Highways to Hell

04/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Afghanistan is a land of constant peril. The latest tragic reminder of this comes with the news that avalanches in the Salang Pass, which crosses the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul, have killed at least 28 people, injured scores more, and stranded hundreds of motorists in the high mountains. At its highest point the pass is over 12,000 feet above sea level. The vehicle road, such as it is, over the pass and the Salang Tunnel, which runs for a mile and a half about 1,500 feet below the summit, were built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s the Salang became a graveyard for many Red Army soldiers as they tried unsuccessfully to capture the Panjshir Valley from Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panjshir. The Taliban forces also bogged down there, blocked by the same Massoud as they tried to consolidate their grip on Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The Salang Pass has been deadly for centuries for military and civilian travelers, but it is far from being the only, or even the most, dangerous road in Afghanistan. I hate to say this, my Afghan friends, but allowing Afghans to operate motor vehicles was a bad idea from the beginning. Afghans are perennial contenders for the World's Worst Drivers title. The Afghans drive the same way they ride horses -- fast, free and wild.

The New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins discovered this on the spectacular highway between Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad. It's another mountain crossing, not as high as the Salang but featuring more tortuous twists and precipitous plunges, should one be nudged over the edge by an overloaded (there's no other kind, come to think of it) Bedford truck or by a speeding taxi trying to pass that overloaded truck on the outside of a blind hairpin curve. It's the sort of road where, as the old joke goes, you could follow a set of tail lights for miles before realizing they were your own.

Other Afghan routes may have more roadside bombs, land mines and ambushes, but for sheer body count they rank well below the Jalalabad Road. The architecture of the road itself, whose curves would challenge a python, coupled with the modus operandi of the typical Afghan driver, make a trip from Kabul to Jalalabad or vice-versa the motoring equivalent of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

Some years ago P.J. O'Rourke, the world's only funny conservative, wrote about the terrors of traveling on the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar, Pakistan, with an Afghan at the wheel. He discovered that Afghan drivers seem to be guided, or propelled, by mottos like: Drive as fast as possible; Never pass a vehicle unless there is a larger vehicle coming the other way; Aim your vehicle for any open space on the roadway even if it is in the other lane; The horn, not the brake, is the most important piece of equipment on the vehicle. In those days, the 1980s, the G-T Road was shared by flocks of sheep, camel caravans, donkeys, chickens, bicycles and walkers as well as cars and trucks. Getting from one city to another without hitting one or several of the above was considered a major achievement. The scenery consisted of the Indus River, the ancient Attock Fort, the wreckage of scores of buses, trucks and taxis, and the corpses of unfortunate animals who learned too late that there is never a good moment to cross a road where Afghan drivers are at large.

Every day the English-language Frontier Post would print the stories of the previous day's carnage on the G-T Road. Unless the driver was killed outright, the news account invariably ended one of two ways: Driver was set upon by angry mob, or, Driver absconded. When I had to make the trip from Peshawar to Islamabad and back by Flying Coach bus, I would purchase two seats so that I could lie down, close my eyes and be spared the sight of impending head-on crashes.

Driving in Kabul City is much the same only a bit slower because of the perpetual traffic jams. To picture a Kabul intersection, imagine the way you swirl Scrabble tiles around on the tabletop before the draw. Vehicles going every which way, some of them on the sidewalks. There are traffic cops at these intersections, blowing whistles and waving little red paddles, but they are strictly for comic relief. They have no effect whatsoever on the movement of traffic, which advances solely on the basis of intimidation. Size matters.

Compared to getting the Afghans to obey traffic laws and drive somewhat sanely, winning the war should be a piece o' cake.


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