David P. Gilkey/NPR
Afghan National Policemen stand near the remains of a U.S. armored vehicle after it was struck by a suicide car bomber Saturday. At least one U.S. service member was killed.
Afghan National Policemen stand near the remains of a U.S. armored vehicle after it was struck by a suicide car bomber Saturday. At least one U.S. service member was killed. David P. Gilkey/NPR
David P. Gilkey/NPR
A man walks past a brand-new mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, which fell off a transport truck on the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad on Saturday.
A man walks past a brand-new mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, which fell off a transport truck on the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad on Saturday. David P. Gilkey/NPR
David P. Gilkey/NPR
A gang of motorcycle taxis waits for customers at a closed section of highway near Kabul on Saturday.
A gang of motorcycle taxis waits for customers at a closed section of highway near Kabul on Saturday. David P. Gilkey/NPR
A motorcyclist tries out a trick on his bike on a highway near Kabul.
A motorcyclist tries out a trick on his bike on a highway near Kabul. David Gilkey/NPR
The distance between Afghanistan's eastern city of Jalalabad and the capital, Kabul, is only about 80 miles as the crow flies. Until recently, making that trip by car could easily take eight hours, due to the unpaved mountain road linking the two cities. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, conditions have improved, as large stretches of that road have been re-paved. But the journey from Jalalabad to Kabul, can still be treacherous, as I and NPR videographer David Gilkey discovered Saturday.
The car was packed and ready to go when a powerful explosion shook Jalalabad shortly after noon. An ominous cloud of black smoke rose in the distance, barely a mile away. An insurgent attack had just taken place.
The force of the explosion flipped over and mangled what appeared to be an American Humvee, just outside the entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture office in downtown Jalalabad.
Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of the province, told reporters the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber who rammed a car full of explosives into the American vehicle. He said one American Marine was killed and three more wounded in the attack, which also wounded three Afghan civilian bystanders. NATO military commanders later revised the casualty figures, saying two foreign soldiers were killed and four wounded in the incident.
As Sherzai spoke, he stepped over un-exploded rounds of grenades, which had fallen from the American vehicle. An Afghan police officer kicked over the engine block from the attacker's car. It lay in the road more then 100 feet from the scene of the explosion.
Two helicopters circled overhead. American troops in Humvees established a security perimeter and prepared to investigate.
Meanwhile, an Afghan farmer wearing sandals struggled to push a wooden cart, pulled by a donkey, through the blasted gates of the Department of Agriculture office. He had a wounded calf strapped onto his wooden wagon. The farmer walked past, ignoring the burned and twisted chasse of the American Humvee.
Life Returns to Normal
In fact, moments after the blast, life was back to normal at a busy intersection, barely a half mile from the scene of the deadly attack.
Perhaps the American soldiers would have been better protected if they had been driving in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, or MRAP.
Leaving Jalalabad, shortly after the suicide attack, we encountered a column of trucks rolling towards Jalalabad from Kabul on a freshly-paved stretch of road. Each one was hauling a brand new MRAP on its trailer, apparently part of a delivery to one of the many U.S. military bases in Eastern Afghanistan.
At least one of these armored vehicles would not be arriving on time.
About 30 miles from Jalalabad, an MRAP lay on its side in the middle of the road. A turquoise bullet-proof window lay smashed on the pavement beside the wreck.
The armored vehicle flew off its flat-bed trailer, while rounding a steep mountain curve.
An Afghan police officer stood next to the wreck, talking into a cellphone.
A few yards away from the American military vehicle, the Afghan truck driver responsible for the accident was fast asleep on the ground under the shade of his now-empty trailer, apparently unfazed by the loss of his million-dollar cargo.
Afghan drivers are still discovering the dangers of driving too fast on the country's newly-paved roads. The network of roads in this country deteriorated horribly during the past quarter century of conflict. Many Afghan drivers are more accustomed to creeping along bone-jarring dirt tracks at speeds of barely ten miles an hour.
Gridlock in the Mountains
These days, most of the Kabul-bound traffic from Eastern Afghanistan, has been diverted onto one of these un-paved paths through the mountains. Drivers wear surgical masks to protect themselves from noxious clouds of dust, as they struggle for hours to get their vehicles up the treacherous dirt road. Breakdowns and accidents are common. On Saturday, hundreds of cars and trucks — some them with entire families perched on top of their cargo — were stuck in gridlock under the baking sun. Traffic was blocked because further up the road, a second brand new MRAP fell off its trailer.
In a matter of weeks, if not days, conditions should improve dramatically, after a Chinese company finishes paving the last stretch of highway through the Maheepar Mountains directly east of Kabul. The newly-built road should cut transport costs and travel time, and hopefully help the shaky Afghan central government extend its authority into the provinces.
These ambitious plans were of little consolation, however, as the sun began to set over the gridlocked line of vehicles Saturday. Desperate to avoid the apocalyptic logjam on this dirt-road detour, we opted to explore an alternate route, up the un-finished Maheepar Highway. Our plan was to leave our car behind and walk the last few miles past road construction crews, hoping to later finding a taxi on the other side of the construction site, which would take us the last few miles to Kabul.
Motorcyclists at the Roadblock
But another chaotic scene awaited us at the last roadblock before the pavement petered out. A gang of dozens of motorcycle taxi drivers were gathered there, revving their motors, popping wheelies, and offering to ferry travelers on the backs of their bikes to the Afghan capital for the equivalent of $3. These men and boys were dressed in turbans, robes, and wild-looking motorcycle goggles
Some of them yodeled and performed tricks, driving their bikes with their feet, or laying on their stomachs on the seats of their bikes, as they raced through the stunning Maheepar Pass, where a rushing mountain river cuts through steep, rust-colored rock cliffs.
The bearded, wild-eyed members of this motorcycle gang won't have their taxi jobs for long. Chinese workers are putting the final touches on the Maheepar Highway, and the Afghan government will soon open the road to automobiles.
"Then we will be jobless again," said a motorbike rider named Shamam, who sported a pair of tinted ski goggles. "After all," he added with a shrug, "this is Afghanistan."
Soon after the exhilarating motorbike ride, we were relaxing in the comfort of a friend's car, approaching the Afghan capital.
But at the gates of Kabul, we passed another grim reminder of the hazards of traveling through Afghanistan by road. On Friday, a suicide bomber attacked an international military convoy on the road here.
Thanks to their armored vehicles, the foreign soldiers were not harmed by the explosion. But three Afghan civilians were reportedly killed in the attack.