The mission didn’t sound like a good idea. We received a phone call informing us that the governor of Paktika province, Abdul Qayyum Katawazai, was scheduled to fly to Kabul on a contracted Presidential Airways flight. This wasn’t anything unusual, but I also received instructions to send one of my soldiers as an escort. They would stay overnight at the nearby airbase; the flight would take place early in the brutally cold Afghan winter morning and my soldier would return later that day.
The only problem was that there were only two open seats on the flight. Governor Katawazai spoke little English, and there would be no room for an interpreter. If any difficulties arose, my soldier would have no way to explain what had taken place and what would come next. Also, I suspected that something would go wrong. Air travel was always unpredictable, but this was in February, and winter weather could easily seal off any of the crucial passes over the mountains between us. If one of my soldiers got stuck in Kabul, he would have no friends to contact. We had no liaisons there. Our entire brigade’s battle space covered Paktika, Paktya and Khowst provinces, all of which lie squarely in the eastern part of the country. It was a world entirely apart from our slice of the war.
I decided to go myself. I coordinated for a seat on a convoy with the National Guard unit that occupied the adjacent US compound. It took an hour of waiting for them to prepare their armored vehicles for the trip—it was only seven kilometers away, but any time that we leave our bases, we have to suit up and prepare our equipment for the worst. Their trucks were the heavier variety of MRAP’s, immense vehicles known as Caimans and Cougars. They provided a far better degree of protection than Humvees, but their size and weight were more suitable for the asphalt of Baghdad than for the unpaved trails, drainage channels and riverbeds that made up the Afghan road network.
At my battalion’s main base, I slept on an open top bunk in a room with soldiers from our forward support company. The alarm on my Roshan phone woke me at four in the morning, and I set out to the front gate of the sprawling base to receive the governor and his entourage. He arrived in a convoy of three armored Toyota Land Cruisers; unlike any other Afghans in the province, he had a pass that allowed him free access to the base. It was well below freezing.
Governor Katawazai was a fascinating and complicated person. On one hand, I knew that there were significant levels of corruption in his office. His deputies would regularly come to our compound and beg for diesel fuel—both for heaters and for vehicles—because their entire budget had been filched by his office. There was an uneasy peace in the city between the insurgents and the government: we all knew that the governor’s compound was woefully unsecured, we all saw just how often the police guards were stoned to the point of being unresponsive, and yet nothing ever happened. Governor Katawazai had been the head of the National Directorate of Security in Kandahar province before returning to his home province of Paktika. His affiliation with that agency gave some indication to what was taking place beneath our radar, and living on his compound and attending his meetings gave me some insight into what was taking place.
The U.S. military perspective on Afghanistan often treats the 2001 invasion as the Year Zero. We have a tendency to ignore the upheavals and torments that took place between King Zahir Shah’s dethroning in 1973 and the Soviet invasion in late 1979, much less the turmoil and misery of the post-Soviet era. Most of the destruction in Kabul took place after the Soviet departure in early 1989. Most of the key political figures in Afghanistan had some connection to either the mujahidin warlord government of the early 1990s or the later Taliban government. The power brokers, warlords and insurgent figures are not recent arrivals; most of them have been around for decades, and most of the government figures currently working at the district and provincial levels have some contacts, connections or liaisons with the insurgency. We’re the only newcomers in the Afghan political landscape.
Between Governor Katawazai and his provincial NDS Chief, I know that there was some dialogue and collusion with the insurgency. There was also a significant degree of organized crime, theft and fraud. U.S. military and international development funds were accessible to him with little oversight. That said, the Governor’s schedule saw him meeting with local delegations and arbitrating disputes every waking hour of the workday. Turbaned men would arrive by the dozens, sometimes with their young children in tow, and would squat or stand outside of his massive, two-storey concrete office. He was a legitimate authority in their eyes, either due to his tribal lineage or the simple fact that he was the anointed Godfather in the region.
I found him to be surprisingly frank. We would sometimes receive a visit from the United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan representatives, who had their own helicopter and would visit for a few hours every few months. Their closest office was located in the safety and comfort of Gardez, but at every visit their representatives would make some obsequious comment about how they would soon open an office in Paktika when security improved. After the December 2009 attack on the U.N. guesthouse in Kabul, their delegates came to reassure the Governor that the U.N. was not abandoning Afghanistan. “That’s good to know,” the Governor said, “But to be honest, I had no idea you were even here in the first place.”
When he showed up that morning, his drivers passed unopposed through the gate, which caused something of a stir. The recently hired Afghan security guards recognized him and let him pass through, but the American overseers chased the convoy down. I happened to be nearby when they arrived, and I was able to translate in the roughest terms. Governor Katawazai said something to me in Pashto to the effect of, “What, do they think I’m going to bring a bomb on my own flight?” I didn’t translate that one. We moved to the helicopter landing zone; it was a large gravel lot adjacent to the fixed-wing runway, the same location from which we had stood to say farewell to our friend Brian months before when his body began its journey home.
We flew with Presidential Airways—the same Blackwater subsidiary that had assisted us during the elections—and as the crew defrosted the grey Sikorsky S-61 that would ferry us, the governor and I stood inside an old Army oilcloth tent used as a warming shelter. There were plywood benches and military-issue fluorescent light sets. We talked back and forth in Pashto, which definitely grabbed at the attention of all the other soldiers seated inside. I felt like I was showing off. Of course I was proud that I could speak the language, no matter how powerless I might truly be in the situation at hand. But I was still just a first lieutenant, and I was still as much a prisoner of the air traffic schedule as much as anyone else.
We finally departed, flying over impossibly close mountains and snowfields. There were numerous qalats in the isolated ranges, sometimes flanked by trees, sometimes painted bright colors. You could see smoke from the chimneys; and yet they were miles from the nearest road. The most remote areas still had copses of juniper trees—if they were any more accessible, they would have already been cut down for firewood.
I wasn’t sure if we had landed in Kabul. There were buildings visible all around as we descended, but it seemed smaller than I had expected. The base was a huge helicopter maintenance depot, and there were shipping containers and aircraft parking bays on either side of the miniature runway. I unbuckled my belt, but the governor waved at me. “We’re in Logar,” he said. Pul-e-Alam. We stayed put. Some civilian contractors boarded the aircraft; one was carrying a small television and a blanket in a bag. Their helmets and body armor were bright blue and ill fitting.
Another hour passed in the air. I could see Highway 1 stretching below us in the snow. It reminded me of a description my photography professor had once used when speaking of seeing the Alaska Pipeline from above: “A long black hair on a wedding cake.” But the white cake wasn’t consistent—it was flanked by patches of brown, by cell phone towers, adobe qalats and what looked like military barracks. I soon saw Kabul in its entirety: a never-ending series of compounds behind walls, a patchwork of houses painted pastel colors amid a thick haze of wood smoke and diesel exhaust. It was absolutely massive.
We arrived at Kabul International Airport, and the governor met his drivers as soon as we entered the terminal. He asked me if I wanted to stay with him and his family, but I had to decline—it was a tempting offer, but it would have created an international search-and-rescue convulsion. I had to stay behind. The terminal at KIA was frigid, and the door kept opening to the airfield. It was a strikingly modern building, with indoor plumbing and working lights. All around me were soldiers from NATO militaries. Germans, Danes, Poles, Turks, Italians. A Greek gate guard spoke to me in flawless English about my M4 rifle versus the M16 that he was carrying. This was his third four-month rotation in the same job at the same place. A delegation of German police trainers posed for photographs under the WELCOME TO KABUL sign.
My flight was now three hours late. I had a working cell phone, but I couldn’t call and ask for flight information—it was technically classified, and so I would have to find an IP phone that operated on the secured IP network to find out. We referred to it colloquially as a SIPR phone, pronounced “sipper.” I went to the front desk at the terminal and asked. They were U.S. Air Force personnel and had no earthly idea what I was talking about. Their unsecured phone lines wouldn’t even dial back to my home base.
I went outside to get a cup of coffee from the kiosk. There was an Afghan woman, sans face covering, working behind the counter. I didn’t have enough cash to buy anything, and there were no ATM’s. They were selling beer by the bottle, which was absurd to me. Alcohol is unequivocally banned for U.S. soldiers deployed to the combat theater, but not for NATO militaries.
There was still no word. I called a friend at my battalion’s headquarters and asked him for help. All around me were modern headquarters buildings, anonymous and pristine. Most had clearance booths where you had to present a badge before entering and all were lined with fences and concertina wire. I was turned away at one. A French colonel saw the look of frustration in my eyes as I was walking out. “There are a lot of people here,” I commented. “Yes, a lot of people without real jobs,” he chuckled in nearly unaccented English.
My friend called back: the flight was cancelled. The sun was setting fast and I had nowhere to stay at KIA. There was a convoy with seats on an armored bus that would make the Kabul circuit stating at 5 p.m., and I was to catch a ride to Camp Eggers. Although it was right across the runway on the far side of the airport, it was to be an hour-long drive. I cursed myself for not bringing any overnight supplies, but I was secretly content that I would at least catch an intimate glimpse of the city from a bus window at dusk.