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196 THE SOUTH •• Ghazni

to the west, particularly Nimroz and parts of Helmand, Iranian influences are evident. Coming down from the mountain ranges in Oruzgan and Ghazni, the desert plains of the south play host to baking heat, sand storms, flash floods, one of the biggest nar- cotics operations in the world and an active insurgency. Even with the splendour of the Ghaznavid

empire to be explored, independent travel to these areas is not recommended.



The capital of the like-named province of Ghazni is a two-hour drive southwest from Kabul and is now a commercial centre specialising in transport contractors, truck sales and sheepskin coats. It is a shadow of its former glory as the centre of the Ghaznavid empire in the 11th century and one of the most important cities in the Is- lamic world at the time. Sultan Mahmoud’s control extended over modern-day Afghan- istan, Iran, Pakistan and Northwest India. He also took Islam to India and returned


Western drug cops talk of busts in grams and kilograms, whereas their relatively ineffective counter- parts in Helmand talk in tons. Afghanistan, in terms of volume and quality, is the world leader in opium production – producing 92% of the world crop, or a staggering 6100 metric tons as reported by the UN in 2006, much of it bound for Europe and Russia as heroin. The estimated value of the 2006 crop is nearly $3.5 billion, equating to a street value in excess of US$60 billion. Helmand contributed 42% of the 2006 crop, Badakhshan in the northeast a long second at 8%. Lashkar Gah sports many ‘Poppy Palaces’ amongst the mud houses – massive, gaudy houses all built with drug money. A UN survey unsurprisingly lists ‘easy cash’ as the reason for growing poppies by over 41% of farmers, although 12% cite the high cost of Afghan weddings. However, Afghanistan has not always haemorrhaged opium, in 2001 the Taliban outlawed its cultivation and overnight it stopped; however, the upper Talib echelons still continued the trade. Since the fall of the regime, the poppy fields and the trade has blossomed. President Karzai declared a Jihad on Poppy, which has had little impact. Many of his government officials and security forces are actively involved in the busi- ness, cooperating with the narcolords, warlords and criminal gangs who run the trade. This further undermines the international community’s efforts of eradication and finding alternative livelihoods for poppy growers; both are failing dismally. Although the level of eradication increased by 210% between 2005 and 2006, the national crop grew by 59%; in Helmand it increased exponentially by 162%. At 100Afg a hit on the streets, heroin’s cheap price has also seen the increase of Afghanistan’s

intravenous user population, bringing with it the related criminal and health issues such as HIV and AIDS. Having porous international borders with most of its neighbours, making it easy for the heavily armed opium convoys, the Afghan experience is similar in neighbouring countries. The Af- ghan opium cultivation habit is going to be a hard one to crack, and it is clear that the ancient Silk Road, with its camel caravans of silks and spice, has indeed been replaced by the opium highway, replete with Toyota Hiluxes packed with opium and heavily armed men.

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with plundered riches to keep the empire running, elephants for his stables and price- less artefacts to display in his court, which was filled with poets, artists and scholars. However Mahmoud’s reign was over- whelmed in the 12th century by the Ghorid dynasty. The attacks led by Alauddin, also known as the ‘World Burner’, gutted the elaborate city. What remained was later decimated by Genghis Khan and his Mon- gol hoards in 1221. The ruins were reoccu- pied until once again the city fell, this time in 1839 to the British Army during the first Anglo-Afghan War and has not changed much since that time. Amongst the feverish paced modern-day trade in Ghazni there are two monuments to the Ghaznavid empire that sit on the side of the road to Kabul. The most vis- ible are two ornate star-shaped Towers of Victory or minarets, built in the 11th cen- tury by Mahmoud’s successors. Both are shorter than they originally were thanks to an earthquake in 1902, and are capped with gaudy corrugated iron roofs. They are

richly decorated in raised brick and ter- racotta, with each of the panel recesses between the start points displaying ornate patterns and Kufic inscriptions from the Quran. They are thought to be the inspira- tion for the Minaret of Jam (pp126-8). Mahmoud’s elaborately carved marble

tomb sits nearby the minarets in a simple brick mausoleum.



Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Prov- ince and the site of the ancient city of Bost, is a two-hour drive to the west of Kandahar. Bost was the winter palace of Sultan Mah- moud and his Ghaznavid empire and its fate was the same as Ghazni. Centuries later it would become a key

US development project during the Cold War in the 1960s, so much so that Lashkar Gah was labelled ‘Little America’. US engi- neers and agriculture specialists worked for over a decade and laid out the New City in Lashkar Gah and constructed an extensive network of irrigation canals and the mas- sive Kajaki hydroelectric dam. As the Red

THE SOUTH •• Lashkar Ga h 197

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Army invaded in 1979, the programme was abandoned.

Ironically the canal system, designed to

irrigate food crops, is now used to cultivate opium poppies with Helmand now receiving the infamous accolade of being the largest opium-producing province in Afghanistan. Helmand is one of the most volatile

provinces in the country, with the UK ISAF forces experiencing unprecedented violent clashes with the insurgency throughout the province. The opium trade serves to further destabilise the situation. Little is left of the splendour of the Ghazn-

avids; parts of the ruins of the Old City can be found on the far side of the Lashkar Gah airfield on the Helmand River – in worse condition than the Ghazni ruins. The expan- sive Bost Arch (featured on the 100 Afghani note) gives you a glimpse of the ancient city of Bost. It once served as the entrance to the city. However, it doesn’t look as grand as the currency depicts; the arch has been filled with mud brick to prevent it from collapsing, pending assistance from the international community for its restoration.

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