Couchsurfing With the Taliban

Boys play soccer in Bamian, Afghanistan where the Taliban destroyed one of two ancient Buddha statues in 2001.CreditShefayee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Boys play soccer in Bamian, Afghanistan where the Taliban destroyed one of two ancient Buddha statues in 2001.CreditShefayee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On April 19, a convoy of Canadian officials intercepted Joshua Adams, a 24-year-old counselor for homeless gay teenagers in Toronto, on a remote road in central Afghanistan. They tracked him down by following his Instagram account, where he had been posting images of himself drinking tea with the Taliban in Helmand.

Mr. Adams hadn’t traveled the 6,755 miles to Helmand to join the Taliban or to volunteer in a battle against the Islamic State. He had gone to explore the history of Afghanistan, from the empty niches of the Bamiyan Buddhas to the Great Mosque of Herat, famed for its exquisite tile mosaicsmonuments attesting to the country’s place on the Silk Road.

Tourist arrivals in Afghanistan have been in steady decline ever since the bulk of NATO forces pulled out of the country in 2014. Muqim Jamshady, who runs Afghan Logistics and Tours, a travel company in Kabul, told me that more than 100 tourists used his services in 2013. That number dropped to a mere 50 tourists in 2017. In 2016, the Wild Frontiers, a British adventure travel company, canceled its “Afghan Explorer” tours because of Afghanistan’s weak security.

Yet amid increased violence, Afghanistan retains a firm place on the Central Asian tourism circuit. A largely unnoticed culture of Western men and women visiting Afghanistan to explore its history and staying with Afghan hosts at no charge using a social networking app called Couchsurfing has come into being.

Last summer in Khiva, Uzbekistan, I came across a small group of Europeans sitting in the shadow of the great Islam-Hoja minaret, hoping to make it to Afghanistan. A Danish dumpster diver and an amateur German filmmaker secured their visas and crossed the border bridge over the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan. “So much heritage and history,” the Dane told me. “The hospitality is better than anywhere in the world.”

Mr. Adams, the Danish dumpster diver and the German filmmaker were part of a small wave of travelers who rely on the Couchsurfing app and similar social media sites to see Afghanistan. Kabul alone has about 1,000 Couchsurfing hosts. Last December, I estimated that 36 percent of visitors who had written references for their Kabul hosts on the Couchsurfing site were women.

The backpacking odyssey of Mr. Adams took him through parts of Afghanistan where few foreigners had ventured in years. He spent his time exploring the largely neglected heritage of the country: the ruins of the 11th-century fortress of Bost in Lashkar Gah in Helmand; the 80-feet-high murals of pastel palm trees and kitschy crescent moons at the Eid Gah Mosque in Kandahar.

Couchsurfing With the TalibanMr. Adams was intercepted and persuaded to leave Afghanistan a few miles from the minaret of Jam, a fabled 12th-century structure of exquisite brickwork and a blue-tile top soaring over 200 feet on the banks of the Hari River and circled by high mountains in central Ghor province. Experts consider the minaret to be the last standing remains of Firozkoh, the lost capital of the Ghurid dynasty.

A significant number of the Afghans hosting the Couchsurfing tourists happen to be members of the Taliban. Mr. Adams’s host in Helmand revealed himself to be a former insurgent while showing him around his opium fields. That evening the host took Mr. Adams for tea with two Taliban fighters in a nearby orchard. “My host’s uncle told me they were Taliban fighters, and I started laughing because I thought it was a joke. Then they told me he was serious,” he recalled.

They conversed in pidgin English for several hours, as plate after plate of food was forced upon Mr. Adams. “It was a really relaxed setting,” he said. “We mainly just talked, smoked and ate fruit.” He ended up staying with them for several nights, free, before heading back to Kabul by bus.

The number of these encounters remains vague because they rarely make it into official records. I spoke with 14 people who had met with Taliban through the app and was able to confirm 30 more cases. The exact figure seems to be higher because some of these Taliban had hosted Westerners before.

Few, if any, of these travelers intend to meet the Taliban. In 2012, Nenad Stojanovic, a hitchhiker from Serbia, was alarmed to discover that his hosts in Herat were insurgents. “They were regular people I randomly met in Herat,” he told me. “I only found out that they were Taliban after spending a night at their place.”

Despite his initial fears, he found his hosts “surprisingly friendly and hospitable.” They gifted him traditional Afghan clothes, helped him hide his backpack in a sack and advised him to take a particular bus through Kandahar to avoid being stopped by the police or other Taliban on his way to the border with Tajikistan.

About 50 miles from the border, policemen at a check post in Kunduz province mistook Mr. Stojanovic for a Taliban fighter and detained him. After ascertaining his identity, they released him the next morning and made up for the confusion by gifting him a sherwani robe and sweets.

Most of the Taliban Couchsurfing hosts are low-ranking fighters, bored with the unending war and curious about the world beyond. These apps give them a chance to meet peaceful foreigners and engage them with their worldviews, and in some cases try to persuade foreigners of their right to rule Afghanistan.

The Taliban Couchsurfing community also exists partly because of older Afghan traditions of hospitality, such as Pashtunwali, the Pashtun tribal code of ethics and honor. One of its core principles dictates that one should always protect those seeking sanctuary, even enemies.

This tradition famously saved the life of Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, the sole survivor of a United States Navy SEAL team ambushed by Taliban fighters in 2005. Having been wounded and left for dead on the rugged slopes of the Korengal Valley, Mr. Luttrell was aided by Pashtuns from the village of Sabray, who looked after him and protected him until American troops came to his rescue.

“We did not rescue Marcus for money or privileges,” said Mohammad Gulab, the villager who looked after Mr. Luttrell, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “By rescuing and keeping him safe for five nights in our home, we were only doing our cultural obligation.” Their story was immortalized in the film “Lone Survivor.”

Unfortunately, Pashtunwali has been shattered in many Afghan communities. The country has been plagued by violence since 1978. Last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan counted over 10,000 civilian casualties, while opium production reached record levels.

The Taliban continues to bomb Kabul and recently rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s calls for political reconciliation. In such a grim context, these bizarre encounters between the Taliban and Westerners offer a faint glimmer of hope.

Sam Dalrymple, a student at Oxford, worked at Turquoise Mountain, a nongovernmental organization in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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