Sunday, January 13, 2013

THE ROAD TO KABUL by Peter Nolan Smith


Afghanistan was a two-day drive from Italy in the summer of 1972. At the end of the school year my friend Gianni bought a school bus in Milano and told his parents that he was going on vacation.

Kabul was his destination.

His parents offered to pay the gas, viewing the venture as a mind-expanding experience after which Gianni would enter medical school. His companion for this voyage was his future wife, Julie, who knew the real purpose behind the trip, since she was holding over $20K in a money belt around her waist.

Hashish cost $5 a gram in the cafes around the Duomo cathedral. Gianni was planning on quadrupling his money by a smuggling venture to Kabul, which was the first step of the hippie route through Asia.

"Kabul, Kathmandu, Kuta Beach.

On the journey through Turkey and Persia, he didn’t let Julie touch the steering wheel. Italian men are like that with cars and Muslim men are that way with their women.

In Kabul he packed the school bus with several hundred kilos of hash bricks.

Turn-around time – 2 days.

Another 2 days to Italy, where he sold the shipment for millions of lira.

Gianni took three more of those trips during his years in medical school. Julie and he had a good life. No one asked the source of his good fortune. In Italy questions about income were considered impolite.

In 1979 I met Gianni at Hurrahs. The club booked punk bands. I worked the door. He was an intern at a big NY hospital. He loved the Damned, Buzzcocks, and B-52s. We became friends. He thought my girlfriend was beautiful.

Lisa was a model from Buffalo. She dated a ranked tennis player. I was never jealous. She came home to me every night. I never questioned the smell of another man's cologne on her skin. Accusations wouldn't have changed the model's moral code, when it came to getting ahead and I had little to offer her other than love.

One evening we ate over Gianni apartment on the East Side, which was near his hospital. His wife cooked northern Italian dishes.

Lisa played with their young daughter. Alice had blonde hair. She could have been Lisa’s baby. Her unspoken dream was sacrifice for her career. Lisa wanted to be a top model. She was only 5-7. I didn't have the heart to tell her that she was short.

One night Gianni and I sat on his balcony, smoking reefer. He critiqued the weed like a connoisseur of fine wine and Gianni explained the source of his expertise.

Hash runs to Afghanistan enhanced my appreciation for the doctor.

“Now you’re a good citizen.” Afghanistan was an exotic destination on the other side of the world. I had read THE HORSEMAN about the traditional horse game of Buzkashi, which was as violent as a Mongol charge. It had been made into a movie with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance.

“Maybe.” He leaned forward so his next words were for my ears alone. “I would have kept doing it. The money was too good. Better than anything a doctor can earn in Italy or here, but once the communists overthrew the monarchy, I could tell something bad was going to happen.”

“Like what?”

“Chaos.” It was a feeling. “Afghanistan is on the map of the Great Game. You know what that is?”

“England and Russian trying to control the high plains of Asia.” I had read Rudyard Kipling’s KIM. English pundits had traveled the high plains to upset the schemes of the Tsar. The 1975 movie THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING had portrayed two British deserters attempting to set up a kingdom based on destiny and Enfield rifles in the arid valleys beyond the Himalayan rainshadow.

“In 1842 3600 British soldiers retreated from Kabul. The only one to survive the rout, was a doctor, William Brydon.” Gianni knew his history. “They tried to put a king on the throne.”The prize had been India and it still is for the Russians.”

“The Russians.”

“Yes, the Russians.” The Commies were on the march throughout the 3rd World.

We returned to the dinner table. Our conversation focused on Lisa’s upcoming trip to the UK. David Bailey wanted to shot her for British Vogue. I planned on meeting Lisa in London a month later.

In November the two of us lived in a studio behind the Chelsea football pitch. Saturday afternoons Fulham Road was a war zone between the visiting fans and the Old Stafford firm of hooligans. Lisa and I lazed in bed until the only sign of the post-game riots was wind-blown trash. Vogue went with another model for the cover and I hung out at punk clubs, while she socialized with high society at Annabelles. She came home with her disheveled hair. It wasn't from the wind.

I was a third wheel on the bicycle of her ambition and returned to New York. The US Embassy was overwhelmed in Tehran. The Pentagon was powerless to rescue the hostages.

America had lost its taste for empire in Vietnam and the road to world domination was open for the Reds. The magnet pointed south through Kabul. Their army invaded in 1979. President Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Ronald Reagan beat him in the 1980 election. He had bribed the ayatollahs to delay their release.

Lisa went missing in Europe. I spotted her in a lingerie ad for Perla. Her smile invited men to bed. I hoped that she was lucky. I never saw her in Vogue and I looked every month from cover to cover.

The 80s were a new day for America. We financed the insurgency in Afghanistan. The Kremlin fought the mujaheddin ten years.

Millions dead.

Millions more in exile.

A nation in ruins.

The last Russian soldier to cross the Amu Darya was Lieut. Gen. Boris V. Gromov.

“There is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind me.”

Only the dead.

The USA walked away from the war.

I read more books about the region. Peter Hopkirk’s THE GREAT GAME, Peter Levi’s THE LIGHT GARDEN OF THE ANGEL KING, AndrĂ© Deutsch’s A HISTORY OF CONFLICT and anything else venturing onto the subject of Afghanistan. I planned a trip across the region, although peace evaded the landlocked country until the Taliban seized power with the backing of the Pakistan secret service.

Gianni’s prediction about something bad had legs.

Civil War, the Taliban, Al- Quada, 9/11.

GW Bush authorized a low-level invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. The Northern Alliance rolled over the Taliban troops and their Arab comrades with the help of US air power. The ease of the conquest emboldened the president to open a second front on the War of Terror.

Iraq.

Afghanistan was an after-thought, but the Taliban were not accepting defeat. They had retreated to prevent the mass starvation that winter. The war has lasted 11 years and two presidents with an end two years distant. This afternoon I recalled the words of William Gladstone, the 19th Century English politician.

“Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own.”

Bombs in the compound.

Machine-gunned civilians.

Death from above and below.

Only bribes to warlords will prevent a repeat of the 44th regiment’s disastrous retreat from Kabul.

Bribes to grow drugs.

And it’s not about hashish now.

It’s heroin.

A busload of smack could finance my retirement in Thailand for several hundred years.

Gianni was still working at the hospital.

One of his old dealers had to have survived the anarchy. Both Gianni's wives could use the money and so could Lisa, wherever she is in this world a woman her age needs money, but I'm too old for that segment of the Great Game.

I have a wife and kids.

They want me alive for another 30 years and Kabul doesn't fit into that equation.

Then again being dead never had.

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