaling steamy breaths at an elevation of 15,000 feet, higher than Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, the caravan of bony horses slogged upward, passing the carcasses of mounts that had collapsed on earlier climbs, their ribs picked over by enormous vultures that staggered, gorged, across the snow.

There were the carcasses of trucks, too--the wrecks of military and humanitarian convoys that failed Anjuman's harsh test, a merciless, high-altitude bottleneck that abruptly falls away into the Panjshir Valley, the central redoubt of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance rebels.

Slashed by freezing winds, utterly inhospitable, Anjuman Pass is more than just the pinnacle of woe on the worst road in the world.

Pathetically, it also happens to be the crux of the sole overland supply route to Afghanistan's U.S.-backed opposition forces. As such, it offers a brutal example of just how extraordinarily difficult it will be to wage a winter war in Afghanistan, and, in the case of foreign aid groups, to feed her desperate people.

A recent, punishing five-day journey along that entire supply route also revealed the daunting isolation and backwardness in the largest rebel-held enclave in northern Afghanistan.

Starting some 300 wretched miles to the north at the Tajikistan border, every bullet and bag of flour trucked to the Panjshir Valley and the Kabul front traverses a wild, medieval world of mud-greased village alleys, icy rivers churned by ancient water wheels, dozens of handmade log bridges, and spectacular cliff-side roads so narrow that trucks leave scrapings of paint on the mountain walls.

Even this tenuous lifeline across the Hindu Kush will slam closed with the coming of 20-foot snows in December. Despite President Bush's renewed promise of airlifting ammunition and food to the anti-Taliban alliance, bad weather means the war here will probably grind to a halt.

"The road has always been our biggest weakness," said Mohammad Nasir, a spokesman for the coalition of warlords and exiled politicians who have been battling the Taliban for almost five years. "If we received American help to fix it, we could easily fight through the winter."

Yet if the Army Corps of Engineers were to glimpse the existing supply route over the barren massifs of Central Asia, they probably would crate up their bulldozers in defeat and go home.

A sticky start

Beginning at the river border with Tajikistan, where a rickety ferry powered by a tractor engine carries one cargo truck at a time, the high road to the front lines near Kabul gets off to a sticky start, pitted as it is with mud-filled bogs as broad as swimming pools.

At the raw frontier village of Khwaja Bahauddin, where hundreds of foreign journalists are based, two lonely ruts strike out eastward across a sere desert to the rebels' provisional capital of Faizabad. The average speed on this, the best stretch of the rebel pipeline, is 15 miles per hour. Free-ranging horses are its most frequent traffic.

Faizabad is perched at the base of the majestic Hindu Kush and could pass from a distance for a scenic ski resort. Up close, the walls of its rough mud huts are scrawled with injunctions against growing opium, and fox pelts hang in the bazaar.

Like other northern Afghan villages, the community is so poor and utterly remote that one thing immediately stands out to the Western eye: the total absence of trash. There is no sign of a modern, disposable society.

In Faizabad, opposition President Burhanuddin Rabbani keeps a fleet of Jeeps to negotiate the worst section of the road, the long climb to the Panjshir Valley. This is a luxury his warlord colleagues in two tiny enclaves 100 miles to the west, near the strategic town of Mazar-e Sharif, no doubt envy. But Rabbani wasn't present at the mud-brick presidential compound; his convoy was trapped in the Panjshir by the snows on Anjuman Pass.

Similarly, dozens of United Nations food trucks bound for the Panjshir were marooned in Faizabad.

"People are going to go hungry," said Din Mohammad, an engineer paid by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to keep the road open to aid trucks. "When we opened the road last spring, we found families eating grass."

Mohammad, who like almost all Afghan men is an ex-combatant in the country's 22 years of constant war, distributes 12 pounds of flour to every villager who puts in a day's work filling potholes or building bridges. He has far more volunteers than flour, so he turns men away daily. His current food aid will last only 10 days more.

In danger of starvation

According to the United Nations, the gaunt and weather-beaten farmers of the Hindu Kush are among some 7 million Afghans--or roughly a third of the population--in danger of starvation this winter.

"Babies always look sick here," Mohammad said ruefully of the 35,000 people who scratch out poor barley and wheat crops on the rocky slopes below Anjuman Pass. "There are lots of cemeteries."

Mohammad patrolled his allotted 27 miles of road in a dented pickup that bashed along the edge of hair-raising drops and over boulder fields, losing parts as it went.

His headlights blinked out one night and he had to camp on the road. In the darkness, the distant booming of U.S. air attacks echoed against snowy mountains chalked white by moonlight. The next day, his brakes failed. Then his clutch died. He asked for the English translation of the words "broken" and "worst."

Countless mechanical victims of northern Afghanistan's supply road are strewn in the Hindu Kush.

The rusting hulks tell a history of constant war, starting with the rusting skeletons of Russian personnel carriers--Moscow tried taking the remote Panjshir Valley seven times after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and failed--and more recent fragments of tanks from factional clashes among the Afghans themselves.

Today, the rebels still man several .50-caliber machine gun nests against Taliban helicopter attacks on the road--a waning threat since the government's tiny air force was destroyed in U.S. raids.

Indeed, the only signs of belligerence these days are at the base camps on either side of towering Anjuman Pass, where aggressive gangs of horse packers vie to lease travelers their steeds for the winter crossing.

With a ragged procession of 2-ton trucks, Jeeps and pickups stymied by the deep white powder, the horse dealers, some armed with Kalashnikov rifles, mobbed the drivers. Unwashed and heavily bearded, the tribesmen were hard-bitten types, the sort who would strip your frozen corpse where they found it, but quick to share a joke while you are still breathing.

The extremes

And at this point, the long, grueling journey to the front lines touches Afghanistan at its extremes--its inhuman harshness and its breathtaking beauty.

During a two-day climb from Faizabad to an unspoiled alpine wilderness that would merit national park status in any other nation, the tenuous war road bumped south across a vast frozen river to its final, 15,000-foot hurdle.

Horse trains crawled up and down Anjuman Pass, a numbing traverse of six hours over the roof of Central Asia. Glowing white peaks jabbed at all horizons, reminiscent of the clean beauty of the Canadian Rockies. Only the shells of army trucks and dead horses jolted visitors back to Afghanistan.

"Rus, Rus," the packers said, ticking off the Russian pedigree of the various wreckage.

They prodded their beasts over the wind-blasted pass, then down into the Panjshir Valley. It could have been a frieze from a hundred years ago, except that an unmarked twin-engine plane droned low overhead. News reports would identify it later as a U.S. intelligence aircraft testing a new rebel airstrip at the Kabul front.

Such jarring contrasts are at the heart of America's new war against terror in Afghanistan.

On the descent to the Panjshir side of the icy pass, on an improbable road that itself is an anachronism, a dozen Northern Alliance soldiers hunkered in a rock hut against the killing cold. They wore brand-new Russian field jackets but otherwise live much as their warrior ancestors did while fighting the British empire 150 years ago.

"America must help us," said Ibrahim Khan, a tough, bearded leader who was warming his bare feet over an iron stove that burned cow dung. "Bush must bring peace to Afghanistan."

He said this distractedly, with little conviction. And the next morning, heavy military trucks with chained wheels already were plowing a new snow route for materiel over desolate Anjuman Pass. About 5,000 alliance troops, waiting to assault Kabul, awaited them below.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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