An Even Shorter Walk in the Hindu Kush

KHAKRIZ -- I mentioned recently that the Taliban call the headquarters of Hajji Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, the Khakriz district leader, "the Toilet." One reason the headquarters deserve that nickname is for their filth and disarray. But the more sinister reason is because the Taliban fires shots down into it, and little comes back. The Taliban firing points lie mostly in the mountains to the west, which are honeycombed with caves and compounds and are too dangerous to patrol regularly with the meager resources of Hajji Muhammad's police. So the Taliban has been flushing rockets and small arms fire into the compound with impunity for months, and claiming a casualty from among the Afghan security forces there with every few shakes of the handle.

Hajji Muhammad Abd al Wahhab

District leader Hajji Muhammad.

Today, though, Capt. Sean Wilson and a crew of fewer than a dozen Canadian soldiers are bringing enough firepower and experience to make a trip up the mountain if possible. We leave from the valley floor, again at dawn, and ascend a footpath above a village ten minutes away. (Nearly every patrol or raid I have ever accompanied has begun at dawn, to take advantage of the cool. Has the Taliban not noticed the timing, and made sure to absent then?) Wilson's unit trains Afghan soldiers, so we travel with a group of a few dozen Afghan soldiers, led by a captain from Arghandab.

Numerous journalists in Afghanistan, in reports dating from long before the current unpleasantness, have remarked on Afghans' yak-like ability to scamper over mountains and leave foreign companions breathless behind them. A group of Pathans reduced me to a wheezing mess in 2001 on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and shouldered my backpack in hopes that I would quit lagging. Life in the mountains, and at high altitude, has prepared them for hikes like this. I asked them how they all came to be such good hikers, and they rolled their eyes as if to say that to them, the question phrased itself differently: Why are you foreigners all so out of shape?

I am surprised, then, on this trip to be at least as spry and caprine as the Afghan soldiers -- despite being flabbier than eight years ago, and now laden with a bulky rifle vest and a helmet that looks and feels like a bowling ball with its center scooped out to make room for my cranium. The Afghans sweat, just as I do, and they take regular breaks, lounging on mountainside rocks in full view of the village below, as well as any Taliban up the mountainside who might be watching. They take off boots and rub their feet, and they grouse a little when told to keep walking.

Flock of Seagulls (Afghan National Police version)

What is it about donning a uniform that turns Afghans from robust fighters to last-round picks in high-school gym class? I should be cautious about drawing conclusions: perhaps these soldiers are all lowlanders, or anemic. But it does cross my mind that their tiredness is yet another instance of initiative and discipline, killed off by inclusion in the government. It is ultimately a reflection of motivation.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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