Sunday afternoon, November 30, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
I’m sitting in the cafe of the Islamic Museum of Sharjah writing and preparing for my trip to Kabul. I am excited and nervous. There is not much left to prepare. That’s the advantage of a backpack. Everything fits inside and, worst case, you smash it all in and worry about the niceties on the other side.
Till today, I had no lodging locked down for Kabul. I went from carefree and curious to worried. No one returned email. No one. I got through to four places, finally. One told me to call his “fixer” to set up my booking. I did, and the fixer didn’t speak English. Another said, sorry, they shut the place down. A third was an expensive hotel with security fit for a full frontal assault. I put in a tentative booking, thinking I can always stay there a day or two while I look for a guest house. I’m told it’s easier to do such things in person. A second full price hotel comes available, similar bunker security features (sniffer dogs!!).
Then, today, the dam breaks. I find a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet. The price is right. There appear to be no amenities. Bed. Bath. Door. Roof. Any questions? And after a failed effort to use couchsurfing.com in Central America, I score two Afghan hosts. Both are in their early twenties. The first, Sami, is an interpreter for the U.S. Army, and speaks fluent English. He wants to move to the U.S. (“How-stun”) and insists he will take care of me. In fact, he will pick me up at the airport, take me to the guest house, and personally check it out. If I don’t like it, he will take me to other places. Then, when I’m ready, I can move into a private room at his place. Big relief. I even get a second response via Couchsurfing. Another young Afghan, he wants to learn about American business and entrepreneurship.
I talk to Pip, an Aussie writer introduced to me by X-Media Lab’s Megan Elliott, and she gives me an hour briefing on life in Kabul. Afterward, she apologizes for some of the stronger security warnings, and assures me I will be “AOK.” Then, she sends me the Twitter feeds of four journalists and locals that I should follow. She recommends precisely the guest house I found.
Kabul has a very small number of hotels. Everyone else stays at guest houses. The one I want most will not answer my calls. It is a favorite of journalists and, at one time, the preferred hotel of Osama bin Laden when he visited Kabul. I will not name locations while in country, if that’s OK with you.
Friends such as Harris Taback and Terry Hamlin send me news of insurgent incidents (I know! I’m keeping up!) and we have periodic discussions on the calculus of safety versus mission. I have a standard answer: number of kidnappings or killings of American noncombatants in Kabul not associated with a contractor or NGO (virtually none); the nature of targets such as embassies or police stations or upscale hotels or restaurants (I’ll stay away from those, mostly); people on the ground say, be careful, listen to warnings, but Kabul is relatively safe.
My daughter Andrea suggests I don’t go during our Thanksgiving call. She seems satisfied with my explanation of the safety issues.
So, why go to Kabul?
The project included Afghanistan from the beginning. The stories are not in Dubai. The original plan included Iraq—impossible to get a visa and every part of the country is now at risk. Iran offered a lot of visa roadblocks and there was not enough time to get one in the US, but I found a way in through the Kish Island resort. There would be restrictions against talking to locals casino and i would have to pay for a government minder. When I asked to visit four cities, i was told I would have to pay my “guide” $170 per day. I don’t think so.
Afghanistan is a vital story. We have been there for thirteen years, our longest war. One trillion dollars spent. And while December is supposed to mark our final withdrawal, we may maintain a presence for months or years. The 9/11 attacks were planned here. We promised peace and freedom and prosperity, and now, it’s take to do an accounting.
Monday, December 1
I board FlyDubai flight 303 at 9:35am. Heavy traffic got me to the counter at 8:33, two minutes before the cut-off. Why do I subject myself to these last minute sprints to the gate? A woman behind me in a black hajib with a loaded metal cart keeps pushing into my calves. Now she is moving her cart in front of me and begins hovering over the counters. She chooses the one directly in front of me. As the FlyDubai attendant says goodbye to the previous customers, she makes her move, so I step in front of her and present my passport, announcing, “Kabul!”
I take my window seat. The man in the aisle seat is reading Foreign Affairs. There’s a cover story entitled, “What Have We Learned? Lessons from Afghanistan & Iraq.” I’m reading “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan,” a terrific compilation of essays by Nic Turse.
Maybe I’ll figure it all out before the plane touches down.
Jasneet is an engineering officer for the UN. After a few years in Afghanistan, he went back home to Delhi for a 9-5 job. His wife noticed how edgy and bored he was getting, so when an offer came in, they agreed, time to return. I ask him if the magazine offered any new conclusions.
“Most of it is familiar to anyone with an interest in geopolitics. The US should not have gone into Iraq, and lose its focus on Afghanistan. There was no strategy for what to do in Iraq after the invasion. Bush only went in because he wanted to finish what his father started.”
After Kabul, Jasneet is heading to South Sudan.
“That’s an actual war zone. Kabul is pretty safe.”
I rattled off my list of places and situations to avoid and used the term ‘street smart.’
“That’s the key. Get a good driver who knows English.”
Did the US and NATO accomplish anything in 13 years in Afghanistan?
I think the younger generation doesn’t want the Taliban anymore. They’re fine with religion, prayers five times a day, but they want something more for their country than what the Taliban are offering. They don’t want to live in the 17th century, or the 9th century.”
“Afghans welcomed the foreign presence for the first few years, but then became disenchanted. They saw all this money coming in, and very little of it was getting to them. You know, it looks like a lot of money, but only twenty percent of it is spent locally. You hire an agency to do the work and they take fifty percent for overhead, then each layer of contractors want their 10-15 percent cut, and pretty soon you are down to a much smaller amount.”
I thought of the security costs, and the costs of procuring from out of the country. That’s assuming the warlords or militias or local leaders are not taking a cut. And I heard the Taliban get paid off to ensure the roads are safe for transport.
I look out the window. Snow covered mountains through the clouds. An announcement in an unfamiliar language over the loudspeaker. A city in the distance.
Time to shut off all digital devices. We’re landing.
Actually, we’re not. The plane swoops up, in a steep climb.
“We just went from 5,000 feet to 11,000,” says my seat mate. I look at the video screen in front of me. It’s at 12,000. Then, we’re at 13,300 and I’m imagining the causes. Jasneet comforts me.
“I once flew into Kabul and they had to divert to Peshawar because two rockets landed near the airport. I hope they don’t take us to Peshawar.”
Jasneet is Indian. Peshawar is in Pakistan. I get the impression Indians are not warmly welcomed in Peshawar.
The mountains are beautiful. My mind is racing. We seem to be circling back.
Ten minutes later, we land. Jasneet flashes me an ironic smile.
“Welcome to Kabul.”