CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — Another Group Of Journalists Killed; Another Note Of Condolences

In January 2016. I sent off an email to an acquaintance of mine, Saad Mohseni, one of three brothers who own Tolo-TV in Kabul, Afghanistan. Tolo is the most-watched television station in the country. It creates its own information and entertainment programs and has a vast dubbing operation to give Dari soundtracks to Western programs.

It also has a large and aggressive newsroom. And in 2016, seven Tolo journalists were riding in a van when it was broadsided by a suicide driver in a car bomb. All seven were killed.

At the time, I sent Saad, who manages the station for his brothers, a note expressing my deep condolences. I’ve done it twice since then.

The latest was April 30, when journalists were again the target of terrorist bombers. The killers deliberately attacked the journalists and rescue workers by setting off a device during morning rush, and then as rescue workers and journalists congregated on the scene, detonated another. Eight journalists were killed immediately, and one died later of his injuries. In an unrelated attack, a reporter was shot to death in Kandahar the same day.

One of the reporters killed in Kabul was a Tolo reporter. Another was Shah Marai, chief photographer in Afghanistan for Agence France Presse.

Afghanistan has a free press clause in its constitution, and the journalists and journalism teachers I know there say the government abides by it. There are multiple threats to the media in Afghanistan, but the government is not one of them. There is very little persecution or even harassment of journalists by the government. However, greater threats come from beyond the government.

And no matter how legitimate the government is, it is nonetheless weak; Afghanistan is dominated more by warlords than by any orderly federal or local system of governance.

In addition, the Taliban still control huge swatches of the country. Reuters reports about 43 percent of the country’s districts are either controlled by the Taliban or are being contested. The threats to journalists come from the Taliban presence and the warlords as well as other terrorist groups operating there. Physical threats, actual assaults and even assassinations have resulted from media stories about people who would prefer their names and their work be kept out of the media.

In fact two of the watchdog groups that track press freedom around the world rate Afghanistan poorly. Reporters sans Frontier rates Afghanistan as 118th out of 180 countries and says the press is not free. Freedom House rates Afghanistan as partly-free, but right on the cusp of not free.

If the threat is not from the government, then where?

A look at last month’s attack is revealing. A branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The Taliban have been known to exact revenge, as it did in the Tolo attack back in January 2016. Tolo had recently done a story critical of the Taliban’s techniques, and it paid with seven lives.

There was a vice president under Hamid Karzai who journalists there knew to be quite hostile if his name ever appeared in the news. He had been known to send thugs to break the kneecaps of any reporter foolish enough to use his name in any context — good or bad.

The other sad fact of Afghan media is the matter of money. There is simply not enough of it to support an independent press. Many media are owned by religious groups, political parties, and even warlords. Afghanistan’s literacy rate is less than 40 percent overall, making newspapers generally useless except among the more elite. Television is expensive to make, transmit and receive. That leaves radio, cheap and ubiquitous, to deliver the news, especially in rural areas.

So although Afghanistan’s constitution guarantees a free press, the real challenge is putting that into practice.

There is so much more that stands in the way of press freedom than a simple phrase. Censorship is not only a threat from government; it  often comes in the form of outside threats, economic hardship, and the influence of ownership and money.

Afghanistan is a petri dish of that statement. Anyone who places his or her own self-interests above those of the country hate and fear the light a free press shines on them.

That includes oligarchs, dictators, monarchs, terrorists and warlords. Cockroaches hate light. The tendency among almost all political leaders is toward less information. Resisting encroachment on freedom of expression is a constant battle just about everywhere. Some countries are more successful than others. Afghan media are fighting that good fight even though the fight has been costly.

But this one truth remains — a country cannot be truly free, cannot truly provide opportunities for all its people, and cannot guarantee free, open and informed elections — if the press is not free.

And I fear that in six, or 12 or 18 months, I will be sending yet another note to Saad Mohseni once again expressing my condolences.

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Amnesia, Anyone?

Do you still remember Sept. 11, 2001? That’s the day four planes were hijacked. Two were flown into the Twin Towers in New York and another into the Pentagon. The last crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania when its passengers overcame the terrorists who had planned to take out a fourth target.

The hijackers were 19 men affiliated with al-Qaeda. Do you remember that 15 of the 19 were citizens of Saudi Arabia? Two others were from the United Arab Emirates; one each came from Egypt and Lebanon.

In its infinite wisdom, the United States military was unleashed upon … Afghanistan. You know, a country that had nothing to do with the bombings. You figure that one out because I can’t.

The Trump administration has looked with favor upon the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. Do you think it’s because, shortly after a meeting with the Saudis and the Emirates, U.S. firms signed enormous military contracts were signed with them? Do you also suppose it could also be because lucrative and much-needed financing was suddenly made available to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to bail his family real estate company out of substantial, pressing debt?

We still have a large troop presence in Afghanistan. We talk about the serious opioid crisis in our country; what seems even more serious is that Afghanistan is the greatest supplier of opioids. Why isn’t our country attacking the supplier-growers on their own ground, rather than only concentrating on the cure for overdoses? With all of our electronic surveillance capabilities, including the use of drones, the military could greatly diminish the drug pipeline. They are already there. Why hasn’t their mission changed?

Perhaps if we were constantly reminded that 115 people die every single day from drug overdose, we would focus more clearly on the source of the supply.

In Syria, we have troops in harm’s way. The president has said we should get out “quickly.” No sooner had he said that when Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad authorized the use of chlorine gas against his own people.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the Russians benefit if we leave or are thrown out of Syria.

As we view situations such as the one in Syria, it reminds me of the days before and during World War II as the world, including this country, stood by and did little as the Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis. If you believe we didn’t know what was taking place in Europe during those times, I have some hot air to sell you from my backyard.

We all see the same news reports of the slaughter of men, women and children in Syria. Bombs, rockets and artillery shells are not selective when it comes to death.

To bring the bad news closer to home, think about Puerto Rico and Michigan. Puerto Rico has endured months without essential infrastructure, including electricity, because for some reason our leadership can’t or won’t make use of the National Guard or active-duty military and their combat engineers to assist them. Restoration would make a wonderful peacetime practice for war. Where else could they get better on-the-job training.

More than three years have gone by, and people in Flint, Mich., still can’t drink their lead-tainted water. Engineers from the military or the Guard could come in with supplies right now, but that hasn’t happened. The government talks a lot but the talk is not matched by action.

We need thinking men and women in Congress who can get it through their heads that they represent we, the people. That is not happening now. It’s hard to argue with that fact, notwithstanding your political affiliation.

The world is in turmoil. That includes our own country. We need meaningful, considered, thoughtful discussion. Then comes the hard part: prioritizing and acting first upon our actual needs, then upon our wants.

When so many people with so much money are running the country, the regular people are shortchanged. The rich get gigantic tax cuts, while the average person gets a pittance … and often thinks that’s just great.

If the wealthy were taxed like the average citizen, and if we stopped spending on military items we don’t need (as Dwight David Eisenhower warned us so long ago), we could develop a balanced budget. Some of these problems do predate the current administration, but the worst can be laid at its feet. Amen.

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Inhumane Sanctions Reflect A Cold, Callous Heart

The word “humanity” is often tossed around, but I wonder if the term is understood. Definitions abound. Here’s how Merriam-Webster explains it: A) the quality or state of being human; B) the quality or state of being kind to other people or to animals.

Another word that also seems to be understood is “sanctions.” Again, the dictionary’s definition: A) a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule; B) a penalty, punishment or deterrent.

Take North Korea, for example. Sanctions in place right now deprive them of coal and food products, as well as other items essential to life, in response to their constant violation of human rights and their military threats.

Their leaders live like kings. When their president is offended by citizens, he simply has them killed.

The United States has thousands of troops stationed in South Korea. They’ve remained there since we bombed the hell out of the North from 1950 to 1953 and finally forced a truce, which holds to this day.

Why should the North feel comfortable with our troops next door … and particularly since we have placed anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea?

The North Korean people face winters as bad as any the free world experiences, and coal is essential for heat. Whenever sanctions are applied, it hurts the civilians. That is simply inhumane. Yet we applaud the act of withholding coal.

We have enough nuclear deterrent to destroy the entire world if we wish. So why do we maintain thousands of troops in South Korea 64 years after signing the truce?

All administrations say they are there to “preserve the peace.” But at the same time, they claim that if the North moves, the North will use nuclear weapons. The last thing we need is to have our men and women on the ground where the fear is nuclear. Their presence will not for one second deter an admitted mad man. (We sure don’t need two mad leaders in this world, but that’s what we seem to have right now.)

America’s current dictator wants China to do his dirty work for him and is surprised that there is nothing in it for the Chinese, even if they could control the North. China is not our ally, but neither is it an enemy. China is growing; while you can call them inhuman or inhumane if you wish, at least they have signed onto the Paris Accords and are working extremely hard to clean the environment. Only one world leader ignores climate change, and that is 45.

Is it humane for us to punish civilians … not just in North Korea but also in the Mideast, including but not limited to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq? By agreement, we are supposed to exit Iraq, and the same holds true in the near future for Afghanistan. The Russians left Afghanistan knowing nothing would stop the occupants from feuding, as they have since time began. Then we took over.

We killed the leader of Iraq, not knowing at the time that his method of governing was what kept the country together, albeit not in a democratic way. The price has been, and is now being paid by the Iraqis.

The Afghans and Iraqi no longer desire our presence. The cost to the U.S. is far up into the billions, not counting thousands of men and women killed and wounded in action, including those grappling with continuing mental problems resulting from those wars.

When we talk about sanctions, we should consider them in the same sentence as the word “humanity.” In the world today, using them is dead wrong.

Here at home, we have leaders falsely claiming to be concerned about humane treatment of our citizens as they seek to abolish the Affordable Care Act. Though it does definitely need improving, that certainly won’t happen under their UN-affordable Care Act that essentially exists to give substantial tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. Those breaks would come at the expense of health care for the elderly, the young, families, the disabled, low-income individuals and military veterans … everyone except the wealthy. That’s just plain wrong.

What 45 and the Republicans in Congress propose and support is absolutely IN-humane. Their proposal places sanctions on those who can least respond by proposing the deletion and replacement of the ACA — which may not be perfect, but has greatly improved the picture for tens of millions of Americans.

This is the United States of America, not the Soviet Republic of the United States. It’s time for our legislators at all levels to throw off their party labels and start representing the American people — all of us. In the current environment, we cannot afford to be simply Republican or Democratic. We must first be American. That means we must look out for each other, not line a small number of rich people’s pockets.

I’m 78 years young. In my wildest nightmare, I could never have envisioned the cold-blooded, forget-about-people administration we now have. This can be laid at the feet of POTUS 45. Make a list of his pre-election promises and another of those he has broken or where he has flat-out lied. You’d better have lots of computer memory and a ton of paper if you go to print them out.

Simply stated, this administration is being inhumane … and it is we the people who are under its sanctions. Amen

CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — Between Two Extremes

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with two universities in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there. This is the last of the blogs I wrote in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a difficult country to write about. It’s tempting to focus on the difficulties here — the violence and the threat of violence, which is almost as oppressive as the violence itself. The poverty. The corruption. The bleak prospects. All of those are evident from afar by anyone who only listens to media reports. All of those are evident, too, from close up, by driving through the streets, by talking to people one meets.

It’s tempting to focus on the optimism of many Afghans and make the story some sort of sentimental paean that sounds hollow and formless, ignoring the harshness of life so many Afghans experience every day.

Somewhere in between is the right tone, and I don’t know if I can find it. It’s not exactly in the middle of those two artificial poles. It’s probably somewhere toward the bleak end, but I’m not sure just how far.

I was talking to a staff member for the University Support and Works Development Project, the agency that’s administering our grant to work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Mazar-i-sharif, and I asked him what he thought Afghanistan’s future looks like. He tried hard to move it toward the positive end.

“The thing is, Muslims believe everything is in the hands of God,” he said as we stood in the small garden atop a nine-story building.

The historic Blue Mosque.
The historic Blue Mosque.

We had just hosted a dinner for our Balkh University colleagues, and dessert was served in the garden. It overlooked the huge, historic Blue Mosque. We were not allowed to visit the mosque out of security concerns.

“So Muslims have to be optimistic,” he continued. “They have to believe that God is looking out for them. Otherwise, we would all climb over this rail and fall to our deaths. There would be many suicides.”

In fact, the suicide rate in Afghanistan is tragically high. In 2014, the Ministry of Public Health reported that suicide was the second highest cause of death in Afghanistan in the 15-to-29-year age group. That’s the very group our grant is aimed to benefit — young people, people just getting their education and starting their careers. It’s higher than murders and war deaths combined, to put it into context.

You want raw numbers? More than 800,000 Afghans commit suicide each year, in a country of 30 million people. There is a suicide every 40 seconds.

“Reliable data on suicide in Afghanistan is scarce,” the MoPH reports said. “A large proportion of Afghans suffer from mental health problems such as depression, a major risk factor for suicide. Gender-based violence, substance abuse, trauma and stress relating to conflict as well as displacement, poverty and continued insecurity around the country also increase the risk of suicide.”

The majority of suicide victims are women.

The MoPH says the lack of help for the mentally ill is one of the reasons for the high rate. But the fact remains that Afghans are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

a3My colleague was trying to be positive, and yet he also had to bring up the fact that thousands of people still flee Afghanistan in hopes of making things better for themselves and their families.

They pay $5,000 or $10,000 to smugglers. They risk crossing the Iranian border (Afghanistan, if you haven’t looked at a map, is landlocked, and the only way to the sea is through Pakistan or Iran) only to push off from the shore in leaky boats hoping to get to Turkey, where there is no real guarantee of refuge or relief.

Some of them will die along the way, perhaps shot trying to cross a border. Others will drown when their boats capsize and sink. Some will reach land only to be turned back. Many will languish in refugee camps with little food, inadequate water, poor health care and no privacy. Few, almost none, will realize their dream

So, I still can’t find that point.

One of my dinner partners that night talked about the number of young people who go abroad to study and then return home to try to make the country better. It’s the young people, he said, who are the best hope for his country. They are the ones who can overcome the terrorism, the tribalism and the corruption.

And yet they are the ones killing themselves. If you are constantly swimming against the current, how long is it before you finally surrender, turn around and do what’s necessary to keep your family safe and fed?

Is there a large enough swell of young, educated people to turn the fortunes of Afghanistan? Will they stay and make that effort? Where is the in-between point?

Of course, so much of this also depends on what all the countries who meddle in Afghanistan do. Pakistan and the U.S. are the biggest meddlers, and there’s not much real hope either of them will leave Afghanistan to itself any time soon. Iran is also a player in this, a longtime partner-antagonist. Afghanistan buys most of its electricity from Uzbekistan, so there’s another player, although more like a supplier than a wanna-be conqueror. But electricity is a powerful lever if Uzbekistan ever decides to use it.

Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls.
Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls.

Afghanistan is full of honest people who work hard. Teachers strive to teach, from primary school through college. Their resources are limited, but their dedication is deep. Shop owners open their stores every day. Fruit and vegetable vendors are up before the sun rises to lade their donkey-drawn carts or old pick-up trucks with their fare for the day and set off to their stalls. Builders and welders, butchers and truck drivers all work to make a living for their families, and many earn $100 or less a month. Businessmen and women, many dressed quite sharply, although sans tie for most men, open their offices for various enterprises.

There are hardware stores, shoe stores, clothing stores, restaurants, barbers, hair dressers, carpet shops, electronics stores, grocers, pharmacies and more.

It should be a stable and growing economy. Everything points to an upward turn. But the multiple layers make it a much more complex matter.

In the early morning, as stores open, shopkeepers are outside sweeping or washing the dust from the sidewalk in front. But the battle against dust is futile because the roads are bad.

Kids run along the street on their way to school. The children will sit in a classroom with straight-back desks, pocked cement floors and walls — and few resources. But they are there, learning to read, to do math, to acquire the skills to improve themselves. And their teachers are there, too, doing what that can to make it possible.

The less fortunate children wander among the bumper-to-bumper traffic holding out small packets of tissue or bubble gum, wafting smoking pots made of tin cans or offering to clean the windshield with greasy, filthy rags, all begging for change. Many of them haven’t been educated, won’t be educated. They are among the uncounted casualties of decades of conflict and instability.

Afghanistan has survived the British, the Soviets, the Americans, the mujahideen and the Taliban. It is battered, weary, bruised and suffering. But it does survive, and proudly so.

I’m just not sure where between the two extremes it lies.

CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — The Mountain

There is a mountain in the middle of Kabul. Forty or 50 years ago, when Kabul was a small town of 250,000, it wasn’t a problem. Now that Kabul has grown to about 4 million, it’s a pain in the city’s neck.

Kabul is surrounded by mountains. It sits in a bowl. There are limited areas for growth, and they’re just about used up.

Kabul, surrounded by mountains, from the mountain in the middle.
Kabul, surrounded by mountains, from the mountain in the middle.

They extend to the other side of the mountain, which means that to get from one side of the city to another, there is a bottleneck. Only a couple of roads — and really only one main one — go around the mountain. It increases the travel time during morning and evening rush hours by at least a half-hour, not only because of the traffic but simply because of the distance. Even between peak periods of traffic the delay is noticeable.

If one could go over the mountain, the time would be much shorter. But the only roads that go over the mountain are narrow, twisting, rutted dirt roads, and top speed is 25 miles an hour at any good stretch. Mostly, it’s 10 miles an hour or slower, and a dead stop when two cars meet and try to negotiate their way past each other. Because on this mountain there are thousands of homes squeezing in on the roads.

Homes, seemingly built one on top of the next, on the mountain.
Homes, seemingly built one on top of the next, on the mountain.

Land on Kabul flats, if you will, has run out. High-rise apartments are going up, and the old mud brick buildings are coming down to make room. Most Afghans can’t afford these new apartments. A friend of mine who knows Kabul well says war lords, drug dealers and some of the slowly growing middle class, mostly merchants, live in the high rises. Kabulis who drive taxis, run fruit or vegetable stands, bake bread, or do menial government work — in other words, the vast majority — lived in the mud brick houses and now are being displaced. So they’ve moved up the mountain, onto land that was pretty much free, and built their new homes.

These are mean homes, not fancy, although a few people have chosen to put up more expensive residences that stand out like a rose against a gray sky.

Children dart in and out of the mountain homes and run along the roads on errands or at play. Old men sit on the doorsteps and look out over the city below and the mountains beyond. Cars dented from unfortunate contact with other cars on Kabul’s crowded streets, dirty from the constant dust in the air, and weary of laboring up and down the steep mountain every day, ease their way around hairpin turns, avoiding the kids, the old men and the veiled women who are out to find food to cook for dinner.

The roads, of course, are not planned. They are almost an accident, more of a trail that goes wherever there isn’t a house. Some of these houses have no glass in the windows. At night, they are shuttered. They sit on bare rock; there is almost no vegetation here. The children play among the mountain scree and withered scrub bushes. They laugh and chase each other and hold the hands of their smaller siblings. They are kids, just like everywhere. But then they are called to carry water or help with something at home, and they scamper through the open doorways.

The mountain comes to the edge of Kabul University.
The mountain comes to the edge of Kabul University.

Somehow electricity has come to the homes on the mountain. It seems almost a mystery — it should be nearly impossible to bore a hole in this ground to hold a pole strung with wires. But at night, the mountain is ablaze with lights from the windows of the houses. They didn’t used to be.

Two other utilities we take for granted here have not made the climb up the side of the mountain: water and sewage.

Water is carried up from below, in those dusty, dented cars or on the donkey drays that are a common sight. Not a good solution, but the only one available.

But the sewage? That’s the problem with no solution. There are outhouses, of course, and as environmentally devastating as those are, there is something worse. Rain.

When it rains on the mountain, the sewage from the outhouses is washed out. There is no soft ground, no vegetation to soak up the water. It flows into the shallow roadside ditches that are everywhere, on the mountain and in the city. The sewage from those thousands of homes fills the ditches to the top and over.

Those living in the topmost houses are spared what happens below. The sewage flows down the ditches, down the side of the mountain, picking up more sewage from the lower homes, surging downward and into the city — into the areas closest to the mountain, into the ditches in areas farther away, into the lives of the people who live where there is some form of sanitation system.

Raw sewage from thousands of homes on the mountain. Homes that are there because the people who live in them have been displaced, or because Kabul as a city could never handle the millions who have moved there looking to escape violence or to find work.

Down below in the city, men and boys clear the muck out of the sewers. In the rainy season it’s an everyday job. I don’t know what they do with it. But they have to clean it out because otherwise cholera would threaten a million or more people, just as polio still continues to threaten them today. Raw sewage is a prime carrier of the polio virus.

The mountain is an inconvenience every day for drivers trying to get from one side of town to the other. It’s a homeland for many who can’t afford to live in the city. It’s a hazard to those who live below it. It’s a health threat whenever it rains.

There is a mountain in the middle of Kabul. At night, it glimmers peacefully, beautifully, like stars on a romantic evening. It’s anything but romantic. It is its own hell in the sky.

CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — ‘You’re Going To Afghanistan? Will You be Safe?’

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now over the next few days. This is the second.

 The sound a heavily armored door on a security vehicle makes is unique.

Most doors on modern cars make a good, solid sound that might have a bit of reverberation from the sheet metal. You might hear the click of the hasp on the door engaging the post on the frame. Maybe the window rattles a little bit. It’s a “clunk” of a sound, one we’ve grown up with. The sound varies with the size and age of the car, but we all know it.

The armored door shuts with a thud. There is no other way to define it. It’s a heavy thud. There is no slight reverberation because the insides of the door are filled to the top with steel plate, at least a hundred pounds. Thud.

The climb into the SUV in is much the same as climbing into any Toyota Land Cruiser, with one exception. If the vehicle is on any sort of upward slope — even just a small upward tilt — holding a hundred-pound door open while you step on the running board and heft yourself in is a challenge, and it’s a little dangerous. The door wants to slam home, and it doesn’t care if you’re in the way. Remember when you were little and your mom said, “Watch your fingers?” This door could probably take off your arm.

Conversely, if the vehicle is tilted even slightly downward, pulling that door closed feels like an Olympic weightlifting event. Two hands are required — and maybe the outside assistance of the driver, too.

Opening the door is just the opposite. There is no “stay” to hold the door open while you get out. The door is just too heavy. It would overcome any pause on the hinge that all our regular cars have. On flat ground all is OK. On any sort of incline, it’s courteous to hold the door for others.

If you need to stow anything in the back before climbing in, the rear window panel goes up and the tail gate goes down. Then the armored door swings open to protect passengers and their possessions from attacks from the rear. The driver will place any luggage, bags or parcels in the compartment, close the armored door, lift the tail gate into place and pull down the window panel.

Are these last two armored? I don’t know; I didn’t operate them. I’ve had lots of practice with the doors, though.

Our armored vehicles have no way to roll down the windows. The windows on an armored security vehicle don’t roll down. It would pretty completely defeat the purpose of the armor. The regular safety glass has been replaced by thick, crystal-clear, bullet-resistant glass. There is no fresh breeze on a sunny day. All ventilation comes through the SUV’s air system. I didn’t ask if it’s specially filtered.

This armored SUV weighs at least a thousand pounds more than your typical off-the-lot Land Cruiser, already a heavyweight among SUVs. The eight-cylinder diesel behemoth that purrs under the hood roars to life just to overcome the inertia as you start up.

Our cars have manual transmissions. Maybe the car was just too heavy for an automatic transmission and would burn it out in no time at all, but I imagine it’s really so the driver has more control. Automatic transmissions can be a bit hesitant when you need to tear out of a dangerous situation, but a manual transmission is immediate.

Our drivers are excellent. In Mazar, where the traffic is a little lighter than in Kabul, our driver sped along at 50 to 60 miles an hour, flashing his brights (at night) or honking at vehicles ahead to move or stay out of the way. In heavier traffic he also preferred speed, but at the same time considered other drivers and especially pedestrians. And he used his turn signal, something you rarely see in Afghanistan.

He wove us into traffic and back out. On little two-lane streets that carried four lanes of traffic, he forced our SUV into forward positions, narrowly missing bumpers and fenders of other cars also trying to get ahead of others as lanes merged.

At roundabouts, that diabolical traffic system designed by British auto body shop owners, he could cross multiple lanes fearlessly, cutting off slower and smaller cars, getting us to destinations in no time at all.

The same is true in Kabul, but with heavier traffic. It takes a skillful negotiator behind the wheel to successfully navigate the thousands of cars that populate roads built only for hundreds, or even dozens.

Our drivers are always pleasant, helpful, and vigilant.

Security on this trip, for me, is tighter than it’s ever been. On my first two trips, I stayed at the UNO Team House in a residential part of Kabul. I rode in the office’s dated and unarmored SUVs, driven by the men UNO hires to do that and other odd jobs about the house. I would exit the cars on the street and walk through a door in the steel gate that led into the house’s courtyard.

This trip, my fourth, I’m staying in a fortress. A velvet prison. It’s a nicely appointed, well-equipped hotel that caters to expatriates who are here working for NGOs, contractors, security companies and businesses with deep interests in Afghanistan.

It sits at the end of a gardened and paved courtyard and is surrounded by 12-foot high walls topped with coils of razor wire. It has a fantastically equipped gym, a lane pool, sauna and steam bath, coffee shop, a pretty good buffet restaurant, and according to the hotel literature, a fully stocked bar somewhere in the facility. I never did find it.

To get into the hotel, our SUV pulls up to a cross bar. Behind that is a huge, thick steel door. When the guard identifies us, the door opens, and the cross bar is lifted. The car pulls into an area designed to hold only it. Passengers exit and walk into a security area.

The first time we had to take off our shoes, put all our bags on an X-ray belt, take everything from our pockets and pass through a metal detector. From then on, the security badge issued by the hotel was enough to get us in.

The car, meanwhile, has to wait until the first gate closes behind it. An equally heavy gate in front then opens and the car pulls into a second secure holding area, big enough for two or three cars. Presumably it is here they are checked for hidden explosives using mirrors to see underneath. We are not allowed to see this procedure. After that, a third heavy gate opens onto the courtyard where the SUV is parked.

(I usually include a photo or two that illustrates what I’m talking about. In this case, I have no photos of the SUV or the hotel. Because of security, I didn’t take any. It didn’t seem a good idea at the time. It still doesn’t.)

We are driven everywhere. On the Kabul University campus, we are allowed to walk once we are dropped off at our building. But in Mazar, it’s a different story.

We were meeting with Balkh University teachers one day when we got a call that the chancellor wanted to meet us. We climbed into the SUV, drove no more than two blocks and got out on the other side of the street. It would have been an easy and refreshing walk. But we drove, because of security concerns.

Everyone here, everyone, is aware of the security issues. They apologize we cannot simply take a drive around the city or get out and buy something in the shopping district, as I did on my first trip here in December 2010, or shop in the bazaars and street fairs, or just walk in the neighborhood and meet people, as I did in April 2013. When I told one KU faculty member that I had stayed in the team house and ridden in an old SUV with a cracked windshield three years ago, he was horrified.

“You should take more care,” he said. “You cannot do that now. It’s not safe. Even we sometimes feel not safe.”

I know this, and I’m grateful for the security. Just three days before we left for Afghanistan, a suicide bomber killed several dozen people outside one of the ministries. But this is the first time in four trips here that a bombing hasn’t happened somewhere in the city during our stay.

Fortunately on the campuses, I can meet people, talk to students and shake hands with someone other than my teammates. It’s a slim connection to Afghans and their culture, but it’s a connection I need, one that I crave.

The heaviest plated armored SUV hasn’t kept me away from that.