Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Saturday, 13 September 2008 12:53 UK

Braving Afghanistan's dangerous roads

The intensifying fighting in Afghanistan has made it dangerous to drive on most roads out of the capital. So Kate Clark had to take special precautions as she ventured into Taleban territory.

Kate Clark
I will also be wearing a burka. Without it, this trip would be impossible.

Recently, I was sitting with two Afghan friends in Kabul, discussing footwear.

"No," they said, "you cannot wear flip flops, not with nail polish and not with that thong coming between your toes.

"They are far too sexy. It will attract attention."

They settle on some high heeled, but closed-toe sandals.

To my British eyes they look far sexier, but I bow to their judgement. It is important to look right for the trip I am making.

The following day, I am travelling south-east into the heart of the Taleban insurgency and I want to look local, in case the car gets stopped.

Burka cover

Of course, I will also be wearing a burka. Without it, this trip would be impossible.

But how strange that when the Taleban were in government, I myself used to drive along this road, and now, I am hiding in the back seat with my face covered.

What a topsy-turvy place Afghanistan has become.

There is a risk of ambushes, robberies and getting caught up in an attack on an American or Afghan military convoy

Eight years ago, the problem with driving to this region was the road itself.

Vast pot-holes had eaten up most of the tarmacked road surface and you had to drive through clouds of dust or, in winter, churn through mud.

Since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, the road has been rebuilt. It is faster, smoother and sleeker, but security is now grim and this summer, it has become a lot grimmer.

United Nations staff no longer drive this way and even Afghans do not like to travel on this road after 1600.

Taleban checkpoint

There is a risk of ambushes, robberies and getting caught up in an attack on an American or Afghan military convoy.

Your car might get stopped and searched by the Taleban at one of their mobile checkposts, set up to demonstrate that they can control the road.

"Afghanistan is starting to feel like it did in 1981," said a friend from one of the villages just out of Kabul.

"During the Soviet occupation, the government also controlled our area by day and fighters from the mujahideen controlled it by night."

Wearing a burka means I am at least only facing the risks that Afghans encounter, not the additional ones which Westerners now face.

Kabul, Afghanistan

Once, travelling to this part of Afghanistan was a pleasure. This is the Pashtun heartland, where all the houses are fortresses, quite literally, and you rarely see women outside.

I once almost caused a riot when, one very hot day while filming, I ate an ice-cream.

So many men and boys gathered to see a woman who was outside with a bare face.

In 2001, in the wake of American bombing and the collapse of the Taleban across Afghanistan, commanders moved in and set up their own fiefdoms.

Terror tactics

Not in the south-east. Here, I witnessed the tribes taking control. They set up tribal councils, oversaw security and telephoned the United Nations and the BBC to say Taleban rule was over and al-Qaeda fighters had fled.

At that time, it was actually safer here than Kabul. Now the Taleban are back in full strength.

Those who were driven from power in 2001 have returned, not just Taleban, but also al-Qaeda.

The insurgency is brutal. The Taleban are not just fighting. They are using terror tactics, suicide bombing, school burnings, the murder of alleged spies.

Even so, it feels safe enough to meet Afghan Taleban, if you have the right introduction.

Afghan peace

Their reasons for fighting vary - resistance to foreign occupation, money or old grievances with the men who are now in power.

As for al-Qaeda, civilians and even Taleban, off the record, fear their cruelty.

In the spring when I planned this trip, it was feasible to get out into the rural districts. Not now.

Afghanistan insurgents
The insurgents are using 'terror tactics' in Afghanistan

"I can guarantee your security among our fighters," the Taleban commander I met told me.

"But I can't protect you if the foreigners know you're here."

The province I visited borders the tribal areas of Pakistan where al-Qaeda have bases.

There is nothing to stop them crossing the border and they have crossed in large numbers this summer. They are making the war a lot dirtier, I was told.

Roadside killings

The Taleban commander listed the nationalities fighting in his area - Pakistanis, Arabs, Chechens, Iranians, even British. Yes, he said, two British Muslim converts.

It was frustrating not being able to get out to the villages to meet civilians and see the fighting from the Taleban side, but I really did not want to risk bumping into some nutter from Yemen or Pakistan or Britain.

So I drove straight back to Kabul. The road was quiet and I wondered if all the precautions I had taken had been overly cautious.

But less than a week after I returned to the capital, news came in that four aid workers, an Afghan man and three foreign women, were ambushed on the road I had just travelled along. They were shot dead.

From Our Own Correspondent is broadcast on Saturday, 13 September, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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