3 March 2009
With a tough but not brutal hangover, I caught a taxi at 0430 for Dubai International Airport, Terminal Two. The “terminal two” is significant since, as became apparent once I arrived, the departure point for outbound flights to Kabul was not the clean, efficient, modern airport at which I arrived, but instead a desperately disorganized mess, filled with indolent staff and a throng of surly passengers.*
*At this point, I have to mention the Afghanis willfull ignorance of the concept of a queue (or as it’s called in the States, “a line”). As became rapidly apparent, an orderly progression from one customer to the next is a foreign concept in the Afghan psyche. Instead, they have developed a complex and intricate dance of pushing and shoving, some overt, some more passive-aggressive, in which two people fight for the second spot in line, three people fight for the third, and so on. This inevitably results in a formation more like a triangle than a line, with the upshot being that one cannot effectively judge the length of time one might have to wait in said queue, as it can vary widely. This, as will be seen, became important later.
After fighting my way through the crowd to the ticket desk, I managed to check my bags with an hour to spare before the flight. Of course, being that I was embarking on a six-month tour under somewhat uncertain circumstances, I had overpacked to the point of insanity and I owed 250 dirhams (about $80 USD) at the Excess Baggage counter. Simple, right? Not so much. I got into the “Afghani pyramid” with 55 minutes to spare, about seventh in “line.” Forty minutes later, after much shoving and what I can only assume were muttered complaints in Dari, I was fifth in line. No one, I’m proud to say, had gotten past me; it was just that the harried clerk behind the desk was incapable of moving at more than a glacial pace and seemed to enjoy spending more time yelling at the people in line rather than doing anything to speed the process. Finally, with the final boarding call for my flight coming over the PA system, I and another American (ecowarrior hippie type) managed to convince the lady that we needed to go NOW. Throwing some money here direction, we sprinted through security and to the gate. I was not yet in my seat when the plane started to roll.
The flight to Kabul was uneventful (food sucked-big surprise), until we began to circle for a landing. This was an event I had read about and was actually looking forward to. It seems that many of the pilots who fly into Kabul nowadays are former Russian air force with experience in the 1980s Afghan War.* In order to land safely at Kabul airport back then, and avoid all those Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the U.S. was gleefully supplying to the mujahedin, they developed a technique called the “Kabul corkscrew.” Basically, this consisted of approach the city at a sufficient altitude to avoid short-range missiles and then rapidly descending while simultaneously turning in a tight circle. This is complicated by the fact that Kabul is nearly surrounded by substantial peaks, the end of the Hindu Kush range. It’s basically a city in a big rocky bowl. Think of a rollercoaster without the reassuring presence of rails but contained in a rather narrow quarry and you’ll get the idea. Hopefully, in the end the aircraft lines up with the runway in such a way as to allow a proper landing. In my case, this actually happened but I confess I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had smacked into a mountain.
*My pilot, if his announcement was to be believed, had the last name of Federov, so he was presumably one of these.
Anyway, the unorthodox landing was only the beginning of the Dante-esque nightmare that is the Kabul International Airport.* After taxiing past rows of parked Russian attack helicopters, we arrive at what passes for a terminal.** One large building with none of the standard amenities of an airport and a surplus of the aggravations. A good rule of thumb is that the efficiency of an airport is inversely proportional to the number of uniforms present in said airport. Under that rule, KIA is probably the worst airport in the world.
*KIA (gruesomely appropriate acronym, isn’t it?) barely qualifies as “international” since most nations will not allow flights into or out of Afghanstan. Aside from the Gulf States and several Central Asian republics, only Pakistan and India fly direct to Kabul. Apparently, the rest are concerned that the security situation might somehow stow away and follow them home.
**This will mean little to many of you, but for the sake of MilTech geeks like myself, I will mention that the choppers were fully-loaded Mi-24 Hinds (a notorious Russian attack helicopter- a la Red Dawn) and a handful of Mi-17 transports (made famous to a select few in another life in a certain city in southern Poland – if you don’t know, don’t ask).
Fortunately, on the far side of security I was met by one of the Western backers of my new employer, an old Afghan hand, who had arranged transport to our compound. His presence was to prove invaluable in the next few days. Our transport was the standard Kabul method, 4x4 SUV with driver and armed guard up front, three of us crammed into the middle and another guard stuffed in the back. Three weapons for six people, and we were probably well-below the Kabul per capita average.
Finally fought our way through the traffic and arrived at the compound in time for lunch.* Spent the afternoon shaking hands with what seemed like half the male population of Kabul. Lots of salaaming and broken English, interspersed with endless cups of weak green tea. Somewhat overwhelmed, I was dropped at my hotel that evening with an hour to change for dinner with a certain prominent Afghan politician who was considering a run for the presidency in the upcoming election.
*I won’t go into the bizarre nature of Kabul traffic and Afghan driving habits here. Save that for later. Suffice to say that the most hardened American highwayman would blanch if he tried to drive two blocks in this city. Not that he’d be able to do it.
At dinner that evening, I sensed the beginnings of a motif that was to follow me for the next week began. Apparently, I had been somewhat “oversold” as an expert on all manner of things. The nature and scope of my expertise depended upon who was judging me. To the business and admin people, I was some sort of Western business expert, well-versed in contract law and negotiation. To the ex-military and security types, I was the beneficiary of Western military training and techniques which they expected me to pass on to the locals (all Soviet trained, if at all). To the politicians, I was a master of the nuances of American political thought, able to predict the reaction of the new administration in Washington with frightening clarity. In my own mind, of course, I am all of those things. In reality, perhaps a little less so. Those of you who know me well will realize that I was, to a certain degree, skating on false pretenses here.
Anyway, we had a very nice traditional dinner (I ate eggplant!) and talked politics until pretty late, lubricated by a little bootleg whiskey (shh! Don’t tell anyone, but occasionally, when no one is looking, Afghans drink too.) I think I acquitted myself fairly well, but I’m not well enough versed in local customs and mannerisms to be sure. At least I didn’t make a fool of myself, as far as I know. If this guy runs, and if he wins, I’ll be able to say that I was there at the beginning. Not that he’ll remember me. Hell of a first day.