A New Occupant for an Ancient Afghan Fortress
ALEX CHADWICK, Host:
Now to Afghanistan and the village of Qalat, a dry dusty town in the southeastern part of the country. It's the capital of Zabul province, and has become central in the fight against the Taliban. A small number of U.S. trainers and the Afghan army have made it their headquarters for the province. Towering above the town is a castle. It's been occupied by armies for thousands of years. NPR's JJ Sutherland went there, and sent us this report.
JJ SUTHERLAND: The locals call it Bala Haizar, or simply, the Castle. Legend has it that it was built by Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago. He used it as a base on his way to India. Since then, it has been used by every army to come through Afghanistan in the past few hundred years: the British, the Soviets, the Taliban, and most recently, the United States. No one is really quite sure exactly how old everything is.
WILLIAM EVEREDGE: It's hard to tell. That area over there is not cleared for mines. So nobody really goes over there. And over here it's hard to get a real age on some of the structures, because if they get knocked down or bombed or whatever, they just rebuild what they had.
SUTHERLAND: Lt. Col. William Everedge is a member of the New Mexico National Guard. He drives a Humvee up to the castle and points out the ruins of a small village at its base. The castle sits on a hill hundreds of feet high just outside of Qalat, its mud-brick walls seared brown by sun and dust. It looks as if it grew out of the surrounding desert. The road to the castle is steep, and trucks used to roll off it regularly until Everedge and his men widened it.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TRUCK ENGINE)
SUTHERLAND: He stops near the gate. He gets out of the Humvee to point out a local landmark - a rusted Soviet T-72 tank that rests precariously on the hillside.
EVEREDGE: There ain't no telling how long that tank has been there, but it's clear that it was hit by a mine or an RPG and blew the track off.
SUTHERLAND: Colonel Everedge gets back in the Humvee and drives through the castle's modern gate of sandbags and razor wire. When he first arrived here a year ago, there was no infrastructure - no power, no air conditioning in the incredible heat, no shelter. Now he proudly points out the construction they've done.
EVEREDGE: This is a brand-new building that the ECC built in order to manage all the logistical supplies for the fifth candat(ph).
SUTHERLAND: Another of the U.S. trainers is another New Mexico guardsman, Lt. Col. Norbert Archibald(ph).
NORBERT ARCHIBALD: There's some that take about 30 hours in a convoy to get to, so that's where - if you notice these trucks right here, they've seen their better days. But that's how we get out there, and that's what MOD gave us to work with when we first came out here - 50-year-old (unintelligible).
SUTHERLAND: The trucks are battered and beaten. It seems almost a surprise that they run at all, let alone ride for 30 hours through bumpy Afghan roads or lack thereof. Those convoys are the only supply link to the remote bases, sometimes as small as 20 or 30 Afghans and one or two Americans. One of those bases was hit 14 times last month, and the convoys aren't safe, either.
ARCHIBALD: In our particular case, probably 50 percent of the time they're seeing action as they go out there and do something, which isn't bad.
SUTHERLAND: Col. Archibald is standing in a wide parking area with dozens of new trucks supplied by the American military. On the far side of the parking lot are a series of ancient arches - maybe storerooms, maybe living quarters. Most recently, they were a Taliban armory, with thousands of cases of ammunition and weapons ranging from mortars to rifles to heavy machine guns.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE WALKING)
SUTHERLAND: Colonel Everedge leads the way upwards. We reach a windy plateau about halfway up the hill. It's a flat area about 50 yards wide. In the side of the mound, arched holes can be seen leading back into the hill.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
EVEREDGE: I came up here with a front-end loader and a road grader and started clearing all this off. A lot of it was all covered up, and once we started clearing it off, we found, you know, found more caverns.
SUTHERLAND: When asked about archeological interest, Everedge says they found plenty of quote, bodies and bones and stuff, but no archeologists have made it down here into what is still a war zone. The only excavations aren't being made by scientists, but military bulldozers.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)
SUTHERLAND: As the colonel leads the way up to the top of the mound, a leg bone is kicked out of the dust. It looks like a piece of a femur. It is impossible to tell how old it is. It could be from the time of Alexander, or someone more recently dead as battles have swept over this fortress. The colonel points out the odd metal structure in the very top of the mound, another 200 feet up.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
SUTHERLAND: As we climb to the top, the wind picks up.
EVEREDGE: This structure will be a glass tea house to be up here for tourists to be up here - tourists to come up here and enjoy a nice cup of tea and look at the view. So it's got an amazing view.
SUTHERLAND: Colonel Everedge is proud of what he's accomplished in the past year, building bases, training soldiers, fighting the Taliban. He stands in the top of the mound, pointing out where a new base is being built, and the guard towers of the nearby U.S. base Camp Apache. He seems almost inured to a sense of history. How many other soldiers have stood on this exact spot planning their next campaign over the past 2,000 years. And, one wonders, how many future generals will do the same? JJ Sutherland, NPR News.
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