…and we were only, 48 hours from Wardak
Welcome to Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan, just over one hour’s drive from Kabul. 45 minutes on a smooth, paved road North out of Kabul, unfortunately the last two miles is rutted pathway that’s miraculously combines mud and dust in equal measures. It’s a pretty good re-creation of the Somme. There are overturned cargo containers abandoned vehicles and general mayhem on this road. For the non-4x4 bearing community i.e. scumbag journalists and Afghan nationals, it’s a complete pain in the arse. I assume it’s meant as a deterrent for would-be suicide bombers. Last week there was a VBSIED out here, but according to the US Army press office he blew himself about a mile away from the main gate. This is no road to paradise.
Upon entry our briefing is brief. Media-Ops are cool and somewhat laid back. Procedure is light. Two main rules for Media Club - Don’t talk about Bagramano Prison (dubbed the new Guantanamo). Second Rule - don’t photograph Bagramano. We should be so lucky. We don’t even know where they are and this place is immense (check it out on Google Earth.. if you still can)
It’s mid-afternoon and our flight to Wardak (the new front-line for ‘Obama’s Afghan Surge’ and reportedly one of the most dangerous provinces bordering Kabul) is due to leave at 10.00am the following morning. We check into the Hotel California. A small windowless hut assigned for media monkeys - basic but comfortable. Bunk beds & sleeping bags, there is even a small TV. It’s as comfortable as home …well compared to my current Kabul residence, which I lovingly mentioned in a previous despatch. The sign on our door is an American attempt at irony. Not a bad one to be honest, weaving in lyrics from the ‘Hotel California’ song into the Residents Rules. The final line reads, “you can check out any time but you can never leave.” How prophetic those words were to be.
Without wanting to aid the Taliban (lets just say the rocket attacks on the base are not regarded as threatening), the camp is basically one long highway called Disney Drive (unfortunately it’s not a tribute to Walt, it’s named after a soldier who died in a welding incident?). This roman like road is about two miles long with various camps and compounds off either side. There is parallel pavement that is solely for human traffic and it’s a great way to check out the citizens of Bagramistan.
Have no doubt about it; this place is not in Afghanistan. It’s more strip mall in East Bum-Fuck Arizona than Kabul province. It’s also about a mile from our digs to the mess hall but it’s a wonderful day for an afternoon stroll along the promenade. Despite the casual atmosphere everyone is required to carry a weapon at all times. Whether its full battle mode or gym gear/shell suit or ZZ Top lookalikee contactor every other person male or female is carrying an M16 or some thigh borne holster pistol. It seems a little excessive as these assault rifles are carried everywhere. In the canteen, in the supermarket (PX) Burger King, The Green Bean Café (open 24hours) well everywhere bar the gym it seems. So this is what a post-conflict country looks like? Warning to the resurgent Taliban: hold off on storming the airport… just yet.
I know a lot has been written about American bases having their home comforts in war zones but they’re not joking… you can visit the Enduring Faith Church (from Full Gospel to Muslim all types are catered for) or buy a Harley Davidson with military discount, put down a payment on Dodge truck, order a Pizza delivery to your tent and you can pretty much buy anything you want in the PX from a PlayStation to night-vision goggles to a leather holster for your 9mm Beretta. I nearly bought a fishing net that turns into a hammock and a battlefield stretcher! There are gadgets a go-go here and killing time in here can do serious damage to the credit card. Thank fuck the phone lines were down. I had to make do with perusing the magazine shelves. Shooting Times, Combat Handguns, Guns of the Wild West, Personal Defense and Porno-lite, better known as Sports Illustrated-The Swimsuit Edition, was particular well thumbed.
Despite the token Afghan rugs and local ‘gift ’ shop there is nothing here that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mid-West strip mall during hunting season. A huge percentage of the support staff and troops stationed here will never leave this base in six months. Apart from glancing from the plane window on arrival this may be their only view of Afghanistan. For many here the only contact with the nationals will be the sight of a few Pashtun blokes hosing down the toilets or mopping the gymnasium floor.
Distraction can be found in the MWR (don’t know what it stands for but its like an activity centre for grown ups with giant TV screens blaring out Entertainment Tonight or Fox News ad infinitum… What really burned into my retinas was the sight of a two young grunts, machine guns slung across their chests sat on a couch playing ‘Tour of Duty-4’ on the 50” plasma screen whilst an old bearded Afghan kaka swept the floor around them.
Dawn came and, as predicted by my erstwhile colleague, so did the cancellation of our flight out of here. Not a lot you can say really. This is not Centre Parcs. Entertainment is thin on the ground. However on the upside we had spotted a notice board which read, ‘Tonight – The Ambassadors of Hollywood Tour”. Forget Bob Hope, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paris Hilton… Deanna Papas, Tomothu Omundson, Deanna Russo and Esai Morales were in town topping the bill at the Clamshell (a giant basketball pitch come auditorium). I had visions of a ‘Playboy Bunny / Apocalypse Now style photo-op. However you guessed it… gig cancelled. I’m blaming the USAF for the no show. I can’t remember how we filled the void but I am glad I didn’t pick that night to give up smoking, drinking coffee and mocking America.
Day Three came and as instructed we rose at 5am and we’re dropped at the Helicopter departure point for our chopper out of here. Guess what? ‘Delayed for eight hours’. I did ‘terminal illness’ in my first post so I won’t go on, but when the mighty US Air Force come a shoddy second to Ariana AirlinesChinook to get us out to our embed. something’s going wrong. I have been to Wardak twice this year. It’s not the safest road in the world but it’s twenty-five minutes by car. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, their hospitality and courtesy was exemplary, but the American army at obvious vast expense and logistical planning took twenty-five hours by Chinook to get us out to our embed.
Taliban have an expression about the current situation; “you have may have the watch, but we have the time.” Either the clock has stopped or something got lost in translation. I prefer an over-used US military expression, it seems much more pertinent: “Hurry up and wait.”
The Afghan Hound