Detained at Gunpoint

by Joshua Foust on 8/26/2010 · 11 comments

The following is an account my friend sent me, at my request. This friend has requested anonymity, because of the nature of the incident, and I am respecting that. What I find remarkable here is that Panjshir is meant to be one of the safest and most welcoming provinces for travelers, right up there with Bamiyan, yet it apparently has its own issues with illegal checkpoints, road bandits, and warlords.


This is an abridged account of how my first detention at gunpoint –by
local thugs/DIAG rejects in, of all provinces of Afghanistan,
Panjshir– last weekend.

Some development worker and photojournalist friends and I were taking
photos deep in the Panjshir valley when a group of men in camo jackets
appeared out of nowhere and began screaming at my friend Afghan friend
M and I. What followed was chaotic.

My two foreign friends and I got away, but I then doubled back for M,
who had been grabbed by the bellowing commander. A muscular,
middle-aged man with a long beard, the commander shook M by the
shoulders and raised his hand aggressively.

Not knowing what else to do, I intervened –physically– putting my
arm between M and the commander, and tried to pull the two apart. The
commander pushed me off and shrieked in indignation. A deputy handed
him his rifle. M and I were then forced up a dirt hill. Our friends
watched from the road on the other side of the valley as we
disappeared behind a derelict stone building that had housed Tajik
IDPs during the Afghan civil war.

Behind the building, M and I were told to sit on some rocks. The
commander berated us with nonsensical questions and accusations. He
told us we were intruding on Jamiat territory. He accused M of spying,
accused me of spying, ranted about religion, and segued into bashing
the Karzai government.

The commander and his deputies glared at me with visceral disgust
throughout, and demanded that M explain who I was and what I was
doing wandering Panjshir. The truth –that I was a Kabul-based aid
worker out for some fresh air and cliche photos with rusted tanks–
was scoffed at.

M tried to calm the obviously unstable commander with a soothing tone
and lots of “commandhan jan, commandhan jan, lotfan…” When that
didn’t work, M spun a long and fantastic tale about his father’s
exploits in the jihad against the Russians and the Soviet-backed
regime in Kabul.

That worked. The commander agreed to release us. M and I were marched
to a rickety bridge over the fast-flowing Panj River. Into the
commander’s hand, M slipped cash, and we were freed. We arrived back
at our car shaken and sped off as fast as possible along the winding
mountain roads.

The future looks dark.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Mirko Lomeo August 26, 2010 at 10:49 am

Would be interesting to know how “deep” they were in the Panjsher Valley and how far they went beyond the paved road.

Jake Smith August 26, 2010 at 11:40 am

I’m wary of generalizing from this kind of incident to make any larger observation about Afghanistan. Was it ever apparent that they wanted anything except money? Was the “commander” in charge of a larger organization, or just the leader of this gang?

If you got mugged in Washington, D.C., which is not a far-fetched scenario by any means, would you write a blog post about how since it occurred in the nation’s capital, “the future looks dark”?

Joshua August 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Panshir is perhaps more safer than most European cities.

The incident appears to be a one off. Had they repoted the incident to the locals, I am sure the mad man would be regretting his actions by now.

Panjshir was fameous for its deciplined soldiers under the legendary massoud. The proud Panshiris have lived up to their pride of maintaining peace in their homeland, despite remaining poor and devoid of the money that is being showered onto the rebellious south .

Hasan August 26, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I think you entered to some privite land, and made that man angry, as far as I know there is one gun point in panjshir, and they are nice to travelers,

Hasan August 26, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I believe the mad man, but I don’t believe the account they represent about what the angry man said, like here is jamiat territory, I think they made up part of the story, There is no illegal check point in panjshir, people don’t allow this kind of things in panjshir and take it very seriously, and what you call Warlord, which you use this term easily, there is no warlord in panjshir, there hasn’t been if the warlord has some meaning,

Joshua Foust August 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm

The author of this post emails a response (I am respecting my friend’s privacy):

Perhaps this incident was a one-off. It certainly wasn’t some thing I or anyone with me expected. My party felt safe wandering off the road precisely *because* nothing similar had happened to foreigners in Panjshir in recent memory.

As for an illegal checkpoint –it wasn’t that. We were walking in a field and a bunch of local thugs (who could well have been people who fell through the cracks during DIAG, given their reference to Jamiat) surprised us. We weren’t on private land, either, as far as I know, and I had been to roughly the same area a few months earlier without any hassles whatsoever.

The things the leader of the group said to us (I use the term commander because my friend referred to the man as commandhan”) said to us made no sense. He and his group were clearly not well-tethered to reality, and we realized that instantly.

It was a totally bizarre and jarring encounter, but the fact that it happened in a province generally thought of as safe made it more ominous than it would have been had it happened in, say, Takhar.

In any case, my friends and I informed the police later that day and they said they would look into it seriously.

Hasan August 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Does your friend speak Farsi? With all respect to your friend I have a big daut about part of his story nd the conversations with the “commander”. You mentioned about illegal checkpoints,and warlords, could you name the area where the illegal checkpoints are? or any report to refer to about this illegal checkpoints? Or warlords which they should have their own army in panjshir?

Panjshir is not heaven but as far I remember, from Soviet time, there where no illegal checkpoints or Commander with no responsibility to anyone, in panjshir there where sort of law and inforcement, any way thank you for the post, made us to think about old time, when there were no illegal checkpoints,

mark August 27, 2010 at 2:01 am

this looks like the sort of post you would normally complain about

Ian August 27, 2010 at 8:55 am

I have to agree, it seems like this is a one-off thug thing, as opposed to a bellwether. The fact that your guides thought police in the area were even worth talking to, much less that they took you seriously, points to how different Panjshir is from other parts of the country.

Of course, that doesn’t make your story any less harrowing.

Afghanistan August 29, 2010 at 6:16 am

I was recently travelling from Pakistan to Tajikistan Transit Sherkhan bander. When I gave my passport to immigration officer he asked me for registration. I told him I just entered Afghanistan at 01.00 and reached Sherkhan at 5-30 so I do not need Registration. He threw passport back to me for which I told him that he does not know how to behave and may be brought up badly by parents. He asked the soldier to detain me. Matter was resolved when he was paid 100 USD .
It is a problem all over Central Asia. The people in uniform make money and for getting money they are finding many excuses to pressurize the victim. But the greatest tragedy is that they let go the genuine trouble creators with money and this is the one of the main problem of controlling Security and Law implementation. Innocents suffer and the terrorists flourish because of the mismanagement of the law enforcement agencies and corruption. I can not suggest any solution because the solutions are very complex. Afghanistan is suffering because of that and terrorists are getting support because of that in Afghanistan.

Chris September 8, 2010 at 8:16 am

There was an interesting video, I think on NATGEO when I was on leave this year (I think) about an Iranian photographer that took one of the more famous pictures of Mahsood trying to find the cave where the picture was taken. When he and his group got out of their cars and tried to walk towards one of the canyons, some locals interviened and refused to let them go. After the photographer met a local that remembered him from the 1980’s, he was able to secure permission to go into the valley with an escort. Even the Panjshir PRT doesn’t go out without a local escort of guys in “camo jackets.” Basically, the Governor runs the place with his personal militia. If they don’t want you somewhere, you don’t go there. Even ISAF.
Is it safe in Panjshir? Sure! As long as you do as your told…

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