The irony, which many of the area’s ethnic Kyrgyz recognize, is that exorbitantly expensive roads have been built all over Afghanistan during the past decade. Many have been sponsored by Western governments with the stated goal of improving security. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, the United States spent millions of dollars building infrastructure that would ostensibly undercut the Taliban’s power by developing commerce and education.
But in the Wakhan, there’s never been an insurgency. The Soviets set up several bases, but there was no local opposition. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance never appeared.
There’s only a tiny population that has remained on the sidelines of Afghanistan’s 30 years of war. The U.S. military briefly considered cash handouts to the Kyrgyz in 2008, but the proposal dissipated. Most Kyrgyz can’t remember the last time an official, Western or Afghan, visited from Kabul.
A waiting game
Whether to give up on their homeland is a question that Ibrahim and two other young Kyrgyz men, Sulabilidad and Asadullah, discussed as they wrangled yaks and horses across the Wakhan Corridor this month. The men transport supplies for rare visitors, riding up and down the same mountain passes that Marco Polo climbed in 1271. None of them attended a day of school because there are no schools to attend.
Ibrahim said he’ll wait four years for the government to bring its resources to the Wakhan, to build a road connecting the valley’s constellation of settlements and yurts to the rest of the country. Sulabilidad, 20, said he’ll wait three years. Asadullah, 22, said he is ready to leave in two. None was hopeful that the government will deliver.
They’ll move to Kyrgyzstan, they said, the Central Asian nation where members of their tribe settled years ago and which has voiced support for their repatriation. Or they’ll find a village in Afghanistan that has electricity and schools and cellphone coverage. Or they’ll try to reunite with long-lost relatives in Turkey.
They’ve already decided: After attending school, Ibrahim will be a doctor. Sulabilidad and Asadullah will be teachers.
As they debated their futures, a group of older men rode by on horseback. They were Kyrgyz who had moved to Turkey 30 years ago, the last time that a generation decided that the Wakhan was too difficult and too isolated to sustain life.