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Tales from the road to Kandahar

Safety along the road from the Pakistani border to Kandahar has improved in recent weeks, but robberies, and random demands for “border fees” are still common. MSNBC’s Preston Mendenhall reports.
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A top aide to this southern Afghan region’s powerful new governor walked in the door just as the shakedown was taking place, startling a border official trying to extract hundreds of dollars from a group of journalists. “What are you doing?” he demanded to the official. “We can’t treat visitors like this!” Only minutes inside Afghanistan’s southern border, there was plenty of evidence of the problems that lie ahead for this war-torn country.

SAFETY ALONG the road from the Pakistani border to Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold, has improved in recent weeks — no doubt in large part due to the presence of American special forces patrolling the frontier. But robberies, looting and random “border fees” levied against foreign journalists and aid workers are still common.

There is little authority at this border crossing, infamous as a pit stop on the Old Silk Road where smugglers with electronics goods, fuel, heroin and gems grab a cup of sweet tea before moving their wares north into Central Asia, Russia and beyond to Europe.

Afghanistan’s new government, under the watchful eye of the United States, is trying to bring order to Afghanistan’s lawless landscape. But it isn’t easy.

“It’s a tough, tough job,” said Engineer Pashtoon, the spokesman for Kandahar province Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, a former warlord who has pledged to clean up this southern region. “At least we are moving. We are going forward. We are not in retreat.”

Gul Agha stormed into Kandahar in November with U.S. special forces advisers at his side and American air strikes paving the way for his 1,500 troops. Two months later, the evidence of Washington’s largesse is everywhere.

Gul Agha’s army wears American-issued, second-hand uniforms. Some still have U.S. Air Force and Army insignia stitched on the breast pockets.


Along the SpinBoldak-to-Kandahar road, bearded American special forces operatives prowl in Chevrolet pickups. Most of their vehicles sport “I love New York” bumper stickers, but the occupants refuse to acknowledge the presence of reporters. With steely gazes, they drive by.

Spin Boldak itself is a dusty, chaotic one-road town. Thousands of refugees flooded the town in recent months when they tried — but failed — to cross into Pakistan to escape the U.S. war against the Taliban. Thousands more were fleeing one of Afghanistan’s biggest long-term problems: a catastrophic four-year drought.

“We’ve got 10,000 in a camp right over there,” said Alex Jones, director of Mercy Corps International’s Afghanistan operations. “And they weren’t trying to get away from the war.”

Jones said refugees just “keep on coming,” even though the Taliban has been largely defeated by U.S. and allied Afghan forces. Before the war began, more than 1 million Afghans were already displaced inside the country, victims of the deadly drought.

A further 200,000 fled to Pakistan to escape the American retaliation for the Sept. 11 terror attacks. A few are trickling back, but, as Jones put it, “they have nothing to go back to.”

As U.S. troops in Afghanistan continue their hunt for pockets of Taliban and al-Qaida loyalists, they will also be focusing on the country’s humanitarian crisis. As in postwar Bosnia and Kosovo, the American military will use its massive logistics capabilities to deliver aid to refugees in Afghanistan and help begin rebuilding this strife-ridden nation.


But as long as there is a constant threat to U.S. forces, that humanitarian mission isn’t likely to get off the ground. On Monday, U.S. Marines near Kandahar spotted suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters at an until then undiscovered cave complex only 600 yards from the airport.

Pashtoon, the spokesman for Kandahar’s governor, said Afghan soldiers working with U.S. special forces found more than 30 Taliban arms dumps along the Pakistani-Afghan border last week. With that discovery, Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai personally headed to the border to oversee a door-to-door collection of weapons from villages along the frontier.

“Building a nation is not an easy job,” said Pashtoon. “Especially when there are so many guns.”’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Afghanistan.