Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s largest eastern city and the capital of Nangahar province, lies roughly equidistant between Kabul and the Pakistan border at Torkham. It sits in the lee of the Safed Koh Mountains in a fertile plain watered by the Kabul river. Compared to the capital it’s something of a green oasis, warm in winter but hot and sticky in summer.
The winter climate meant that Jalalabad was a popular retreat for Afghan rulers since it was founded by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1570. The region’s historical importance predates Islam however. Between the 2nd and 7th centuries AD, the Gandharan culture of the Kushans flourished in the Jalalabad valley and it was a place of pilgrimage rivalling Bamiyan. Nearby, Hadda was a hugely important complex of monasteries and caves used as monk’s retreats can be seen on the far side of the river when leaving Jalalabad for Kabul. Islam arrived when Mahmoud of Ghazni tore through to India in the 11th century, and much of the area’s subsequent history was tied precisely to controlling the route to the subcontinent through the Khyber Pass.
Jalalabad was a British garrison during the First Anglo-Afghan War and received the one survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Just over 150 years later, the mujaheddin launched an equally disastrous attack on Jalalabad, their first attempt to capture a major city from the government after the Soviet withdrawal. Over 10, 000 people died. From 1992 Jalalabad was ruled by a council of mujaheddin called the Nangahar Shura, but the predominantly Pashtun population meant that the city surrendered to the Taliban in 1996 without a fight.
Several of the shura leaders returned to power at the close of 2001 and have been heavily implicated in the opium trade for which Nangahar is renowned. Despite this, a provincial ban in 2005 met with popular support and a 96% drop in cultivation. A failure to follow up with alternative livelihood programmes meant that the poppies were back in bloom the following year.
Many people zip through Jalalabad when passing between Kabul and Peshawar. If you’ve come from Pakistan the city seems like a continuation of the large Pashtun towns of North West Frontier Province, down to the street food and the make of autorickshaws. The heat and humidity can make Jalalabad exhausting in summer and malaria is a serious risk. It’s also essential to take note of the political forecast, as the city sits in the heart of the Pashtun areas.