In Afghanistan, focusing on the details

This desert floor in Zabul is covered with jade and turquoise chips, giving it a greenish cast.
Ben Brody

EDITOR’S NOTE: Eastern Afghanistan was hit with an earthquake and flash flooding this week, which killed as many as 33 people and demolished thousands of homes. The epicenter of the quake was 17 miles from Jalalabad, according to a report by the BBC.

Before the quake hit, GlobalPost reporter Ben Brody was further south in Qalat, Zabul province, observing the details of the ground beneath his feet.

QALAT, Afghanistan — Tired, squinting and sweating in the arid, violent southeastern Afghan landscape it's easy to miss the little things. Little things like tiny chips of jade and lizards hiding in the tumbleweeds. Like little fern-like plants that smell of sage when crushed under a boot, or caterpillars attacking the plants and ants attacking the caterpillars. Or lizards attacking the ants and the caterpillars.

Afghanistan is famously rich in minerals, and many of them are easily visible. I recently spent three days at a makeshift gunnery range in Zabul Province, and the slow pace of the days' activities gave me plenty of time to stare at the ground. The longer I looked and the stiller I sat, the more I saw.

Letting my eyes unfocus a bit, it became clear that the ground's greenish cast did not come from the sparse vegetation, but rather from the dirt and rock itself. Jade and turquoise chips were everywhere, many embedded within chunks of brittle black rock. 

The distant, forbidding mountains showed reddish iron-rich rock. Huge black and white carrion birds wheeled between them. The difficulty with Afghanistan's mineral wealth, I think, is that it's all buried under Afghanistan.

An Afghan interpreter hired by the US Army told me the sage-smelling plant is called Thayjaa and is used locally to treat kidney problems.

A yellow wren-like bird gathered twigs from these pungent plants and the thorny tumbleweeds to construct a nest in a little depression. No one knew what the bird was called. We watched its dutiful flitting for nearly an hour as a camel spider raced back and forth on the hard ground.

One soldier, a reptile enthusiast, scooped up a docile, foot-long lizard from the brush at the Zabul range and identified it as a bearded dragon, a popular (and expensive) creature in the pet trade.

Research indicates that while bearded dragons are native to Australia, the lizard in question was actually a rock agama, a related species. With no surface moisture to speak of, except what the few plants store in their tough stems, it is hard to understand how these animals live.

A football-sized Russian tortoise lay drying on its side, its shell torn in half by one of the myriad predators who stalk these plains. While on guard duty at night, sharp-eyed soldiers see hyenas, foxes and hounds stalking about in the dusty gloom.

In nearby Kandahar two years ago, I investigated (with great skepticism) soldiers' reports of giant cats stalking them on night patrols. After being stalked myself, I found they were in fact caracals, which look like smallish mountain lions with a bobcat's tufted ears. A biologist suggested to me that the soldiers' noisy patrolling may have flushed small rodents into adjacent fields, so the caracals follow the patrol to prey on the rats and mice.

Removing rocks and minerals from Afghanistan is strictly forbidden - departing soldiers have been known to have their dirty boots seized by customs officials - so it's worth slowing down and taking a long look while you're on the ground.

More from GlobalPost: Reflections from Afghanistan: What ending the war looks like