The Mars Review of Books - Volume 1, Issue 3

Afghanistan: A Land of Contradictions by Miles Routledge

Mar 16, 2023 • ~bidbel

The author poses for a selfie with some new acquaintances.

It was late at night, I was at one of the Taliban’s numerous military compounds in Afghanistan, and they had me surrounded. They were serving me chai tea alongside freshly made bread, while watching cricket on TV. Each soldier smiled in turn while extending out his phone to take a selfie with me. It was a good time to reflect upon the experiences over the last year that had brought me here.

I was accidentally present at the Taliban takeover of Kabul, in August 2021, as the last ever tourist to visit Afghanistan under the previous regime. I wrote about the experience online under the moniker “Lord Miles” and received great interest from readers all over the world. I’ve visited the country four times since. It’s a passion of mine to visit the most dangerous warzones in the world, but this nation is another beast entirely.

I returned to Afghanistan in March of 2022, by car through Pakistan. The new government made an impact on my trip even even before I reached the border city of Jalalabad. Upon entering the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, my hotel room was raided by anti-terrorism police and Pakistani intelligence. They were wondering why I was entering Afghanistan, alone, as a white Christian. They believed I was smuggling American weapons. The police explained that with billions of dollars worth of US equipment left behind, and the Afghan people no longer under the US drip feed of investment, the authorities had found many Taliban and ISIS smugglers in the mountains, transporting rocket launchers, helicopter parts, and more. One police officer even spoke of a man attempting to carry out over one million dollars in cold cash which had been carelessly left behind in an American army base. He explained that the man would be charged as a thief and have his hands chopped off. After talking my way out of Pakistani prison, I entered Afghanistan on foot.

The very first thing I noticed was a general sentiment of desperation. A foreigner like me meant money, and with the economy coming out of 20 years of war, people flooded me with stares of disbelief or offers of goods. Half of them spoke broken English, a language they hadn’t used since August when the last American operatives flew out. I quickly noticed that any foreign goods such as shampoo or crisps were a few months expired. Many supply chains for previously imported everyday goods had collapsed. The biggest one was energy drinks. Unknown to most outsiders, energy drinks hold a strong place in Afghan culture. The beverages, commonly drunk three or more times a day, are believed to provide “good, healthy energy.” But with import agreements shattered, and suppliers left unpaid, these beloved drinks were either inaccessible or simply too expensive for the average resident—especially with millions of jobs having been lost. The shortage of energy drinks and other cherished goods has led to genuine small-scale protests or shouting matches with the shop owners, with Afghans accusing them of being “Jewish tricksters” for charging extra due to inflation.

Upon finding a taxi driver to take me to Kabul, I was quickly ushered into the car by some other riders. They explained that it was dangerous for a foreigner to be outside in this area, as ISIS lurks nearby, and without a US presence, even the Taliban are scared of them. My fellow riders went on to speak of the almost daily bombings of mosques, markets, and events. I paid $10 for the nearly four hour ride. The driver apologized profusely for the steep price. He relayed that the Taliban takeover had nearly halved the value of the local currency, although the relative value was increasing by the day as things got back to normal. As we drove through the winding roads I pointed out all enormous potholes in which I would have been able to lie down flat. One of my fellow riders joked how their roads were still better than the roads in England and America that he’d seen on social media, and we had a good laugh. It felt bizarre to me to see how Afghanistan had modernized—in certain ways—so quickly. Since the '90s it had gone from a place where television was illegal and no phone lines or email existed to one in which 4G was available in every city. Even more bizarre to me was seeing a Taliban member at a military checkpoint using Instagram on his phone. If you post something with a Taliban or Afghanistan hashtag, a member of the Taliban will definitely see it.

Upon arriving in Kabul, the car was quickly surrounded by struggling young children who wanted some spare change—not sent by their parents for some quick money but coming to us out of simple desperation. Some remained hopelessly sorting through trash for cans or precious metals to sell, while others sat on the streets with their mothers begging in the middle of the road. You could tell from the smell and the dirt on their faces that they had not washed in days, the worst of them showing signs of diseases that had gone untreated since medical aid in Afghanistan had grinded to a halt. Before I arrived, an official at the UN explained to me privately that the World Food Programme does not trust any airport under Taliban control to ship in supplies, so it falls to the Taliban’s aged staff, including women, to allow for some much-needed supplies to enter. It was also rumoured the foreign staff of the air traffic control tower had left, so that all planes coming to Kabul fly in nearly blind.

From my time spent in Kabul during the Taliban takeover the previous year, I held a keycard to the lovely compound hotel I stayed at, which was rather cheap. I decided to head there, as it was only a quick walk from the city center. It must be noted that though the streets were quickly becoming dark and though I was alone, I felt surprisingly safe. The locals waved to me and smiled and even yelled “welcome,” glad to see a foreigner visiting their land. Upon reaching the compound hotel gates, I flashed my ID card to the armed guard. He led me through—only for me to be quickly surrounded by Taliban gunmen. It appears I had accidentally stumbled into their new homes. The Taliban ushered me into a dining area and patted me down for any weapons, throwing around the word “spy” until the commanding officer walked in. A man with a thick graying beard and only one eye, he said with a smile to the others that I am a welcomed tourist guest who just got lost, and invited me to sit down. It was at this point that I was given an abundance of freshly made kebabs, onions, spices and chai tea, and invited to watch cricket on TV—an act that, again, would have been punishable by death 25 years ago.

The commander went on to show me pictures of his lush childhood village and apologize for the initial confusion at the gate. A few minutes later, the Taliban asked if I’d like to join a WhatsApp group chat, which was too tempting to turn down. After scrolling for a while, I figured out it was a group chat for foreigners in the country to get alerts from the Taliban in case an ISIS attack or natural disaster occurs. They were genuinely looking out for my safety.

It turned out to be an extremely enjoyable evening. What left the biggest impression was that when I left, they handed me two bags of pack- aged up cooked food, stating that they wished for me to hand out these portions to any hungry people I came across on my way to another hotel. I do not exaggerate when I say this: They were some of the most generous people I have met, especially considering that our nations were at war less than a year ago. It was rewarding handing out the food. The children and women were over the moon with smiles and excitement.

The next day at my new hotel I came across my first foreigner, a war-hardened Irishman who had run the place since the takeover. Being ex-British Special Forces, he had fought against the Taliban for years but the two factions openly joked around with each other in the dining room, giving me the same general welcoming experience I had the night prior. Moreover, with the issue of ISIS creeping across Afghanistan, the Taliban had given him a weapons license to fight them—a blue tinted piece of paper proclaiming him to be an “honorary mujahideen.” I can neither confirm nor deny that I went outside the same day asking a Taliban member for the same paper and now have it framed on my wall at home.

The author has a snack.

Later on that day I met up with a westernized Afghan who follows me on Twitter and who admitted to me he was a Christian in hiding. He had not even alerted his family about his faith, because he knew the Taliban would torture or behead him for it. He explained that there had been rumours of underground Christians seeking mass or a blessing, only to be raided and gunned down by Taliban forces, and that the same fate would befall any priest who might enter Afghanistan without going to great lengths to hide his profession. I felt great sympathy for him. While city-dwelling Taliban members can be welcoming to non-Muslim guests such as myself, because they recognize the overall benefits for the country of hospitality, such hospitality does not extend to ethnic Afghan Christians. While it depends on the Taliban member, in general their reactions toward such people are extremely harsh.

Next, we explored Kabul together, which brought us across a large charity food line, where the Taliban were handing out free bread, meats and soup to hungry families. Upon walking up to the line, I saw children being taken to the front first. It seemed the young or elderly got priority and larger portions. However, when a woman took off her veil to snack on some food upon receiving it, instead of waiting until she was home or out of sight, the Taliban shouted at her and dragged her by her hand across the sandy ground. I heard screams and cries from the area where she was taken. My friend informed me she was being beaten.

A paradoxical element of Taliban rule was evident here. Despite the beating, the woman was immediately given food afterwards and was offered a ride by an official back to her place of residency. People whispered and gossiped about her in the line for her misdeeds, yet the Taliban warned everyone about gossiping about a hungry woman desperate to get food. Despite her look of embarrassment, the woman thanked the Taliban.

There is a clear dynamic to the Afghan people and their world that most westerners do not understand. People believe it’s still a dangerous nation, yet when I travel through the country it feels safer than some parts of London or Detroit. You’ll never get robbed or scammed in Afghanistan, although the majority of the population lives below the poverty line. I personally would not listen to the mainstream media regarding any nation. From my travels, I know for a fact that the reality is another thing entirely.

by Miles Routledge