(. . . long years ago)
by Carl R. Fritz
VENTS LAST YEAR IN Afghanistan, particularly the dropping of U.S. bombs on suspected terrorist camps, have moved me to recall a visit I made to that country back in 1953. During the period 1951 to 1956 I was employed by the U.S. Technical Cooperation Mission (TCM) in India, an agency implementing President Harry Truman’s Point Four Program in that country. In 1953, George V. Allen, a career Foreign Service Officer, replaced Chester Bowles as Ambassador. One day Ambassador Allen asked me about the idle jeeps sitting outside his office window. Apparently someone in the TCM had ordered too many for immediate use. The ambassador suggested that we might better give the jeeps to someone who had immediate use for them. In a short while we determined that the Technical Cooperation Mission in Kabul was desperately in need of jeeps. How, then, to accomplish the transfer?
As an answer, we put together a team of embassy and TCM employees eager for a little adventure. One morning in October 1953 eight of us, including one former All-American football player, hopped into seven jeeps and headed northwest toward Lahore, Pakistan.
Reaching the border about 4:00 p.m., it took us another three hours to clear ourselves through customs. First, the local customs officers had not yet received the expected message from the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi approving the transfer of vehicles outside the country. Further, after this problem was sorted out, there still was the matter of customs clearance for each individual team member.
My main problem was that I carried a carton of 200 cigarettes. I insisted that I was a very heavy smoker—as I was in those days. However, only fifty were allowed. Finally, the customs officer figured out a way. Several other members of the team had declared fewer than fifty, some none at all.
“Here,” he said to me. “You give thirty to this person, fifty to each of these and twenty to this one. You may go. You are on your honor!”
We stayed at a Lahore hotel that night and drove to Peshawar the following day. After a night’s rest, we headed for the Khyber Pass. Two small incidents occurred en route.
I DROVE JUST AHEAD of our All-American colleague, who brought up the rear. Not seeing him in my rear view mirror for quite a while, I raced up to the jeep in front of me. The driver and I agreed that I should go back and look for our friend. Going back the way I had come about two or three miles, I found my friend pulling an arrow from the canvas in his jeep. We never figured out the reason, but someone had shot an arrow at him. And we were still in Pakistan, a very friendly country at the time!
Then, after my friend pulled ahead, my jeep now brought up the rear of the convoy. Suddenly a man in blue uniform stood in front of me in such a way that I could not pass. When I halted he immediately climbed into the jeep and seated himself. I tried to talk to him, but apparently he spoke only Farsi, and so we did not communicate too well. I somehow gathered that he was a Pushtu, an ethnic group strong in that vicinity. Before I reached the Khyber Pass, my passenger signaled for me to stop, hopped out of the jeep and set off across the barren countryside. That was the last I saw of him.
I caught up with my team at the Pass, where we parked along a dirt road just outside of a fort with its surrounding wall and small concrete buildings inside. As I crossed to the building where we had been directed, I noticed a man with a black patch over one eye carrying a bowl from the bottom of a hookah (a large smoking pipe that sits on the floor). After I entered the building, this man also entered with the bowl freshly filled with tobacco, which he lit. As the officer sitting behind the table puffed away, the smoke rose to the ceiling. The one-eyed man crouched down in the corner and waved a fan over the hookah bowl to assure that it stayed lit.
The officer behind the table then asked me, “Nam?” He took another large puff and repeated the question, “Nam?” After I gave him my “nam,” he wrote on his form and asked “father’s nam?” He then took another puff and repeated the second question. This process continued for quite some time, until he had completed the form in front of him. The one-eyed man kept fanning the hookah.
Now we could cross the border. I noticed with excitement that the trucks coming from the other direction were driving on the right side of the road, as in the U.S., not the left side as in Pakistan and India. Not that one could really tell where the road was. The whole countryside here seemed made of gravel. Every few feet someone had placed a large rock to show drivers where the edge of the road was supposed to be. There were no road signs whatsoever. It was not until several years later that the Russians paved this road all the way from the Khyber Pass to Kabul.
We passed through Jalalabad that day and later came to a stream, probably the Kabul River. A number of vehicles had stopped there to make sure they forded the stream properly. Among them was a truck carrying Afghan high school students to Kabul. As we waited, one of the students came up to me and decided to try his English.
“And how are you, my dear?” was his opening gambit. I thereupon carried out a pleasant conversation with the young man.
After the high schoolers’ truck made its way through the stream, the students waded through and jumped aboard. Manuel Silverstein, an embassy employee, drove his jeep into the stream where it promptly got stuck. Manny was unfamiliar with the four wheel gear mechanism and so remained stuck—until an Afghan in turban and flowing jacket reached into Manny’s jeep and pulled the shift into four wheel drive. The rest of us remembered to shift into four wheel drive before entering the stream and so avoided Manny’s predicament.
As dusk approached that day, I seemed to be alone on the road once again. After it became dark, I suddenly found myself faced with an armed guard standing by a log that had been placed across the road. Off to the left I could see some sort of camp, along with a number of marked vehicles. The guard spoke to me, but we could not understand each other. Many people came out of the camp and stood nearby. Perplexed by it all, I reached to the floor of the jeep and picked up my pack of cigarettes, thinking to light one. Immediately several hands reached inside the jeep. I handed each one a cigarette and then lit up myself.
I guess the guard was as perplexed as I was. He finally waved me on, and I proceeded into the night. About six months later, when describing this event to an American regularly stationed in Kabul, he explained that this camp had been set up to protect travelers, and that anyone traveling at night was expected to stay there. Well, how dumb could I be—and where was my convoy anyway?
I stomped down on the accelerator, which made the jeep jump up and down on the bumpy road while it advanced at the great speed of perhaps forty miles an hour. Several miles farther on, I saw eight soldiers with rifles on their shoulders, marching side by side straight toward me. I’m not sure why—perhaps I just didn’t want any soldiers stopping me again for cigarettes—I stepped harder on the accelerator and pressed forward. Fortunately the soldiers scattered just before I got to them.
A few miles farther I came to another guard by a log set up a foot or two off the road to block oncoming vehicles. I saw a little opening to the right leading into a walled town. I tried to take that route but soon saw that it offered no escape. I drove back to the guard’s station, pointed to the road ahead and shouted “Kabul” over and over. He shouted something back at me which I couldn’t understand. Finally, he gave up and waved me on.
Sometime later, still the same night, I saw a light far behind me coming in my direction. I slowed down, then heard the horn of a jeep from the rear. John Wilson, a TCM employee in our convoy, had somehow gotten behind me. He was anxious to know what I had done to the eight soldiers back behind us. When he approached them their rifles were leveled straight at him!
We proceeded together toward Kabul, driving over and around mountains in the dark. I often felt my jeep sliding around in the thick dust which now hovered over everything. I noted some high cliffs on the right side of the road, and one could certainly worry about sliding suddenly over one of those dropoffs.
It was with a real sense of relief that we finally approached the lights of Kabul in the distance. Eventually, with an immense sense of relief, we reached the city streets.
My colleagues and I spent the next three days talking with local Technical Cooperation Administration and embassy employees, walking around town, taking in the sights, and visiting a museum and the original walled town of Kabul, where fires still were kept lit on the ramparts each night. While strolling about, I could not help noting that many veiled Afghan women wore bobby socks which showed just underneath the hems of their long robes.
I enjoyed the shopping. Of course, there were no supermarkets and I soon learned that if one wished to buy a quantity of anything whatever he would have to put in an order and wait a long time for its manufacture. I admired the real craftsmanship of the woolen caps and carved furniture. I had no intention of purchasing anything in quantity, but was curious as to whether it would be possible to carry on such trade with Afghan entrepreneurs. I was sure entrepreneurship of that sort could be developed, but it had a long way to go back then, almost half a century in the past.
The military attache’s plane from New Delhi eventually came for us, with Ambassador Allen aboard. We departed the next morning from the only airfield at Kabul, a grass strip with no paved runways. The plane stopped in Quetta, Pakistan, for a short time before proceeding to New Delhi. And so we were home once again.
Recalling all the Afghans with whom I interacted and conversed on that trip in 1953, it is difficult for me to think that Afghanistan today includes some people with their minds set on destroying the United States.
But of course much has happened in the world since those days long, long ago.
Carl Fritz serves on the board of directors of American Diplomacy’s parent organization, American Diplomacy Publishers. He is a frequent contributor to the pages of the journal.