PANJSHIR VALLEY – Hypercapitalists of the world, unite: the best place on earth for a G-8 or World Trade Organization meeting – away from volcanic anti-globalization protests – is the Panjshir Valley, the Afghan Shangri-La.
No hitchhiking. You can only get to the Panjshir by Russian military helicopter, courtesy of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (the non-Taliban government, recognized by the United Nations and the international community, bar a country or three).
The Panjshir is a natural fortress: a lush green valley surrounded by sheer rock face. There are no crowds, no Big Macs, no symbols of corporate greed. The Panjshir offers magnificent hospitality, pure mountain air, pristine rivers and immaculate landscapes filled with artsy intrusions (“Still life with tank” is the great Afghan contribution to modern art). But bring your own Bordeaux and brie: the menu is a little too biased toward mutton kebab.
In the unlikely event that Afghanistan’s civil war between the Islamic Emirate (the Taliban) and the Islamic State of Afghanistan comes to an end, the best market positioning for the Panjshir Valley would be as the epitome of the Asian Shangri-La. To top it all, the Panjshir (five lions) boasts a resident lion, unrivaled both in charisma and righteous freedom struggle credentials: Ahmad Shah Masoud, Mujahiddin Number One, victor over the Soviet Red Army, bete noire of the Taliban and vice president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan.
He lives in a sprawling mansion on top of a hill. He has dozens of bodyguards. He moves around by private helicopter, and on the spot by a black Toyota 4X4 with tinted windows (although he’s no drug dealer). He drives women wild. Ahmad Shah Masoud – the Che Guevara of the Hindu Kush – is nothing less than the CEO of the Panjshir.
As the heart of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban, visitors to the Panjshir expect to confront countless intimations of war – from the rumble of military helicopters to the conceptual art of accumulated destroyed tanks and armored carriers. Mujahiddin or not, almost anyone carries a kalashnikov. But there is also a semblance of “normal” life, at least by Afghan standards. The chaikhanas (tea shops) are lively, the bazaars are stocked with products from Iran, Pakistan and most of all China. Kids, who don’t appear to be undernourished, swim in the Panjshir River. Peasants harvest wheat. And unlike Taliban-controlled areas, girls actually go to school.
Almost every family exhibits a photo of a benevolent “Saint” Masoud in their visitors’ room, – but underneath there are always the inevitable few photos of dead relatives, killed during the years of war. Camps for what are officially called internally-displaced persons (IDP) are scattered all over the valley, mostly people who have fled from the fighting in the torrid Shamali plains in the central regions of the country.
Make no mistake, though, this Shangri-La is no bed of roses. The chief doctor at Rokhah village hospital is adamant, “Our main problem is no food. And at least 20 children froze to death last winter alone. There is no protection for them in those flimsy tents.” At the Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) office in Rokhah, a nurse from southern France is extremely gloomy when referring to the living conditions of most families. According to the MSF, about 22.443 families live in the valley – plus 2,900 IDP families, averaging eight or nine people. At their office in Rokhah, the doctors have between 50 and 60 consultations a day, and about 200 in the larger Gulbahar village. According to the nurse, the main problems are malnutrition and diarrhea.
But as far as the “international community” relates to war zones, the Panjshir couldn’t be sexier. It is the domain of a superstar – Masoud. It is the symbol of the resistance against the bad guys – the Taliban. No wonder it is now the definitive political fashion accessory on a trip to Afghanistan – compared to the hardcore conditions in provinces such as Badakhshan and Takhar.
Such a glamorous destination could not but host a perpetual travelling motley crew. The cast of characters assembled on a recent week this summer was more than representative.
There was a creepy Italian photographer with a dubious agenda (he was later expelled from the Islamic State, without even knowing it, alongside his posh English girlfriend of the “let’s-get-some-thrills-in-exotic-places” kind). There was a French photographer-filmmaker, shooting a Masoud documentary and dreaming about being the only one at the supposedly imminent recapture of the strategic city of Taloqan in the northeast.
There was an editorial writer from a Parisian fashion magazine who arrived with 20 kilograms of beauty products: certainly Hermes and Lancome are an absolute must for IDPs eating grass.
There was a politician from Geneva whose main aim was to use sexy Masoud as bait for her ambitious mayoral campaign back in Switzerland.
And there was the most complex character of all – Chekheba, an Afghan-Parisian hybrid, daughter of one of the oldest and most prominent families in Kabul. Her agenda, apparently, was to use her impeccable Afghan connections to bring influential Europeans to the Panjshir and so reinforce the perception that Western Europe supports a progressive Afghanistan. She is the president of Association Afghanistan Libre, a Paris-based NGO.
There was the matter of the building of a school for girls (there are only two schools in the valley). In theory, US$20,000 for that purpose were donated by the politician from Geneva, but in fact the money was pledged by a Swiss government body. There is no school, yet – but that did not prevent a splendid Afghan photo opportunity to be later exploited to seduce Swiss voters.
The land for the school building was provided by the minister of foreign relations himself. It is adjacent to his house. There was absolutely no guarantee from anyone that the money would serve for the stated purpose – the building of the school. And it was clear there would be no follow-up from any of the parties involved. Asked about the teaching methods to be employed at the new school, the Afghan-Parisian was definitely puzzled.
In the end, the Western European groupies all got what they wanted – their 15 minutes with the Super Warrior. With impeccable flak jacket, trademark Chitral hat from the Pakistan region of the Hindu Kush, and $700 shoes, Masoud can be as dazzling as U2’s Bono Vox. The women were on the verge of throwing him their knickers. And after a few more photo ops, everybody happily boarded a chopper back to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and then Western Europe.
A cynic would say Masoud is using European NGOs and politicians as his luxury shield. But a realist would say that the effect of a local product – a small red and yellow melon – could maybe offer the best metaphor for the Panjshir Valley: you can smell it, but you can’t eat it.