If you spend 72 hours in a place you’ve never been, talking to people whose language you don’t speak about social, political, and economic complexities you don’t understand, and you come back as the world’s biggest know-it-all, you’re a reporter. Either that or you’re President Obama. I called my wife. She said, no, she certainly is not vacationing at government expense in some jet-set hot spot with scads of her BFFs. Looks like I’m not President Obama. But I am a reporter, fresh from Kabul. What do you want to know about Afghanistan, past, present, or future? Ask me anything.
As all good reporters do, I prepared for my assignment with extensive research. I went to an Afghan restaurant in Prague. Getting a foretaste—as it were—of my subject, I asked the restaurant’s owner (an actual Afghan), “So what’s up with Afghanistan?”
He said, “Americans must understand that Afghanistan is a country of honor. The honor of an Afghan is in his gun, his land, and his women. You take a man’s honor if you take his gun, his land or his women.”
And the same goes for where I live in New Hampshire. I inquired whether exceptions could be made, on the third point of honor, for ex-wives.
“Oh yes,” he said.
Afghanistan—so foreign and yet so familiar and, like home, with such wonderful lamb chops. I asked the restaurateur about other similarities between New Hampshire and Afghanistan. “I don’t know,” he said. “Most of my family lives in L.A.”
In Kabul I was met at the airport by M. Amin Mudaqiq, bureau chief for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghan branch, Radio Azadi. “Our office is just down the main road,” he said, “but since it’s early in the morning we’ll take the back way, because of the Suicides.” That last word, I noticed, was pronounced as a proper noun, the way we would say “Beatles” slightly differently than “beetles.” And, in a sense, suicide bombers do aspire to be the rock stars of the Afghan insurgency (average career span being about the same in both professions).
“The Suicides usually attack early in the morning,” Amin said. “It’s a hot country and the explosive vests are thick and heavy.”
I’d never thought about suicide bombing in terms of comfort. Here’s some guy who’s decided to blow himself gloriously to bits and he’s pounding the pavement all dressed up in the blazing sun, sweat running down his face, thinking, “Gosh this thing itches, I’m pooped, let’s call it off.”
“It’s the same with car bombs,” Amin said. “You don’t want to be driving around the whole day with police everywhere and maybe get a ticket.”
Imagine the indignity of winding up in traffic court instead of the terrorist equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Kabul is a walled city, which sounds romantic except the walls are pre-cast reinforced concrete blast barriers, 10 feet tall and 15 feet long and moved into place with cranes. The walls are topped with sandbags and the sandbags are topped with guard posts from which gun barrels protrude.
Amin pointed out the sights. “There’s U.N. headquarters.” All I could see was blast barriers, sandbags and gun barrels. “There’s the German embassy”—barriers, bags, and barrels. “There’s the embassy of China”—barriers, bags, and barrels. I spotted a rough-hewn stone fort on a hilltop, looking more the way ancient Kabul should look. “Oh, 19th-century British,” Amin said.
Security was all over the place, in various senses of the phrase. I have never seen so many types and kinds of soldiers, policemen, and private security guards or such a welter of uniforms, each in a different pattern of camouflage every one of which stuck out like a toreador’s suit of lights against the white blast walls. Some of this security was on alert, some was asleep, some was spit-and-polish, some had its shoes untied and some, rather unaccountably, was walking around without weapons.
None of the security was American. Americans don’t patrol Kabul. The American military is suffering its usual fate, the same as it does at an Army base in Georgia—shunted off to places the locals don’t care to go.
Afghanistan’s capital is located in a grand hollow, as if someone had closed the Rockies in tight around Denver. On the slopes of Kabul’s mountains there is another cityscape of small stone houses. They could be from the time of the prophet although they all seem to have aluminum window frames. This is where the poor live, with panes of glass to keep out the winter winds but not much else. At night you can see how far the electric wires run uphill—not very far. The water pipes don’t go up at all, and residents—women and children residents I’m sure—must climb from the bottom with their water.