Stoic, perhaps borderline grim, a stream of men began to pass, all bedecked in traditional afghan garb. Every other pair of sandaled feet carried an interwoven edifice of honor and age in a manner unique to Afghan men who have lived through war with two global superpowers and every other tribe to boot. A palmed Nokia or two betrayed the procession which otherwise seemed so clearly to belong to a place outside of time. For them I imagined a background of wide deserts, mountain horizons and drab street scenes. My own imaginings aside, I knew the place they came from to be all that and so much more, more garbage, more mud, more poverty, all that might fill a nation torn apart by war and peopled by a population of which few will ever join the men passing now. My own gaze was joined by that of another hundred Afghans all intently waiting to fill in the seats just vacated by the men in front of us. Oblivious to the contrast carried with them, the newcomers dispersed like liquid into the glossy bustle of Dubai International Airport’s Terminal One with its McDonalds, Sushi bars, Irish Pub and all. The digital Arabic letters above the departure gate flashed into english, "KANDAHAR - KABUL” as if were normal for a commercial flight to stop at two locations on one ticket.
Joining the Afghans returning home were packages with an inordinate amount of plastic wrap to keep them secure, packed duty free bags larger than any reasonable carry on, then myself and a handful of other westerners bound for business across the Persian Gulf and in Afghanland. All shared a glance and a nod as seats were taken and overhead bins stuffed. For my part, I took pride in looking somewhat ambiguous, no labels, no bright colors, nothing that suggests I’m anything other than a traveler. If anyone asks, I’m merely a writer hoping to tell a story or two in this part of the world. My peers with decidedly lighter colored skin seem less inclined to abstruseness. Camouflage backpacks and ball caps which should have elicited a cringe in Dubai seemed staggeringly absurd aboard a plane to Kabul. One yokel chose to wear an “ISAF - OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM” t-shirt to go along with his “INFIDEL” patched multi-cam ball cap perched above his stupid, pink, goateed face. As if we weren’t traveling through a part of the world where you might not want to advertise yourself as part of an ongoing conflict. I nodded to him just the same, saving my frustration for the breaths to follow.
With only one in three seats filled, we left the modern world and all it’s refined ease behind. Sleep came quick without any in flight entertainment to distract. I awoke to see nothing but brown below, but brown in a million separate hues each vying for their own primacy on the mountains below. We arrived in Kabul at night, a cool and dusty haze weighted over the city. Passport control could be a pain; my bags might be scrutinized especially heavy by the border guards who no doubt have a unique opportunity with me to confiscate something valuable or elicit a little bit of baksheesh money. Somehow I breeze through, past my western counterparts and most of the Afghans ahead. I’m not even sure if I’ve done all I’m supposed to do but I’ve got my bags and the exit is ahead anyway. I leave the sagging ceilings and shouting guards behind to step out into the night’s chill. As I pace towards the exit I ponder the death of three American contractors here a month prior. Employed by Olive Group as Private Security, these men had left the same terminal I was now exiting into the same night air awaiting me only to be gunned down in the open. I had no weapon, no radio or contact with a nearby base, embassy or anyone else with the means to ensure my safety. To make matters worse, upon looking out a the ground ahead, I noticed no cover, no concealment from the exit to the single gated entry 200 meters ahead through the dark.
No one else from the plane had joined me, surely there were taxis outside though all I could see was the white beard of a single guard, pale blue uniform and worn AK-47 lending a man long past his prime with the role of someone who might provide security to the site. He seemed disinterested in me, in the ground ahead of him, in everything really. I paced the empty pavement ahead in a manner I imagined wouldn’t appear rushed or particularly slow. My contact was supposed to have a sign for me in his window. He didn’t. It was only when I approached a group of waiting vehicles, any one of which might contain a driver intrepid enough to snatch an unarmed westerner for the prospect of a hefty ransom payment. Hell, maybe one of these men lost someone to a Russian thirty years ago, or one of my own fellows in the decade of conflict that preceded this particular arrival. The imagination doesn’t have to look far to find reasons why I might be wanted for the sins of empires present and past.
The snub nose of a short barreled AK-47 glints in the amber light and an Afghan in his middle 50’s gestures me towards his truck. He knows my name, he carries a company ID and tag in the dash of the vehicle. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never seen him before and no one has told me what to expect other than “a company vehicle will be waiting for you.” My relaxed approach masks anything but, for everything is measured, and for all the uncertainty of it, this fellow is likely who I am supposed to ride with. There is no alternative anyhow. I settle into the backseat among what passed for small talk in broken English. A phone is passed to me, I confirm my own identity and set off towards a safe house for the night. As the streetlights alternate the interior between darkness and dull light, I notice a blood lined ring in the back of the plate carrier worn by the armed Afghan in front of me. Behind the hole sits an unmarked plate of armor, the blood a grim reminder of its predecessors efficacy. A dark stain remained where blood had pooled beneath the plate and under the lower back of the carrier. Whomever wore the vest before this guy had a bad day if not his last day, but it’s all small talk and smiles as we navigate the city. I noted the lack of armor, comms, weapons and backup as we drove through the night. I thought again about the three Americans shot dead outside of the airport. Did it happen on the steps of the exit, by the old guards gate or maybe among the bunch of vehicles gathered to pick up arrivals? If anyone had asked that question it hadn’t been reported anywhere. Only uniformed deaths are talked about at this point anyhow, never-mind that over half of the personnel making up the ISAF effort in Afghanistan now are private contractors; most of us prior service. Regardless of what uniform they once wore, the three dead outside of Kabul International Airport were forgotten by all but their family and those of us following in their literal footsteps.
I did enter to win a Mclaren in the Dubai airport though. Wonder who got that thing in the end.