The flight into Kabul can be stunning. The trip out of the airport once you land can be frightening.

The flight into Kabul from Dubai was one of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen. Above the Pakistan border in Helmand Province we flew over a Martian landscape with huge veins of mountains stretching for miles. It was desolate, forbidding and foreboding, even from the air, with small, walled, compounds in small villages near river bends with roads that seemed to go a few kilometers to nowhere.

The airport in Kabul was surprisingly pleasant … at first. There was no sense that this was a war zone. A diplomat and his wife were met by a Korean contingent of the United Nations and drove off. Afghans seem to like bureaucracy, and I had to fill out a foreigner form with my picture on it, stepping over Afghan travelers with huge loads of what looked like blankets. Everything is done by paperwork,
We stepped outside the airport to relative quiet: a police check point to our right; a barbed wire compound of some sort in front of us. Not so bad, it seemed at first. It was mostly contractors on the flight and they quickly met their representatives and fled, leaving us there, alone almost immediately. Our plan was to go to the badging area of the military side of the airport and try and convince the Army to let us stay somewhere, anywhere, over night. I had contacts from the states and was confident things would work out. They had before for me arriving in Iraq, where a private security firm on retainer from McClatchy Newspapers met me; in Bosnia, where the Minnesota National Guard was waiting, and in Kosovo, where a former Hennepin County prosecutor I knew picked me up. We were going to get a taxi, but none were in sight. As a backup, I had booked a room at a downtown hotel for the night. Calling on the cell, I was told flatly that the Army does NOT pick up reporters at the airport and I needed to find my own way. Maybe the U.S. military had better things to do in Afghanistan than provide taxi service to the likes of me but the problem was we were told in the states we would be picked up. I had not made alternate arrangements.
An Afghan national working for the State Department who saw us looking perplexed asked us what our plans were. He shook his head when we told him how quickly our plans had evaporated
“You are in danger the minute you’ve stepped outside the wire here,” he warned.
“When are we outside the wire?” I asked.
“You’re out of it now,” he said.
A British security guard told us the Brits had forbidden their people to travel the road where we were told to take a taxi. A group of Italians had died in an explosion there a few days earlier.
We were attracting a crowd, and not the right kind. A private contractor in charge of airport security took up our case, calling the military, but to no avail. He agreed to take us to the hotel, warning us that making our way to where cabs were waiting would have been dangerous and dismissing the U.S. military for its irresponsibility in allowing rubes like us to wonder around.
The drive in was one of those remarkable moments. The street was lined with activity: a man selling tree stumps; kiosks of sunglasses; women and children walking casually in front of cars. The airport road was being repaired one side and we drove past the site where the Italians had been killed. Already the blast zone had been filled in and the building that took the blow had been painted with a fresh coat of paint. Amid the chaos and dirt, ornate flags were flying on poles, standing ready for Hamid Karzai's inauguration scheduled for that Thursday. The city would be in lock down for much of the time in the coming days.
Not a good start.
The Heetal Plaza Hotel looked charming in its website, with gardens and a stately view of Kabul from its hillside location. It was none of that. Instead it seemed to be a heavily fortified staging ground for British operations. What can you say about a hotel that promotes a “bunker with water & food items” in its promotional brochure? At the Wazirs Restaurant, a British commander had a lunch time meeting with a group of Afghans in suits, admonishing them for failing to adopt stronger leadership skills. There was mention of Bosnia-Herzegovina and how corrupt politicians were held accountable. The Afghans made some arguments, translated to the commander, but mostly they seemed interesting in the buffet that had been set up nearby. Like something out of a Graham Greene novel, a guy in a white shirt and tie walked around greeting people with a career diplomat charm that seemed out of place in the surroundings.