The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Games in Afghan poppy land

Torkhum/Jalalabad, Sept. 5: Zalmay: driver, friend, companion, interpreter, escort, guide. He’s worried like hell and wants us ‘outta’ here, Nangarhar, fast.

Poppy country Nangarhar. It has many highs ' America, Pakistan, India, Taliban, Hekmatyar and opium.

There’s a high also in the Kabul river, gushing liquid sapphire that flows into Pakistan; the high is in the hills of Nuristan across the waters with bluffs like chunks knifed out from a brick of frozen butter. The high was in 2004; opium produce is down 95 per cent this year.

The low is in the Great Game. It’s between the Americans and the Pakistanis and the Indians. In that order. Each wants a bit of this strategic space, the road to the Khyber Pass, gateway to South Asia.

Zalmay is driving through this province of stark hill and green valley. He fears the imponderables for himself and for me. Too many Kalashnikovs about here.

He has nothing to do with the Great Game.

Manmohan Singh is playing it. In South Block they said at first that the Prime Minister would visit Jalalabad on his Afghan trip last week. He did not. He did not come to Jalalabad, 75 km from Torkhum, 75 km from the Khyber Pass.

“The only excuse they could come up with for a Manmohan Singh tour of Jalalabad was a visit to Badshah Khan’s mazhar,” The Telegraph is told. Badshah Khan or Frontier Gandhi is ' was ' Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Bharat Ratna. Then, Delhi let it be known that it was not safe for the Prime Minister.

It’s as safe in Jalalabad as it is in Kabul. But Badshah Khan, the historical horse India rides, is disliked here in Nangarhar. Badshah Khan echoed Gandhi in 1947.

This is 2005. They say Badshah Khan was from Jalalabad but he wanted Pashtunistan, a country of the Pashtuns, till Nehru and Gandhi said forget it, India is more important.

Badshah Khan is great game in little Nangarhar. Little Nangarhar is great game in our scoop of the world.

Nangarhar, home to Torkhum, in Afghanistan’s east is where the Khyber Pass begins or ends, as gateway to South Asia. America’s and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai ' as Pashtun as Zalmay Khalilzad, the US administrator in Iraq ' wants entry in Saarc.

Back to the highs, lows and the Great Game.

Only two countries have consulates in Jalalabad: India and Pakistan. On May 11, a mob in Jalalabad ran amok through the town’s main road ' the road from Kabul to the Khyber ' attacked official establishments and burnt down the Pakistan consulate. An American magazine had reported that the Quran was desecrated in Guantanamo Bay. The Indian consulate was stoned but the mob could be persuaded to target elsewhere.

In Jalalabad’s main market, you cannot pay for a gourd of the luscious sarda fruit in dollars or rupees because you will not get the change in dollars or Afghanis. The currency is Khaldar, old Pakistani rupees. The buses and trucks and vans through the city are mostly Pakistani. Few know where the Indian embassy is. Most point to a microwave link TV tower that Indian engineers have built in the town centre. It’s far from that.

Unobtrusive and walled high, the Indian consulate in Jalalabad houses not only its offices but also it personnel.

Pakistan has objected to the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat, down south in the province bordering Iran. The consulates are intelligence operations, says Pakistan. The Indian consulate in Jalalabad is inciting separatist insurgencies in its North Western Frontier Province and Baluchistan, it is alleged.

An Indian medical mission that has a presence in Kabul and several other cities of Afghanistan is due in Jalalabad shortly. A private company from India has set up the mobile telecom network in Nangarhar. India is far from here. Just 600 km across Pakistan to Wagah in Punjab.

Behind the sandbagged defences of the Jalalabad airport and the hills of the white mountains is a hidden war. The US has all its 1,700 troops for Afghanistan’s eastern provinces ' Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Pakhtiya ' based here. Nothing new. Nangarhar and the Khyber Pass have witnessed the traverse of the world’s great armies ' British, Persian, Mughal, Greek'.

Last week, the US forces were bundled into Chinook helicopters for an operation in the Korengal Valley in Kunar province after 16 of their troopers were killed by suspected Taliban. The Taliban is atop the mountains and across the Durand Line, the border that isn’t but it separates Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Throw in a little bit of democracy.

The leading candidate from Nangarhar is Hazrat Ali. There are 10 seats from Nangarhar in the Wolesi Jirga that is to be the lower house of the Afghan parliament. Four seats are reserved for women. There are 192 candidates contesting. About 25 are former commanders of the Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) and Hizb-e-Islami (Khalisa). The other candidate sure to win is Fazlur Rehman Ibrahim.

Hazrat Ali was the corps commander of the Afghan Army under the Soviets who later became Nangarhar’s chief of police. Fazlur Rehman is the director of the health services for Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

Last year, the government of India posted an education mission here for the university of Nangarhar. A teacher of English and two trainers in computer languages.

The teacher of English was to train teachers of English. Nangarhar university’s head of the department of English told the Indian English teacher that the class VI NCERT text book was too tough and his staff could not attend the classes because their ignorance would show.

In the villages around Jalalabad, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has put up posters for the September 18 election that tries to teach Afghans the meaning of democracy: every individual has one vote, you cannot vote for your family.

It’s late in the afternoon and Zalmay is almost panicky. “I panic for you, not for me,” he says. “If I cannot take you back to Kabul in one piece I will feel insulted.”

Dignity counts for a lot in these parts.

Zalmay calls the shots. We drive back. Twisters funnel spirals of dust skywards from the high plains of Kabul.

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