The Americans left the earthen walls of their base around dawn, taking a left on the dusty unpaved path that runs outside, in the direction of the boarder with Pakistan. But they weren’t going that far. Just a few miles in fact, to the nearest village, for a routine foot patrol. A few Afghan men watched from distant hills above us, crouching stock-still as we passed.
After a half hour we arrived a tiny hamlet, a dispersed collection of mud brick houses set among farm fields and tiny hay barns. The largest building by far among the dozens or so in the area was the mosque. It was also of mud, and was around the size and shape of an old one-room schoolhouse on the prairie. Several other buildings abutted the mosque, forming a simple town square fringed with hewn long benches.
The purpose of the patrol was ostensibly to search the farm houses in the area, looking for weapons or signs of militant activity. So as not to rile the locals too badly, the American forces I was traveling with, led by a burly Staff Sergeant named Adam James, brought along members of the nascent Afghan police force to do the actual searching. The Afghan police didn’t look any different than the men sitting idly in the square, save that they wore heavy blue coats that read “Police” in English on the back.
Staff Sgt. James laconically directed these Afghan forces to begin their search, seeming almost bored; he has two hours of Iraq under his belt before coming here, and has a seen-it-all sort of air about him. Before long, like everywhere else in the Third World, young boys materialized from the ether and started gathering around the visitors. No girls approached us, though I could see some in the distance, leading pack animals around or tending to the fields. Sgt. James ordered some of his men to nearby high ground to watch the road and the land around us. Once these sentries were in place James relaxed, sitting on the log bench and taking some of the pale yellow Afghan hot tea offered to him by one of the men of the mosque.
I looked around at the surrounding hills. “Hey, isn’t this Taliban country?” I asked. “Pretty much,” James said, blowing on the tea glass while holding it gingerly by the rim. “Aren’t you worried you’ll get ambushed?” I asked. “Naw, they wouldn’t do it here,” he said. “They’ll wait until we’re on the road heading back to the base.” “Oh. What might you do to prevent that?” “I’ll call in helicopter support. They’ll cover us, and then we’ll head back.”
Just then, one of the soldiers watching on a hill called won, stringing some words together he probably never had uttered before in his life: “Looks like we got a bunch of camels heading for us, sir.” Everyone turned to look down the road. He was right. In minutes, they were among us.
It was a colorful caravan of at least fifty camels and as many ponies, all laden with ramshackle cloth bags tied with homemade ropes. Hundreds of angular bearded mean in turbans and shalwar kameez and as many women covering their faces walked alongside. Sleepy children with wild hair and runny noses rode on hand-woven saddles on the humps, their heads rocking in time with the rhythmic sway of the camels’ steady gait.
They were passing through and didn’t stop, but the Army’s Pashto translator managed to shout out some questions as they lumbered past, and we got the gist of their story — they had been on the road four days so far, and had about a week to go; they were fine thank you though one of their camels was going lame; and they were heading for warmer climates for the winter, toward the village of Salerno and coming from Ghazni.
As the caravan disappeared into the dusty distance, we all watched it quietly, with the kind of instinctive awe one gets when you see something that seems to walk out of history. Had one stood on this road during the autumn migrating months a thousand years ago, that caravan would have looked completely the same.
Soon the local police finished their searching and it was time to return to the base. Sgt. James called in for Apache attack helicopters to cover the road, but none were available. So, instead we hiked up into the hills and returned cross-country on the high ground, the soldiers marching single-file on the ridges of the ancient mountains. We were back in time for a late lunch.