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Driving in Pakistan
I confess I haven’t kept up on the news in much detail over the last week. I was consumed by a work trip to Novi, Michigan (no, I hadn’t heard of it before either) to attend a conference and trade show on Army ground vehicles. I’ve published a few items from the conference (here, here, and here), and more will be in the October issue of National Defense Magazine. (Don’t forget to check out my three-part series on the Rim of the Pacific military exercise that ran last week as well.)
When I got home, I discovered my AC wasn’t working, and repairing that took up some of my time the last few days. In addition to that, I spent a good bit of the weekend updating and revising my manuscript that I hope to send to my publisher at the beginning of September.
A few of the chapters I was polishing covered my trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. My first trip to Afghanistan in January 2009 was to explore Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and how the militants moved back and forth across the border to train, reequip, and regroup during the winter months.
Pretty much every Afghan I spoke with on that trip complained about how Pakistan supported the Taliban. They said if Pakistan cut off the militant group, the international and Afghan forces would mop them up and secure Afghanistan. While it wasn’t quite that simple, that perspective wasn’t that far off either.
Obviously, the United States never figured out (or at least if it figured it out, it never implemented) a policy approach to break Pakistan from supporting the Taliban. That failure was certainly a big part of why the Afghanistan endeavor failed, but it wasn’t the silver bullet the Afghans I spoke to in 2009 believed it to be.
In summer 2009, I spent a little more than a week in Pakistan reporting on the lack of religious freedom there. The country regularly showed up on the naughty list in the State Department’s annual report on global religious freedom. That said, the United States also dialed back some of its criticism of Pakistan because it wanted the county’s cooperation in Afghanistan.
That is was of a microcosm of international diplomacy. Things are rarely black and white. There was a lot of reason to criticize Pakistan, but going too far would increase anti-American backlash and make it harder to secure Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan—at least that was the thinking.
Ultimately, treating Pakistan as a hostile witness would have been the better approach. The country was double dipping—taking U.S. economic and military aid, and then funneling weapons and other support to the Taliban so it could kill Americans in Pakistan.
I said it at the time, and I still believe it today: Pakistan is my least favorite country I have visited. While I met some great people there—many who were working hard to make the country a better place—I found Pakistan to be angsty, paranoid, and just on edge. There are a variety of reasons for that, and I go into some of it in my book, but the place had bad energy as far I as I was concerned.
The weird energy extended to the roads too. There were a number of quirks to driving in Pakistan. I wrote about it in an earlier draft of my book, but I edited it out when I was going through the trimming process of getting my 300k-word first draft down to a more manageable length of 100k or so.
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August 2009: An aside about roads and driving in Pakistan. While I’m perfectly comfortable behind the wheel, I’m not always so comfortable in the passenger seat—especially in the “developing world” where rules of the road are really suggestions, and even then they are rarely heeded.
Pakistan was one such place, and I can safely say that it was one of my least favorite places in the world to be a passenger. The highway driving there was generally pleasant. In fact, the highway infrastructure was generally much better than American highways. The roads were smooth, straight, and largely traffic free. While people wandered in their lanes a bit, and some drove too slowly in the passing lane—which is on the right since Pakistan was British territory and hence the driving is on the wrong side of the road—for the most part, drivers behaved on the highways.
There were also bizarre signs and sayings in English on the highway overpasses sponsored by the National Highway Authority:
• Never relax until the job is done
• Watchful eyes get no surprise
• Plant a tree for clear and pure environment
• Making you feel ahead of time
• Over speeding can be fatal
• Smoking can kill, stop smoking
It was like Pakistan’s version of Burma Shave signs. I never got a clear explanation why the signs were all in English. It’s not like they were bilingual, they were exclusively in English.
Anyhow, once you were off the highway and driving in the cities and rural areas it was anarchy. In rural areas, roads were generally two lanes wide, and if everyone drove at relatively similar speeds, things might have been fine. However, such was not the case. On rural roads, I noted the following “vehicles” in order of maximum top speed:
• Mule-driven carts
• People on bicycles
• Tuk tuks
• Giant jingle trucks
• Mopeds and motorcycles
• Sub-compact cars
• Regular cars
At any given moment, some or all of these vehicles might be traveling on the same road at the same time. Given that there is a 40 to 60 mph speed difference among them, it made for interesting traveling.
For example, we were driving along behind a giant jingle truck (the large cargo/dump trucks and buses ornately painted and festooned with decorative chains and pendants that jingled) going 20 mph and decided to pass it. Just as we moved to the right and started to pass—as oncoming traffic was rapidly approaching—the truck drifted right as well. It pushed us farther to the right, making it more likely we would run into oncoming traffic. Now, why did the truck drift right? Well, it turned out that in front of the truck was a mule cart being followed by a moped. The moped decided to pass the mule cart just as the truck decided to pass both of them, just as we decided to pass the truck, and as a result, we ended up partially on the shoulder on the wrong side of the road.
So you ask, since there were three vehicles all wanting to pass the lead vehicle, why didn’t they all follow together rather than end up essentially four vehicles wide across a two lane road with oncoming traffic? Because of a phenomenon I observed that was intrinsic to Pakistani driving culture. Any vehicle that was neither in front of you nor directly side by side with you did not exist. So, as long as you couldn’t see a vehicle in front or in your immediate peripheral vision, it was perfectly fine to change lanes, weave, whatever you felt like doing without signaling or hesitation. It was the other guy’s responsibility to react.
I came to see that there was a certain rhythm and elegance to the system. I suspected it was a product of the insane density of vehicles on the road and the fact that it took too much energy to pay attention to all of the other vehicles or worry about how your driving affected them. So, drivers narrowed it down to reacting only to the cars in front of them and passing the chaos along to the next guy. It was a pyramid scheme of driving.
I would come to learn that it was the same approach in Afghanistan. It was the exact same behavior there, but at least in Afghanistan people drove on the correct side of the street. I should caveat that and say they generally drove on the right side when they weren’t trying to cheat their way around traffic. When I was living in Afghanistan and experiencing it on a daily basis, I realized that there was an aspect of religious fatalism to it.
Just as Afghan pedestrians rarely looked both ways before darting into a busy street, drivers did not look beyond about a 45 degree field of vision in front of them. It was god’s will whether they would make it across the street or get to their destination in one piece. While that approach often drove me nuts and traumatized the OCD receptors in my brain, it generally worked. I was shocked by how few accidents I saw in my time in Afghanistan, and I never saw a pedestrian get hit. Yes, those things happened, but not nearly as often as you would expect based on the apparent chaos on the streets. There was a certain organic flow to it once you got used to it.
There will be much more where that came from in Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home, coming out next summer.