Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Amazingly Wasted Day

The plan was simple. Go to the airport, catch a ride on a USAID* plane headed to Bamian Province, get to know the New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) there, then find your way back. I've been looking forward to visiting Bamian ever since I've been here.

If Afghanistan ever manages to build a tourist industry, it will be focused in Bamian Province. This is where the world-famous Buddha statues were carved into the cliff faces (the largest known examples of such statues anywhere) used to be before the Taliban decided they were idolatrous and destroyed them in March 2001. This is also where the Band-e Amir lakes, a group of amazingly clear, azure bodies of water, are located. The area is so safe that instead of the armed and armored vehicles that are used in other provinces, it's common for the NZPRT soldiers stationed here to travel by horseback.

In order to minimize our impact on their operations, we decided to keep our footprint as small as possible. This meant that the entire visiting team from the headquarters would be myself and LCDR "Vic" Vale, armed with pistols, rifles, paper, and pens. Since travelling in Afghanistan is a sketchy proposition at best, we were loaded with everything we might need in case our three-day tour turned into a week worth of waiting for flights to get sorted out.

Vic and I met up in the office at, oh, seven hundred or so to grab all of our gear, check email one last time, don our armor and set out. At some classified time in the morning we met up with a British convoy to travel from the headquarters to the USAID terminal at the western end of the Kabul Area International Airport. The Brits were very serious and drove aggressively enough that we got there with plenty of time to spare before the flight to Bamian was supposed to take off.

Once we arrived at the terminal the booking agent, a local Afghan employee, told us that our flight had been cancelled due to the weather. While it was overcast, there were still plenty of aircraft taking off from the airport, so I don't understand why these guys weren't willing to fly. All the same, the agent said he'd put us on the afternoon flight to Mazar-e-Sharif (which I'd like to point out is not Bamian) if we'd be willing to wait around. It was the wrong place, but it was in the right direction, and the agent suggested that we'd have better luck trying to travel from MeS to Bamian.

We dumped our gear in the passenger terminal, a 40-foot shipping container with a broken down heater, a water cooler, and a handful of wicker chairs, and set about waiting. After five hours one of the guys from the flight line came in and was surprised to see us there.

"You guys are still waiting here?"

"Is there somewhere else to wait?"

"Not really," says he, "but all of our flights for today are cancelled, so there's no reason to keep waiting."

He went on to explain that there were no scheduled flights we could use the next day and that all of the flights for the day after were booked solid. With no chance to make any kind of progress toward our destination, there was no sense in staying at the terminal.

This presents a problem. At this point we're sitting in a passenger terminal that nobody from the headquarters compound has any reason to visit. We're not allowed to schedule convoy movements using a telephone in case someone is listening in on our conversation. So there we were on the wrong side of the airport on the wrong side of town with all the crap we could carry on our backs and stranded.

The solution was the ISAF military airfield on the other end of the runway. There was a small chance that we could catch a flight to somewhere in our intended direction, but failing that there's always someone coming and going between the airfield and the headquarters. Since the USAID folks didn't have a driver to spare so we could hitch a ride and Kabul isn't the sort of place you want to go walking around dressed as an American soldier in one-sies and two-sies, the only way to get there was to walk the length of the runway.

When I asked the USAID booking agent if we'd be allowed to walk along the runway, his answer didn't exactly inspire confidence:

"You'll probably be fine."

Nice.

It was a long walk, and about halfway along we strolled past a couple of airliners mated up to the civilian passenger terminal. It's not the sort of view I'm really used to at an airport (normally I'm on the other side of this scene) but otherwise there was nothing remarkable about it. As we ambled by, an Afghan policeman came out of the building on our right and started yelling at us. We managed to ignore him long enough to get past and eventually found our way into the back gate at Camp KAIA, the military airfield.

We arrived at the military passenger terminal and found out there were no flights left for the day that we could use to get where we were headed. We also learned that we arrived just five minutes after the shuttle convoy departed for the headquarters. Since it was clear we weren't going anywhere soon, we ditched our gear, grabbed lunch, and did a little shopping.

As we were walking from the post exchange back toward the passenger terminal, I spotted a US Army major that I'd seen around at the HQ as she was about to climb into her vehicle and bummed a ride. Our little adventure ended early in the afternoon and we'd managed to accomplish little more than pissing off an airport cop, but now at least we're better prepared for our next attempt at the same trip.

Stay tuned and sooner or later I should actually have something interesting to write about. That, and pictures of some big holes where there used to be big buddha statues. In the meantime, we'll consider this attempt a dress rehearsal.

*USAID is the United States Agency for International Development. They have planes. We're allowed to travel in them when they're going our way.

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