Last week I completed the instruction necessary to obtain a driver’s license for Afghanistan. The course took about 45 minutes. Since Afghanistan has no driving rules, no stoplights, no stop signs, no lane markers, no speed limits – there’s really no auto etiquette at all – there isn’t much to learn in the way of motor vehicle regulations. Instead, the class focuses on operating the electronic frequency jammer inside each US military vehicle, an essential piece of equipment as it (usually) blocks the viability of a remote control to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) that could be planted along a convoy route. The real driving instruction is OJT – on-the-job training. You take to the streets of Kabul in an armored Suburban or Humvee and learn as you proceed.
Amongst the Americans I have met, two distinct schools of driving exist. The first school preaches that Americans “own” the roads here, that the threats to our safety come from insurgent Afghans hidden among the general population, and that all Afghan drivers and pedestrians need to clear the way for our convoys or risk impact with a speeding, armored vehicle that would simply rumble over most local automotives and certainly flatten any body it contacted. I don’t adhere to the tenets of this school and its dogma that aggressive, sometimes outrageous driving is the best way to guarantee that they make their destination without harm to themselves. (I do understand that, like most other military personnel in a war zone, they wish to return home with their limbs and sanity.)
The aforementioned school doesn’t seem to consider that the typical Afghan on the street might not like to see US military vehicles careening through the sovereign state of Afghanistan with reckless disregard for the children and other pedestrians who are forced to stay vigilant for our convoys. (This threatened population would include the innumerable burka-clad women walking the streets with what must be drastically reduced peripheral vision.) I don’t think aggressive driving assists in the “hearts and mind” campaign over here. I know that I would be a bit peeved if I encountered, in front of my home, a foreign Humvee on the sidewalk with its horn blaring as it attempted to navigate around a fruit cart pushed by a sixty year-old man.
Unfortunately, aggressive Americans are not the only drivers terrorizing the local population. Many Afghans are quite proficient in maneuvers that would have you arrested in Boston for attempted vehicular manslaughter should you attempt them. A local told me, when I suggested that my driving skills might enable me to work as a Kabul cabbie after completing my military obligation, that the essential attributes of an Afghan taxi driver are fearlessness, recklessness, and a total disregard for the well-being of others. When I asked him if he thought that most Afghans thought similarly of American drivers, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “You have strong vehicles, so you will be safe.”
I belong to the driving school that teaches crazed driving, moreso than an insurgent in a suicide vest or a roadside IED, is the factor most likely to dictate harm to ourselves and others while traveling in Kabul. Thankfully, the commanding general of my base agrees with that philosophy as well, as recently he instructed us to remember that Kabul is an urban environment; and that safe driving means we must move tactically and cautiously in our vehicles without endangering the local Afghans. Recently an Afghan child died after a NATO vehicle struck him on a busy Kabul street, and a small but vociferous group of Afghans picketed an American base near the incident to protest the death and the aggressive, dangerous driving that they claimed was responsible for the boy’s death.
This second school doesn’t preach passivity on the roads. Kabul drivers seem to believe that passivity equals weakness that deserves dishonor and ridicule. If you don’t continually push your vehicle forward on the streets of Kabul, you will find yourself enveloped by bicyclists, buses, bread carts and small herds of sheep.
Although many of the streets I travel feature sidewalks, a significant percentage of Afghans prefer to ambulate on the asphalt amongst the vehicular frenzy. None of the streets have traffic lines or marked turning lanes. Occasionally, a one-way route suddenly will produce oncoming vehicles due to a crumbled road or obstruction ahead. Busy intersections and traffic circles often feature a frantic policeman waving his arms and blowing a whistle, but drivers usually ignore him which renders the cop as just another obstruction to navigate around. The Kabul streets are filled with challenges to the primary tenet of tactical driving: Keep moving. A stationary vehicle is an easy target for someone looking to cause harm and induce mayhem.
Even the most courteous drivers must constantly nudge into packs of other vehicles blocking a route, or authoritatively enter a roundabout with a bit of speed and sound of horn. You cannot drive more than a few blocks without encountering families trying to cross a busy street, sometimes with their livestock; and thankfully both humans and animals here are adept at dodging traffic. Driving in Kabul is an elaborate, frenetic dance that involves dozens of sudden partners, and every day I learn a few more moves.