QARGAH, Afghanistan — This has to be one of the world's toughest little golf courses, a testing nine-holer 10 miles outside the Afghan capital of Kabul, where a golfer can never be sure if his best shot is with a 9 iron or a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Afghan armored troop carriers are allowed to play through and often do, taking a shortcut to the battlefields to confront moujahedeen guerrillas fighting the Soviet-backed government.
The concrete clubhouse was destroyed by a Soviet tank.
The ninth green--or "brown" as they are called here because they are made of sand mixed with oil--is nestled under an Afghan artillery battery that occasionally booms rounds into the nearby Paghman range of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains.
Given the unusual hazards, it was a little surprising on a recent morning to find the rocky course below the Qargah Lake Dam teeming with enthusiastic golfers, as well as assorted strollers, picnickers and vendors selling German beer, Coca-Cola and Russian cigarettes, all acting as though they were on the back nine of the Augusta National.
Only instead of Arnie's Army they had the Afghan army, occasionally peering down at them from artillery positions through tripod-mounted field glasses.
Almost all were diplomats and aid workers taking advantage of the one morning each week when the government allows them out of the city into the stunningly beautiful, if dangerous, Afghan countryside.
For more than seven years, Afghanistan has been embroiled in a bloody war between government and Soviet troops on one side and the moujahedeen rebels on the other. Often the war has touched the fringes of the Afghan capital. Until two years ago, when government forces gained the upper hand, the Paghman Valley north of Qargah was the arena of some of the war's fiercest fighting, which left the once beautiful resort town of Paghman in ruins.
Kidnaped by Rebels
Four years ago, a Japanese diplomat on his way to play a round of golf took a wrong turn and was kidnaped by moujahedeen rebels. They confiscated the befuddled diplomat's car for use against Afghan and Soviet troops and escorted him more than 100 miles east into Pakistan, where he was finally released in Peshawar.
A U.N. Development Program worker stopped going to the golf course after she was caught in a cross-fire between rebels and government troops, "bullets whizzing over my head."
Still, many foreigners in the war-weary Afghan capital feel that the risks are worth taking, if only for a breath of clean air and a stroll among the white poplars and pines that rim the shores of Qargah Lake.
"Kabul is like a prison," explained a Polish aid worker out walking his basset hound. "Coming out here is like a day out of prison."
"That looks like a gentle 6 iron to me," said Ian Mackley, the British charge d'affaires in Kabul and a regular at the Qargah course. "But watch out for the snake pit."
The "snake pit" on the No. 1 hole, a gentle dogleg toward an artillery position, is an inexplicable man-made depression with steep stone walls. Although no one has ever reported seeing snakes there, the hole looks like a place where an ancient and cruel Afghan king might have dropped a ferenghi (foreigner) for a bit of torture.
Soon after Mackley spoke, his playing companion shanked his 6-iron shot into the snake pit.
"Bloody frustrating," he cursed as Mackley, who was two holes up, with two holes to play, smiled in anticipation of victory.
Many of the assorted diplomats who come to Qargah every Friday morning, even blasting sand wedges through snowdrifts on the coldest days, are here for more than just a game of golf. After all, Afghanistan is the home of the "Great Game," as Rudyard Kipling described the intrigue and espionage between Imperial Russia and the British Raj. So many of the diplomats, frustrated by their wartime isolation in the capital, come out here to listen for the sounds of war and report their findings to their home countries.
Two years ago, when a nearby ammunition dump was blown up by the rebels, a record number of diplomats drove out to the lake. Some feigned a round of golf while they observed the explosions. A carload of Chinese diplomats, however, not knowing the difference between a 4 wood and a niblick, quietly went to the edge of the lake and started fishing.
But the rocky defiles of the Afghanistan mountains often play tricks with noise, and a loud boom may not always be what it seems.
"One time I heard what I thought was steady mortaring," said one diplomatic regular on the course. "But when I came to the next hole I discovered it was just a man chopping down a tree. One has to be careful."