It was the middle of September, and the end of Ramazan was coming. Most of the Afghan military, police and government agents would be leaving for Kabul on vacation, and many of them wouldn’t come back until the end of October. One of the Afghan intelligence agents was departing to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. Our rush to fly election delegates at the end of August had an unfortunate side effect; once the Afghan government realized how apparently easy it was for us to conjure up helicopters, they were constantly flooding us with requests to fly. A military ground convoy to Kabul would take six hours and could pose a mortal risk, and flying with the Afghan National Army Air Corps (on Russian Mi-17 helicopters that they flew like hot rods) required the payment of a $120 bribe to the crew chief, and even then it wasn’t certain where they would fly you.
Military air was difficult to coordinate at our site, but contracted air—the Blackwater subsidiary called Presidential Airways—was more cooperative. However, there needed to be at least one armed American soldier on the aircraft escorting them. In a perfect situation, the soldier would be able to return to our home base at the end of the circuit flight. That rarely happened, and typically, sending a soldier meant that he would get stuck in some hellhole base for a few days awaiting return. There was no way for us to continue our mission (there were only eight of us in the liaison compound) if we were constantly trying to get a soldier back to us. So, we created new rules: we would only request flights for official government business, and the request had to be signed by the governor of our province. All of a sudden, there seemed to be a lot of government conferences taking place in Kabul, and the ministers seemed inordinately enthusiastic about work.
There were also real emergencies and needs. On the day before the election, an Afghan National Policeman named Abdul Barak was shot in the head during a confrontation with a Taliban commander and his fighters. This policeman was assigned to a district police office controlled by a man named Meenaka, a bear of a man who would later become a good friend of mine. Meenaka personally killed the Taliban commander in that same firefight, and when he drove his wounded policeman to the nearest American outpost, they were able to arrange for a helicopter to take him to the nearest American hospital. He was subsequently transferred to Bagram Air Field, where he disappeared. Meenaka received daily phone calls from Abdul Barak’s family asking about their son. He asked me for help, and I called Bagram directly. My battalion’s medical officer sent me an email with his trauma name: “Springfield.” His prognosis was listed as poor; he was unresponsive, had a JP drain and a catheter.
The only certain thing was that Abdul Barak had been transferred to the Afghan National Police hospital, known as dwachott bestara or “two hundred beds.” The Afghan doctor that worked as a coordinator at Bagram thought that he had been released from the police hospital, but he also had contradictory information that said that Abdul Barak was going to come back to Bagram for a follow-up. The Afghan doctor at the police hospital, who spoke excellent English, told me that he had three patients named Abdul Barak and four anonymous, unnamed patients with head injuries. “If you can bring the family or friends here, they can look for him,” the doctor said, “But I cannot tell you if he is here or not.” The only problem: dwachott bestara was in Kabul. We had to get Meenaka there.
I called my battalion commander to explain the situation, and I asked whether or not I could take Meenaka and a few others (I needed an interpreter, and Abdul Barak’s brother could come along to find him, too). He respected Meenaka greatly, and so he agreed. He helped me to explain the situation to the governor as well, who asked me if I would mind bringing his brother and a few others to Kabul at the same time. There was, of course, a conference. So, I found myself entrusted with six Afghans and an interpreter. We had an arrangement to fly from the nearby American airfield to Kabul International Airport, where we would drop off all of the government men as well as Meenaka. My interpreter and I would continue to Bagram, where he would help me with the Afghan doctors before signing out on vacation himself.
The next day we were standing on the gravel expanse of the airfield waiting for the Chinooks to pick us up. We were buzzed by Mi-17’s, the Russian-piloted “jingle birds” that would transport supplies to places American pilots would not. The Russian aviators were famous for landing, throwing out camp chairs and passing around a bottle of vodka. Amid the blazing heat of the shadeless landing zone, the expected arrival time passed, and finally, thirty minutes later, two CH-47’s appeared. I ran up to talk to the crew chief.
It turned out that our battalion’s infamous air coordinator had failed us again. Not only had he not confirmed our seats (meaning there was no room), he had cited the wrong day’s schedule: the ring flight that would supposedly take us to Kabul and Bagram was full of pallets and was heading to Zerok, a hellish mountain outpost on the border with Pakistan. We had no business there. So, instead of dropping them off, we had only one choice: arrange for seats on a C-130 to Bagram and let them walk out the gate. A taxi from Bagram to Kabul was only $45 and was little to no threat whatsoever. We just had to wait seven more hours for the plane with open seats to arrive.
Secretly, I dreaded this option. While I was an officer, I was only a first lieutenant, and going through Fortress Bagram meant that I was going to have to be on high alert at all times. All of my Afghans worked for the government—corrupt or not, their lives were at risk at any given moment of the day, and insurgent checkpoints were specifically established to capture and dispatch men like them. However, on Bagram, the fact that they didn’t have ID cards or KBR escorts, the fact that they carried cell phones, the fact that they had digital cameras, these were all huge risks. If I didn’t keep my eyes on them for the entire time we were there, they could run the risk of being detained. It could probably be resolved, but on a base like Bagram, a massive, sprawling complex where a solid 95 percent of the residents will never leave the secure areas of the war, the fear and contempt of the Afghans ran high. If someone outranking me decided that these men had to be detained, what was I going to do? Phone home? I would have to walk with them all the way outside the final checkpoint. They would be searched at four different gates, and a problem at any one of them could spell crisis.
The C-130 crew was from the Alaska Air National Guard. The mustached crew chief was clearly uncomfortable with having Afghans on the plane. As they filed in, he walked through the center aisle of the cargo hold and cried, “Alright! Everybody sit the fuck down! Do not move!” He noticed that they had cell phones. He told me that, in no uncertain terms (while never failing to say “sir”), if any of these guys turned on their cell phones in flight, they would all be thrown out off the plane. I told my interpreter to make them all turn their phones off. I wasn’t really in a position to argue, and it was a tense 45 minutes.
We landed at Bagram at dusk and taxied to the same terminal where I had entered the country seven months before. I had to give up my ID card to get scanned, and I explained to the sergeants at the desk why I had six Afghan passengers. There was palpable tension among the Americans in the waiting room. I ferried them all outside and told my interpreter that they needed to stay put.
I stashed my armor and helmet with the liaison office for the National Guard unit adjacent to me at my base. They were friendly enough to offer to call a bus for us. The Afghans all had suitcases, so we were able to arrange for a KBR bus to pick all of us up and take us to the main gate at the far end of Disney Drive. On the ride over, I was stunned at how gigantic Bagram seemed. We lived in a frontier desert, a place that my soldiers used to call “Biblical times with cell phones.” The massive concrete structures loomed. It was bigger, and more built-up than I remembered.
I collected up all of the Afghans’ phones and cameras so that they wouldn’t get confiscated. At the first gate checkpoint, I found that I wasn’t even allowed to approach the gate without armor and a helmet. Thankfully, there was an airman or soldier at every post that I could explain the situation to, and a female airman lent me her helmet and vest. They were hilariously undersized on me—I am about six-feet tall and was about 180 pounds at the time, whereas she was about five-foot-five. I had to leave the chinstrap unbuckled. I can only imagine how ridiculous I must have looked. One of the soldiers asked me where I was stationed. “Paktika,” I told him. “Where the fuck is that, sir?” he replied. I might as well have said Mordor.
Pedestrians had to walk through a narrow channel formed by chain-link fences and Hesco bastions, the ubiquitous cloth-and-wire baskets filled with earth. The channels were separated—once heading into the base, you couldn’t turn around except at the checkpoint gates. At each gate, an Afghan guard searched the suitcases and bags. It took us fifteen minutes for each. Very few people were leaving at that time of night, but the night shift workers were flooding in from the other direction. From time to time one of the government men would say something to me in Pashto, and I would reply, which invariably caused giggles among the workers entering the base. At each gate was a tower made from welded shipping containers, and in each tower was a machine gun trained on the walkway. Some of the soldiers were listless; some were attentive; some were smoking cigarettes under greenish fluorescent lights in their guard sheds as the radio played Top-40 songs on American Forces Network. It was another night on Bagram.
We finally made it to the exit. The men all thanked me and said goodbye, some of them hugging me. I gave them back their phones, and I asked what looked like an Afghan guard if this was the end of the gate. I spoke Pashto, and he replied in English that yes, it was, and that US personnel weren’t allowed to be this far out of the perimeter. It was literally ten feet from the gate. In the streets of Bagram City I could see streetlights in the city blocks and flashing neon signs in the restaurants and hotels. The streets were paved; it looked centuries ahead of the wasteland where we worked. Cars blew by in the distance. It looked fascinating. But it was only a glimpse; like they said—it was too dangerous to stay out there.