The police official peered into the passenger seat and took in my headscarf and shapeless clothes. "Where are you going?" he barked at my assistant, sitting at the wheel. "We are journalists, researching security conditions on the road," Ali answered. I lowered my sunglasses, thinking that my light eyes and obvious foreignness usually a quick pass out of any brush with Afghan officialdom would speed us through the inevitable interrogation. Instead, it only made the official more agitated. "Why don't you have a bodyguard?" he demanded. "This road is unsafe; people can be kidnapped."
"I don't want to stand out," I answered lamely. "Journalists don't have bodyguards."
The officer stared at me intently, then laughed mirthlessly. "You stand out anyway." He turned to Ali. "If something happens to her on this road, you will be responsible." He waved us through the checkpoint and soon Ali and I were heading out of Kabul toward Sarobi, an hour's drive away.
Just a few minutes before we hit the checkpoint, Ali had received a phone call from a friend. A British woman, Gayle Williams, had been shot dead in Kabul that morning while walking to work at a Christian charity helping the handicapped. Her assassins were two men on a motorbike, whose bullets hit her in the neck, chest and thigh. Later that afternoon, Ali spoke with Zaibullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, who claimed responsibility: "It was our mujahedin who killed [this] woman who was inviting Afghans to Christianity. She was under suspicion, so we investigated, and after our investigation was completed, we chased her and finally our mujahedin killed her today."
I didn't know Williams, but the head of her organization, Serve Afghanistan, described her as a "lovely girl, a great adventurer." Williams' death hung heavy in our thoughts as Ali and I wound our way through the steep mountain pass that is the only road east out of Kabul, alongside which lie the rusting hulks of Soviet-era tanks. Today, those are joined by the newer wreckage of a pair of burned long-haul trucks that were attacked by the Taliban just a month ago. The drivers, say the Taliban, were carrying goods for the U.S. Army.
Only once we returned to Kabul a few hours later did Ali confess that he had been terrified for the duration of our drive. He kept looking in the rearview mirror, he said, wary of any unusual activity on the road or men in the mountains with weapons.
The fear gnaws at us all, and we start to wonder what risks are acceptable in the pursuit of a story. My decision to visit Sarobi, north of Kabul, began to feel a bit foolish. Since I first started coming to Afghanistan in 2003, I have driven this road scores of times. The same with the road west, to Kandahar, and south, to Khost. These days the roads are all but off-limits, plagued by Taliban insurgents, war or rampant criminality that leaves no vehicle untouched. Kabul is encircled, say residents of the capital. While the city itself is safe, they say, the Taliban are encroaching from all sides.
It was in Sarobi that insurgents had killed 10 French troops in August, but after a few phone calls, Ali decided that Sarobi was probably the safest district we could visit to report on the security situation beyond the capital. Once we reached Sarobi, however, we realized that even Kabul's veneer of safety was just an illusion.
Another phone call: a close friend's father, a French-Afghan businessman and relative of the late king, was kidnapped at gunpoint last night, just a few blocks from where Williams was shot this morning. And the kidnappers of the son of another prominent businessman have delivered a ransom note, demanding $20 million.
The violence doesn't only target foreigners and wealthy locals. On Sunday, I was drinking tea with half a dozen truck drivers who ply the road between Kabul and Kandahar, another route I used to drive several times a year. A week ago, Taliban insurgents stopped a bus convoy and abducted 27 men. Six were beheaded and all but one of the rest were killed, according to another Taliban spokesman. He said they were all soldiers for the Afghan National Army. The government, however, says they were migrants, heading to Iran for work.
Still, the truck drivers weren't concerned about the Taliban as much as they were worried about the predations of police officials who charged exorbitant bribes at checkpoints. And the kidnappers they feared were the criminals who charge ransom, and who often work in cahoots with police who refuse to track them down.
One of the truck drivers, Jan Mohammad, 45, was ready to quit, even though his family desperately needed his $100 monthly salary. "I am so fed up," he said. "[Taliban leader] Mullah Omar says if you transport goods for the Americans, I will kill you. But the government security agencies take off their uniforms at sunset and rob me. There is no salvation for any of us."
Mohammad's sentiments echo those of a handful of diplomats and military commanders in Afghanistan who have warned that the country is in a "downward spiral." Afghans are disillusioned by the lack of security and the failures of their government; Westerners focus on the resurgence of the Taliban. But the two are inextricably linked. Until basic security and the deep flaws of the government are addressed, the Taliban will continue to chalk up successes. And that's something that neither Afghans nor Westerners can afford.