As I was waiting for the convoy to depart, I stood and smoked a cigarette outside of the automatic doors facing the flight line at Kabul International Airport. The sun was beginning to set into orange and purple haze around the city; there was a thick cloud of smog clinging to the distant hills. A stray dog wandered in the grassy expanse between the runways, and further away sat the Hesco bastions and concrete slabs of the US camps on the other side of the airport. A C-5 Galaxy cargo plane, unfathomably large, sat motionless. It’s easy to identify a C-5 when its mouth is open: the nose of the aircraft rotates upward like a massive jaw to accommodate the hundreds of pallets that it can carry.
My destination camp was no more than a kilometer’s walk straight across the runways, but since that was impossible, any passengers moving in that direction would instead be obligated to ride in a convoy that would snake across the city and visit the U.S. Embassy, ISAF headquarters, Camp Eggers, Camp Phoenix and the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. I watched as a small plane landed and taxied to a halt. Lithe, bearded men in civilian hiking clothes exited off a ladder. They were carrying desert tan painted M4 assault rifles with optics far beyond the cost range of the regular Army.
Upon closer inspection, I recognized a few of them: they were SEALs. I had worked with them on a mission in the past July. I had tagged along on a mission with my commander, and we clearing qalats in the south of our province in a hunt for a missing U.S. soldier. These guys had run down three escaping men and, upon being ambushed, had called in an Apache helicopter to kill them all. I hadn’t seen the bodies, but I had seen the pictures and, sitting on a hilltop watching the village search take place, I had heard the horrifying screams of family members who had discovered them. The noises echoed across the rolling hills of the barren town.
I couldn’t help but be somewhat jealous upon seeing the SEALs again. They were just returning to country, which is to suggest that they had already returned home to the U.S. and completed another training cycle before returning again to combat – all in the time that my battalion had still been living in the same spot. I didn’t feel like talking to them; I doubted they would remember me, anyway.
We signed our names in a black binder inside the terminal; from that list they generated a manifest for the convoy. It was simply an armored bus guarded to the front and rear by M1151 Humvees. This was somewhat disconcerting; in Paktika, we were expressly forbidden from using Humvees, because the insurgent bomb threat had become severe enough that, more likely than not, a Humvee striking a bomb would spell death or serious injury for everyone inside.
Most of the bombs made in Afghanistan are relatively simple, and what they lack in technical sophistication they make up for in sheer force. Nitrate-based fertilizers are manufactured in Pakistan and sold in bulk across the entire region, and there are no controls in place to stop unwarranted purchases. It takes about as much chemical know-how to make homemade explosives as it does to make homemade methamphetamine. The insurgents pack a culvert full of the stuff and rig up a simple detonator. It will either respond to a pressure trigger (and therefore require no “trigger man”) or it will be command detonated by an insurgent observer, with a thin strand of wire tracing back to his location.
As such, the MRAP’s – mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles – were lifesavers for us. They would crumple and burn with enough explosive force, sure, but the bomb that would have killed us all in a Humvee would simply disable an MRAP. After soldiers across the brigade had died in Humvees in August, they were unequivocally banned from use.
Not, as it turned out, in Kabul. The threat of IED’s and required safety posture were completely different. Our route wouldn’t even cross an unpaved road, and there had been no reported attacks. The armored bus was mid-sized in as far as public transport goes, but it was coated with the same rough tan corrosion-resistant paint. It had blast-proof windows and, most strangely, firing ports next to every row. It was, in a sense, some kind of macabre turtle shell from which we could shoot wildly if need be. The drivers and commanders of the convoy were a National Guard unit from Georgia. The gunners in both trucks were women.
The bus driver told me that if I wanted to spend the night somewhere, I needed to go to Camp Phoenix as opposed to Camp Eggers. “Eggers is just full of brass,” he said, meaning senior officers. “There’s plenty of space at Phoenix. Just get off there.” I thanked him and took my seat. When he gave his safety brief, he told us that – in the event of an attack, which he described as “really not fucking likely” – there was a box of loaded magazines at the front of the bus that we could use. The SEALs paid little heed. A grumpy, weather-beaten sergeant from the National Guard sat near to me. Man, if they fuck with us," he said, “I swear to god I’ll shoot all these motherfuckers.”’ I nodded and looked away. The SEALs talked amongst themselves about the cost-effectiveness of trying to install performance parts on a dune buggy versus paying someone to do it for you. They had a mellow way of speaking despite their fatless intensity, like how you might imagine North Korean surfers would sound if they spoke American English.
We pushed out of the airport parking lot and moved to a concertina wire gate. We sat there and waited for at least sixty minutes; apparently one of the Humvees had to be replaced. There were civilian compounds near to the entrance, and from fifty meters away they already seemed far more developed than what I had seen elsewhere. The evening was growing more orange as the sun set. The houses had actual cinder block buildings and windowpanes instead of blankets. The children playing nearby were wearing far more Western clothing. Two girls, heads covered by hijabs, talked next to the compound’s mud-brick outer wall while three younger boys chased each other around a decrepit Toyota minivan. A blue water tank stood on PVC stilts atop the house. Massive aircraft in various livery landed: I saw a Pamir Airlines jet, an Antonov An-26 in Afghan National Army paint (I didn’t even know they had fixed-wing aircraft), a Danish C-130 and an Iranian passenger liner from Kam Airlines.
The convoy finally departed. My face was glued to the window. The compounds were nestled next to one another, and in the alleys between I saw familiar sights: stick-thin boys on bicycles jostling each other, barefoot toddlers running in a stutter-step, girls in gaudy, sequined dresses of every color. There were bakeries, telephone shops, grocery stores, internet cafés, hardware stores and repair shops. Families were returning from the market together – some on foot, the little children carried in parents’ arms, some on motorcycles, packed four or five on the same rickety, 125cc bike. Draped in evening light and wood smoke, the people barely seemed to notice us.
Two things jumped out before my eyes: the paved roads and the electric lights. Both were extremely dear in the southeast of the country, and I had never seen them in such abundance. The backstreets had fewer overhead lights, but the shops had glowing signs, and as evening settled into night, the houses began to illuminate. The paved main roads were wide enough for three lanes of traffic, but the lack of painted lines meant that cars wove back and forth erratically, sometimes four or five abreast. It was still an incredibly poor country, but it was a world entirely apart from where I lived and worked. I rested my head against the armored windowpane and watched the bustle and commotion pass.
By the time we arrived at Camp Phoenix, the night had fallen. The entrance was a long L-shaped gate, and all along the main drag were huge warehouses and offices built of concrete. The bus parked for a moment and let us depart, and I asked one of the KBR workers how to get to reception. He was a Kosovar and spoke very little English, but one of the civilian contractor passengers overheard me and pointed me in that direction. It was just about a hundred meters down the gravel road, he said. The path opened up to series of dozens of plywood B-huts in neat rows. One happened to be marked “billeting,” and a light glowed from the window.
There was a heavyset female sergeant working at the desk. She gave me a slip with my tent number and showed me a printed map of the base. My tent was located adjacent to the wall that separated the compound from the airfield. I asked her if she knew where I could find a SIPR phone. She had no idea what that was.
I wandered the darkened rows of b-huts and Hescos. There were concrete barriers and bunkers butting up against massive water tanks, shower connexes, storage sheds and guard towers. There were some apartment-style buildings made of shipping containers, and each of the windows had signs marking their occupants: civilian contracted workers for AECOM, KBR and Fluor. I saw a massive, two-story PX, replete with Burger King, Green Beans Coffee and a massage parlor. I saw a giant outdoor barbeque area with a movie screen fashioned on the painted white side of a large warehouse’s wall. It was chilly and dark, and the only figures outdoors were groups of smokers. Turkish military vehicles crept through the perimeter road – they were the ones assigned guard duty at that time.
I stopped a passing National Guard soldier and asked him if he knew where I could find a SIPR phone. “What the fuck is a SIPR phone?” He asked me. I explained, and he shrugged his shoulders. “Probably at BDOC,” he said. Bee-dock. Base defense operation cell. I asked him where to find them, and he gestured roughly in a direction before turning away. Real fucking professional, I thought, but then again I was a stranger in town.
“Oh, sir, by the way,” he said, “If you don’t want to get UCMJ, you need to take that mag out of your weapon.” By UCMJ he meant if I wanted to avoid legal punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. My life had become a hell of acronyms.
“You’re not allowed to carry them?” I asked. This was unthinkable: it was a combat zone, and even at a base as opulent as Bagram, you still carried ammunition in your weapon. You didn’t have a round chambered, but at least you had the magazine. If nothing else, it helped to keep the dust out.
“Nope, Sergeant Major says no mags,” he said.
It was more likely that someone would shoot a friend accidentally than anyone inside Camp Phoenix ever needing to defend themselves.
All of this became clear to me when I entered the dining facility. It was a massive structure, the largest and nicest dining facility I had seen in the entire country. The base was the site of a brigade headquarters for the Georgia National Guard, and it was packed to capacity. It was a warm, chummy, jovial place, filled with ancient Guardsmen, civilian contractors, KBR workers and Department of Defense civilians. There were no Afghans to be found anywhere – in fact, I hadn’t seen one since entering the base.
That soldier was right: no one had magazines in their weapons. Their weapons were stacked in neat racks next to every table as another night waxed and the denizens of Camp Phoenix passed happily through the evening meal. This, centered in the beating heart of the conflict, was as far from the war as you could possibly get.