Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

The Road to Ghazni: Bombs, battles and blockades

Borhan Osman 9 min

Step outside Kabul, about 30 miles away, and the road to Ghazni starts to bring you the sense of the battlefield. You pass by fierce skirmishes, exploding bombs, burning oil tankers, gun-toting Afghan forces and convoys of US forces that look hostile to anyone Afghan. Some drivers have gotten so used to the constant violence that they continue travelling amidst flying bullets, not bothering to wait until the fighting has finished. AAN’s Borhan Osman shares his experience of travelling this dangerous road, between Kabul and Ghazni.

A fuel truck ablaze after an attack on the road from Kabul to Ghazni, captured by AAN's Borhan Osman out of the vehicle on one of his trips

The fragrance of the blooming oleasters, relatives of the olive tree, floating on the balmy early summer breeze, and the sight of lush roadside orchards, should make travelling from Kabul to Ghazni a delight. However, the unpleasant scenes outnumber the pleasant ones. The road to Ghazni, part of Highway 1, is the main transportation artery between Kabul and Kandahar and an important supply route for foreign forces. Linking the two main US military bases at Bagram and Kandahar, the road has been – since 2007 – called ‘the highway to hell’ (see report here). For frequent travellers, the rate and scope of violence along this road is an indicator of the overall security situation across Afghanistan.(1)

Listening to conversations among travellers during several recent trips, I found that there has been a considerable upsurge in attacks along the road in the first six months of 2013. This year has been among the worst, they say. ‘Again, there are more IED explosions, [fuel] trucks on fire and the road has been blocked by the Americans every day. It is like two or three years ago [2010/2011] and sometimes even worse’, says one passenger, a student, in the shared taxi, a van that is taking all of us to Ghazni. All of us meaning: a group of 12 men, women and children of different ethnicities and origins – a wild mix of Afghans, put together by fate and a common destination, but quickly becoming friends during this perilous journey. ‘We never saw so many burnt out trucks in previous years’, says another man, a trader of car parts, from the back seat.

I nod at my travel companions’ remarks. Every time I travelled this past spring, I, too, saw pieces of asphalt having been catapulted though the air, landing dozens of metres away, as pressure plate IEDs targeted US troops. I saw trucks burning out in front of my eyes and fire fights over vehicles passing by; most of it as the road passed through Wardak province. For most travellers, having to witness these violent scenes means arriving many hours late.

Since I never knew when I would finally arrive in Ghazni, I kept my appointments as loose as possible. It is actually not far from Kabul to Ghazni, only about 140 kilometres, and it once used to take two to three hours to get there. Today, this would be exceptionally lucky. Even the attempt to outrun the various fighters – starting the journey before dawn and before the warring forces step onto the road – no longer works.

In one recent trip, I had to wait for five hours as the road was blocked by US forces clearing an IED near the town of Sheikhabad in Wardak province, around 30 miles southwest of Kabul. Travelling a week later, I managed to escape the blockade caused by a deadly attack on US troops. When two ambulance helicopters landed on the road to evacuate the wounded, the passengers of other vehicles cheered over the American casualties. Such incidents hardly ever make it into ISAF statements and, therefore, into the news. Our taxi took a narrow dirt road into nearby villages, circumventing the blockage. However, such escape routes are not always available – or safe enough – along the Kabul-Ghazni road.

In the past days, I talked to more travellers coming from and going to Ghazni. They told me their stories of queues of fuel tankers ablaze and of clashes on the road between Afghan forces and the Taleban even after sunset, which had once been unusual. In one case, a guest of mine from Ghazni said his driver had simply ignored the ongoing exchange of fire along the road and drove amidst flying bullets, something I had personally witnessed before, too.

The torching of oil tankers that supply the foreign forces is a most spectacular sight. Thick smoke and flames reach high into the air, visible from great distances. The notorious Afghan private security contractors, turned Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), regularly fail to give the convoys full protection as the Taleban’s tactics have become more sophisticated. Indeed, burning a truck no longer requires a full scale attack from a group of armed Taleban – a simple magnetic grenade thrown by any nondescript person does the trick. Last October, a truck exploded a mere 100 metres away from the car I was travelling in, in close proximity to a school outside Sayedabad town in Wardak. There had been no indication of Taleban around. The police, who arrived shortly after the explosion, said either one of the school boys passing on a bike – or someone posing as a school boy – or any of the youngsters squatting at the roadside selling apples must have hurled a magnetic mini bomb at the truck.

Locals say there are many unrecognizable Taleban agents along the asphalt strip, looking out for targets, alerting the fighters, and even carrying out attacks. According to locals, they are shopkeepers, youngsters idly strolling or fruit sellers. The knowledge of the presence of these ‘invisible forces’ produces an eerie feeling, particularly during breaks or while talking to foreigners at roadhouses.

The roadway showcases all the hallmarks of a formal battlefield, with its asphalt surface melted by the charred truck carcasses along the roadside, brass bullet cases shining in the sunlight and IED craters in the middle of the road. It is these lasting impressions, this kind of often unreported violence, that form the public perception of the poor security situation in Afghanistan. However, actual violence aside, most disturbing for travellers are those times when US troops block the road, forcing passengers to wait for hours in the sweltering heat and causing multi-kilometre traffic jams.

In late May, my taxi was one of the first to arrive at one of these blockades. A grey armoured vehicle was turned crossways on the road, with a soldier at the machine gun turret, waving to us not to get any closer; we later learned that an IED had been found and needed to be cleared. Among the travellers on the road were elderly and ailing men and women, as well as many children. The temperatures were climbing fast. Those who stayed inside the buses, the old people, the women and infants, wilted in the oppressive heat. Two low-flying jets roared past overhead, dipped deep and scared the children.

I was wading in a knee-deep stream beside the road, trying to cool down, when one of the jets fired a warning flare towards me. It missed both me and my friend, a Western researcher crouching on the verge of the stream, by one metre. Drivers shouted from the road that the jet pilot wanted to drive me back onto the road. ‘You look suspicious to them. You should stay on the road’, one of them said. I joined the crowd. After another five hours, we were finally allowed to move, re-joining the flow of people who would continue to brave the dangers of ‘the highway to hell’.

(1) Read further about the battle-scarred highway in the New York Times here, on Channel 4 here and on CBS here.Kabul, about 30 miles away, and the road to Ghazni starts to bring you the sense of the battlefield. You pass by fierce skirmishes, exploding bombs, burning oil tankers, gun-toting Afghan forces and hostile-looking convoys of US forces. Some drivers have gotten so used to the constant violence that they continue travelling amidst flying bullets, not bothering to wait until the fighting has finished. Below, Borhan Osman shares his experience of travelling this dangerous road, between Kabul and Ghazni.

The fragrance of the blooming oleasters, relatives of the olive tree, floating on the balmy early summer breeze, as well as the sight of lush roadside orchards, should make travelling from Kabul to Ghazni a delight. However, the unpleasant scenes outnumber the pleasant ones. The road to Ghazni, also called Highway 1, is the main transportation artery between Kabul and Kandahar, and is an important supply route for foreign forces. Linking the two main foreign military bases at Bagram and Kandahar, the road has been – since 2007 – called ‘the highway to hell’ (http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JJ24Df03.html ) For frequent travellers, the rate and scope of violence along this road is an indicator of the overall security situation across Afghanistan. (1)

Listening to conversations among travellers during several recent trips, I found that there has been a considerable upsurge in attacks along the road in the first six months of 2013. This year has been among the worst, they say. ‘Again, there are more IED explosions, [fuel] trucks on fire and the road has been blocked by the Americans every day. It is like two or three years ago [2010/2011] and sometimes even worse’, says one passenger, a student, in the shared taxi, a van that is taking all of us to Ghazni. All of us, a group of 12 men, women and children of different ethnics and origins – a wild mix of Afghans, put together by fate and a common destination, were quickly becoming friends during this perilous journey. ‘We never saw so many burnt out trucks in previous years’, says another man, a trader of car parts, from the back seat.

I nod at my travel companions’ remarks. Every time I travelled this past spring, I, too, saw pieces of asphalt catapulted though the air, landing dozens of metres away, as pressure plate IEDs targeted US troops. I saw trucks burning out in-front of my eyes and fire fights over vehicles passing by; most of it as the road passed through Wardak province. For most travellers, having to witness these violent scenes means arriving many hours late.

Since I never knew when I would finally arrive in Ghazni, I kept my appointments as loose as possible. It is actually not far from Kabul to Ghazni, only about 140 kilometres, and it once used to take two to three hours to get there. Today, this would be exceptionally lucky. Even the traditional attempt to outrun the various fighters – starting the journey before dawn and before the warring forces step onto the road – no longer works.

In one recent trip, I had to wait for five hours as the road was blocked by US forces clearing an IED near the town of Sheikhabad, in Wardak province, around 30 miles southwest of Kabul. Travelling a week later, I managed to escape the blockade caused by a deadly attack on US troops. When two ambulance helicopters landed on the road to evacuate the wounded, the passengers of other vehicles cheered over the American casualties. Such incidents hardly ever make it into ISAF statements and, therefore, into the news. Our taxi took a narrow dirt road into nearby villages, circumventing the blockage. However, such escape routes are not always available – or safe enough – along the Kabul-Ghazni road.

During the following days, I talked to more travellers coming from and going to Ghazni. They told me their stories of queues of fuel tankers ablaze and of clashes on the road between Afghan forces and the Taleban even after sunset, which had once been unusual. In one case, a guest said, the driver simply ignored the on-going exchange of fire along the road and drove amidst flying bullets, a response I had personally witnessed before.

In particular, it is the torching of oil tankers that supply the foreign forces which are most spectacular. Thick smoke and flames reach high into the air, visible from great distances. The notorious Afghan private security contractors, turned Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), regularly fail to give the convoys full protection as the Taleban’s tactics have become more sophisticated. Indeed, burning a truck no longer requires a full scale attack from a group of armed Taleban – a simple magnetic grenade thrown by any nondescript person does the trick. Last October, a truck exploded a mere 100 metres away from the car I was travelling in, in close proximity to a school outside Sayedabad town in Wardak. There had been no indication of Taleban around. The police, who arrived shortly after the explosion, said either one of the school boys passing on a bike – or someone posing as a school boy – or any of the youngsters squatting at the roadside selling apples must have hurled a magnetic mini bomb at the truck.

Locals say there are many unrecognizable Taleban agents along the asphalt strip, looking out for targets, alerting the fighters, and even carrying out attacks. According to locals, they are shopkeepers, youngsters idly strolling, or fruit sellers. The knowledge of presence of these ‘invisible forces’ produces an eerie feeling, particularly during breaks out of the taxi or while talking to foreigners at roadhouses.

The roadway showcases all the hallmarks of a formal battlefield, with its asphalt surface melted by the charred truck carcasses along the roadside, brass bullet cases shining in the sunlight and IED craters in the middle of the road. It is these lasting impressions, this kind of unreported violence, that form the public perception of the poor security situation in Afghanistan. However, actual violence aside, those times when US troops block the road are most disturbing for travellers, forcing passengers to wait for hours in the sweltering heat and causing multi-kilometre traffic jams.

In late May, my taxi was one of the first to arrive at one of these blockades. A grey armoured vehicle was turned crossways on the road, with a soldier at the machine gun turret, waving to us not to get any closer; we later learned that an IED had been found and needed to be cleared. Among the travellers on the road were elderly and ailing men and women, as well as many children. The temperatures were climbing fast. Those who stayed inside the buses, the elderly, the women and the infants, wilted in the oppressive heat. Two low-flying jets roared past overhead, dipped deep and scared the children.

I was wading in a knee-deep stream beside the road, trying to cool down, when one of the jets fired a warning flare towards me. It missed both me and my friend, a Western researcher crouching on the verge of the stream, by one metre. Drivers shouted from the road that the jet pilot wanted to drive me back onto the road. ‘You look suspicious to them. You should stay on the road’, said one of them. I joined the crowd. After a five hour wait, we were finally allowed to move, re-joining the flow of people, citizens and civilians, who would continue to brave the dangers of ‘the highway to hell’.

(1) Read further about the battle-scarred highway here http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/world/asia/14highway.html?pagewanted=all , here http://blogs.channel4.com/world-news-blog/afghanistans-only-supply-route/13444 and here http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/HNT_Report.pdf

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Kabul attacks Ghazni IED bombs highway journey travel

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