Just as it would be necessary in a discussion of the American hot rod to explore the inner-workings of the internal combustion engine, it will be necessary to briefly delve into the politics of Afghanistan if we are to tell the tale of General Bongo beyond his escape from the Mahi Par Pass. Politics was in the main the issue of the barrel of a gun in the spring of 2004. Legislative elections were upcoming later that year, followed by a presidential “election,” which everyone already knew amounted to the crowning of Hamed Karzai. The country was being run not from Kabul but provincially by a cadre of war lords most of whom had emerged from the Northern Alliance in the Panshir Valley during the wars against the Russians and the Taliban over the past 25 years or so.
Jalalabad sits astride the road between Peshawar and Kabul, the main trade route through the region for the last several thousand years. It’s the first trading town inside Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the twin of Peshawar just across the border. Both towns were filled to the first-story windows with spies, insurgents, drug war-lords, ordinary criminals, fixers of every stripe and color, and a surfeit of government hacks and flacks on the take for everything from sewage permits – in a place where there was no such thing as an actual sewer – to phony visas permitting a stay in-country or travel to any country you cared to. The one major thing missing in Jalalabad was a sense of anyone being in control, because no one was.
It was true that Jalalabad and the provinces of Nuristan and Kunar had their own resident war lord, one Hazrat Ali, a pudgy 40 year old mujahideen commander with his own militia some 9,000 strong. Collaboration being the sincerest form of flattery, Hazrat Ali hadn’t had any problem with getting U.S. help. His militia was fed, clothed and housed using United States dollars flowing downhill to the coffers of Mr. Ali from god only knows what stateside funding source. He had spent his youth in the Panshir Valley studying at the feet of the master, fighting the Russians alongside Ahmed Shah Massoud the famous Northern Alliance commander. Once the Russians had been ejected from Jalalabad, he moved into town and took his place as a militia commander until the Taliban drove him back into his mountain village of Daranuh. Once again he took up the fight alongside Massoud and when the Americans invaded in 2001, he seized another opportunity to move into Jalalabad, this time with stronger backing from the Northern Alliance. By the time I ran into him in May of 2004, the generally chaotic political situation in Afghanistan had left him a very, very powerful man in northeastern Afghanistan. Although his control of the region in and around Jalalabad was at best questionable, the strength of his militia army gave him enough power that he had been able to kill two of the brothers of the provincial governor, Din Mohammad, and drive him into a comfortable exile in Dubai.
We finally got out of the Mahi Par Pass around 4:00 a.m. and arrived in Jalalabad around 5:30 to be greeted by a roadblock manned by fighters loyal Hazrat Ali. Two words got us past the roadblock: General Bongo. They had been stopping traffic all night that had escaped the traffic jam in the Mahi Par Pass, and word of the miracles worked by General Bongo was apparently being spread far and wide. We woke up the desk guy at an old British colonial era hotel called the Spinghar, got a couple of rooms and collapsed.
The next day we headed for Asadabad, a smaller outlaw trading town about 30 miles north on the Kunar River. The road from Jalalabad to Asadabad, while lacking a 2,500 foot deep gorge and a seven mile traffic jam, was worse than the road from Kabul to Jalalabad. Much worse. Those 30 miles took us seven hours to drive. In case you’re having trouble with the math, that’s less than five miles per hour. The road wasn’t rutted and pot-holed; it was cratered and strewn with boulders the size of compact cars. Not to mention lined with the requisite warnings against land mines and other high explosive roadside attractions. When we arrived in Asadabad, we had to drop off our little 4-wheel drive SUV at a local repair shack as all four of our shocks were bleeding hydraulic fluid that had leaked onto our brake shoes leaving us with no brakes whatsoever. I realize these vehicular details might seem inconsequential, but you have to consider the situation at hand: having gotten to a hellhole like Asadabad, the first thing you start thinking about is how you’re going to get out. You need shocks and brakes to get out, trust me.
If Jalalabad seemed like an East Asian Dodge City, Asadabad looked like that planet Han Solo stopped at in the first Star Wars. The streets were crawling with malformed and disease-ridden Afghans using everything from push-boards to wheeled contraptions constructed of old baby carriages to propel themselves around. Polio was running rampant; people in various stages of decomposition from staph infection and gangrene huddled under shade trees and held out blistered hands, begging for hand-outs. Shop keepers and passersby were missing hands, arms, feet, legs…you name it…from land mine and unexploded ordnance accidents. Sewers, as usual, ran alongside the road or down the middle of smaller side streets. Rabid, foaming, bleeding dogs dug through piles of garbage alongside children who appeared to be in the same shape the dogs were in. Shop stalls sold hand-made poppy knives and various other tools of the opium trade. Healthier children carried bundles of dried poppy-sticks on their backs to be used as firewood and roof-thatch in their home compounds. And everywhere you looked, boys in dark blue pants and light blue shirts carrying Korans walked to and from a plethora of Madrassas that lined the roadsides everywhere, some of them openly sponsored by Saudi, Pakistani, and Iranian groups I recognized from anti-terror watch lists back home, such as the World Federation of Muslim Youth.
We ate a lunch of flat bread, rice and fried river fish and afterwards crossed the bridge over the Kunar River to find ourselves in…surprise!…Pakistan, the border with which was a good ten miles to our east running along the top of a ridge of mountains that formed the beginning of the Hindu Kush. All of a sudden our cache of Afghan currency wasn’t good anymore. Shops accepted rupees or dollars, nothing else.
This was not a good sign. Already I could see that Asadabad was if not formally under the control of the Taliban, at least heavily under its influence. But the east side of the river was Taliban territory through and through. We had befriended a squad of guys from Hazrat Ali’s militia on our way to Asadabad, and when they refused to cross the bridge over the Kunar, I should have known something was up. The American was drawing pointed fingers and whispered conversations, so we quickly turned around and crossed the bridge back into Asadabad proper and made for the auto repair shack and picked up our truck and headed south.
On our way up to Asadabad, we had stopped in the mud-hut village of Nachur to buy candy and oranges and bottled water from a little roadside shop tended by a very nice guy by the name of Matiz. On the way back, we stopped again and hung around for awhile talking. It seemed as if the brother of Matiz had been stuck in an eastbound bus in the traffic jam two nights before, and would not have made it to a big family wedding had it not been for this guy General Bongo who came around like a miracle worker and freed the lucky brother from traffic bondage. When Esos introduced me as General Bongo, Matiz grabbed me by the shoulders and wouldn’t let go. He was running on and on, what a great thing I had done, and he had heard about donkey-donkey! Could he see General Bongo do the magic of donkey-donkey? Of course he could, so I stood out there on the dirt street and spread my legs wide and pretended to ride a donkey and flailed my right arm as if whipping the beast, yelling bongo-bongo-bongo! And Matiz went crazy with laughter, grabbing a bunch of little boys and sending them off into the dark to the compounds of the village elders to bring them to see General Bongo do donkey-donkey. It was already dark and getting late and it was known that the Jalalabad-Asadabad road had an even worse reputation than the Kabul-Jalalabad road when it came to marauding bandits, but we hung around until Matiz had assembled about 40 of the men from the village in the street facing his little shop and I did donkey-donkey-bongo-bongo, and they went wild with joy. As it turned out, I was the first American any of them had ever met. None of the convoys running between base camps in Jalalabad and Asadabad had ever stopped. All they ever saw of Americans was a glimpse of helmeted faces going past in a blur of armored vehicles. Now here was the great American hero, General Bongo! In their village! Doing the magic of donkey-donkey-bongo-bongo! They practically wouldn’t let us go.
The next day, we took off again in the morning going north on even worse roads through ever more narrow valleys into the region just around the valleys to the south of the Pech River where the famous documentary Restropo would be filmed a few years later. Even in these distant valleys, stories of General Bongo had been passed, and we were greeted everywhere as heroes, Esos basking in his share of the Bongo limelight. On the way up in the morning we stopped again at Matiz’ roadside shop for some oranges and water, and I saw Matiz take Esos aside around the corner of the shop for a fairly lengthy conversation. I had meant to ask Esos about it, but forgot as we entered the badlands. On our way back south, once again just as it was getting dark, we stopped again in the village of Nachur to say goodbye to Matiz. This time he was ready for us. Nearly the entire village of 300 or so were out in the street waiting for us, the women in Burquas lurking at the edges of the crowd, little children scampering around chasing wooden balls with sticks. And now the greeting of the entire village was made clear. Matiz and the village mukhtar, the elder chosen as a de facto mayor, approached me and translated by a beaming Esos made me an offer. It had been decided not only by the village of Nachur but by several nearby villages, that it would be a good idea to have General Bongo on their side during whatever upheaval was coming their way as a new Afghanistan was taking shape. These people were peasants, but they were peasants descended from stock that had occupied that valley for several thousand years and had survived one despot after another. All they could see coming their way was another despotic regime like the Taliban, or the Russians or any other. What mattered wasn’t Afghanistan the nation. It was their little league of villages, intermarried for centuries, as close to a “nation” as any of them ever expected to see. A good way to insure their survival as a tiny culture, a collection of villages, was to have General Bongo on their side. In this regard, they were prepared to give me my own mud-brick compound, a multi-family unit that had been abandoned by some local Taliban sympathizers after the Taliban had been driven out. Esos was uncharacteristically somber as he translated their offer. There would be the compound, and once the surrounding villages were taken into account, I would have a militia of about 600 men under my command. As many wives as I wanted to take would of course be arranged. This was a good life they were offering to General Bongo. Esos explained that they had spent most of the day in discussions about the arrangements. It was all agreed. All General Bongo had to do was say yes, and a celebratory feast would be laid out, and he would be welcomed into the village as its newest resident and military commander.
I can’t say that “The Man Who Would Be King” didn’t come to mind, because it did. I looked around at their faces in the gathering dusk. There wasn’t a smile among the men. Even the children had stopped chasing their wooden balls and stood silently, sticks at their sides. Until that moment in my life, it was the single saddest thing I ever had to do, turning them down. It broke my heart and I know it broke theirs, but they recovered quickly enough, however. Matiz asked me if I would do donkey-donkey-bongo-bongo one more time, so the whole village could see. I did donkey-donkey, did I ever. I gave it my very best, pretending to ride the donkey, flailing away at his imaginary flanks with an imaginary stick, yelling bongo-bongo-mongo-mongo at the top of my lungs. The entire village erupted with laughter. Finally they had met an American and he was just like them.