KABUL -- Forget Russian tanks and Kalashnikov rifles, F-16 jets or rocket-propelled grenades. In the Afghan capital and other cities, some of the country’s expert weavers are now emblazoning their carpets with images of the ultimate American high-tech weapon: drones.
“People want these carpets to illustrate that drones were an important part of the war, to show how effective they were,” said Haji Naseer Ahmed, 56, a slim and gray-haired dealer who was seated inside his small shop filled with carpets of every hue.
“Effective” is an arguable description of the U.S. drone war in Afghanistan. But what’s clear is that to most Afghans and Westerners, drones are an emblem of the high-tech conflicts the United States has been waging for more than a decade here and around the world. And Afghanistan’s weavers have long told the story in their carpets of the wars that have gripped their nation.
Just take a walk through Kabul’s best-known thoroughfare -- Chicken Street -- and glance at the war carpets displayed in windows. It’s a step back into the nation’s grim past.
In one window, there’s a carpet with olive-green Soviet tanks and helicopters woven into the wool fabric depicting the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country and the decade-long occupation.
In another window, a carpet portrays Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Walk a little farther and you’ll see a carpet of a colorful map of Afghanistan with the words “Tora Bora.” That’s where Osama bin Laden hid after he fled the U.S.-led intervention that helped oust the Taliban regime in late 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Inside Ahmed’s shop, there are carpets that memorialize those assaults: planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers, overlaid with the American and Afghan flags. Another carpet is a meld of the U.S. and Afghan flags representing solidarity between the two nations.
For the past three months, though, Ahmed has been busy on his newest creation: a 15-by-10-foot carpet depicting different types of drones, from Predators to Golden Hawks. The buyer is a New Zealand woman, and she’s paying him $1,000, said Ahmed. For weeks now, they have been in touch by e-mail, and he sends her designs and pictures of the work in progress.
The interest is being driven in part by the dwindling presence of American and international forces, whose military mission in Afghanistan is winding down. “The orders for the carpets are coming from foreigners,” said Ahmed’s son, Mohammed Naseer, 21, who also works in the family business. “This is the time of the withdrawal of the American forces, and the foreigners want a souvenir.”
They have two more orders for drone carpets, as well as two of the twin-towers carpets. Ahmed said that other carpet weavers he knows in the cities of Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz and Herat are also making drone carpets. He prays more orders come his way.
Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Western troops, contractors and embassy employees have left the country, part of the ongoing drawdown. Many of those who remain are under tight security restrictions due to the risk of Taliban attacks, preventing them from visiting Chicken Street and other tourist areas to purchase carpets.
Once, Naseer used to go regularly to sell carpets at a bazaar set up at the U.S. Embassy to encourage local craftsmanship. He used to sell $2,500 to $3,500 worth of carpets, he said. Now, he and his father are lucky if they can earn even $500 at the bazaar. “In the past there were many foreigners,” lamented Ahmed. “Not anymore.”
He hopes the drone carpets will rekindle interest in his trade. Perhaps, he says, the New Zealand woman will tell her friends, and they will order from him. Perhaps a U.S. Embassy employee will inform his friends in Washington and they will send orders.
Perhaps there will be other emblems of war to add to his carpets -- and attract interest.
“After the Americans are gone, we don’t know who will come here next,” said Ahmed. “Perhaps the Islamic State will arrive, and I’ll weave their black flag and their black outfits into my carpets.”
The only thing that is certain about his life, he said, are his carpets.
“From them, our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will learn about the story of Afghanistan’s wars,” said Ahmed. “My carpets will last forever.”
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