Afghanistan’s famously beautiful Panjshir valley saw some of the worst fighting between Soviet forces and the Afghan mujahedeen. More than two decades on, it is still littered with wrecked Red Army tanks and rusting armored vehicles.
The Panjshir was the home of the great Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks. The Panjshir’s people (who are Tajiks and other ethnic minorities rather than Pashtuns) successfully resisted first the Soviets and then the Taliban, who never got further than the valley’s entrance. But these days the area is one of the most peaceful and secure regions in the whole country.
Many Kabulis come here for a day’s fishing or lounging by the river.
Thanks to a smooth new (Coalition-sponsored) highway, it takes only two and a half hours to drive here from the capital (instead of all day, as it used to) — although, in a testament to the security and prosperity of this part of the country, there can be bad traffic jams, especially before the weekend.
But in a stunning change from my last visit, seven years ago, Afghan highways and main roads in the big cities are often superior to their counterparts in India and Pakistan.The main road through the
Panjshir is also new and smooth. This has long been one of the wealthier regions of the country, thanks to its fertile soil (
Panjshir potatoes, grapes, and mulberries are all famously good), and the local economy has benefited from the speed of transport in and out of the valley. The road, like so many improvements here, was the work of the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (
PRT), which operated here from 2002 until 2011.
The PRTs were very different in different provinces, depending on which country had the lead and on the security situation of the province. (You can see videos of the Panshjir PRT’s activities here.) The Panjshir PRT was the only American-run PRT in which personnel were allowed to forgo body armor and helmets and to move around unarmed. (Even in Kabul today, elaborate force-protection restrictions mean that U.S. civilian and military personnel have to wear body armor at all times when going beyond embassy or base gates — a rule that some would argue has tended to undermine the mission as a whole.)
Every time I passed one of the bridges crossing the river that runs through the Panjshir valley — some of which are footbridges, others suitable for vehicles — I asked who had built them and the reply came back “PRT.”
The Panjshir PRT was one of the first to be closed down by the NATO coalition. Its facilities on the main highway through the valley have been transferred to the Afghan National Police.