The road from Kabul to Jalalabad that NPR Morning Edition host Renee Montagne and I took earlier this week passes through some spectacular scenery — the road carves its way through the Kabul Gorge, between craggy, rock cliffs on one side and the Kabul River on the other –- often, a dizzying 1,000 feet below.
The three-hour journey can often stretch into a multi-hour ordeal if there is an accident along the way, which there very often is. The road has been much improved in the past few years but that has only encouraged local drivers to drive faster and take more risks on the narrow, single-lane highway. Carcasses of cars litter the valley below.
The Taliban often attack oil tankers, trucks carrying goods, and police checkpoints along the road, especially in a mountainous section called the Tanqi Valley.
The mountains and the road gradually open up into the town of Jalalabad, which sits on the Grand Trunk Road. This is a historic route stretching from Kolkata in Eastern India, via Pakistan, all the way to Kabul, and it has carried tradesmen, goods, ideas and invaders back and forth for centuries.
Our route was no different than the one Osama bin Laden took from Kabul to Jalalabad in the weeks after the U.S. invasion in 2001, and just before the fall of Kabul.
Unlike us, from Jalalabad, bin Laden proceeded toward the White Mountains and the al-Qaida redoubt of Tora Bora — a complex of caves built into the mountains by the wealthy Saudi in the 1980s, when he was part of the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviet troops.
A few weeks after hiding in Tora Bora, in December 2001, bin Laden managed to slip into Pakistan, while under sustained U.S. aerial bombardment. It took nearly ten years for the U.S. to find and kill bin Laden.
The Navy SEAL raid that killed him on the morning of May 2nd was launched from the airbase just outside Jalalabad. And today, though bin Laden might be dead, the same airbase in this Eastern city is a testament to the continuing U.S. fight against the Taliban and in its efforts to kill al Qaeda leaders.
During the course of the three days we spent in Jalalabad, the full range of the American arsenal in use against the Taliban and al Qaeda was in full view: Predator drones, Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, Apache gunships and, C-130 transport planes rumbled in and out round the clock.
By some accounts Jalalabad is where the vast majority of the Predator drones used to attack militants in the tribal region of Pakistan are now launched from. Conveniently, the city sits only a 40-minute drive from Pakistan and its tribal regions.
Nishant Dahiya is a producer for NPR. He took this trip as part of a story he worked on with Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne. That story aired this morning and we’ve included audio of it at the top of this post.