The Nato people here are very keen to drum home the message that “Kabul is not surrounded”. Still, if you want to visit the “forward operating base” of the US troops based forty miles south of here, in Logar province, you most definitely do not drive. We took a Blackhawk helicopter out there (as in the movie “Blackhawk Down”). Half-way through the journey, our machine-gunner began to fire bursts of bullets into the deserted-looking mountains below us. It was too noisy to ask him whether he had spotted some “bad guys” as the Americans like to call them. But it later transpired that he was just having a laugh, or rather “testing my weapon” by shooting at barren ground.
General David McKiernan, the head of Nato forces here (or Com-ISAF as I have been taught to call him) stresses that foreign troops do their utmost to respect the local population and to avoid civilian casualties. But they are also doing their utmost to avoid casualties themselves – and the two needs sometimes clash.
You can see the problem in the way that Nato forces drive around Kabul. They are so worried by the threat of suicide attacks or roadside bombs that they travel only in full body-armour and in armoured vehicles. They are also under instructions never to stop, since that makes them vulnerable. As a result, they are the worst road-hogs you have ever seen. Getting a lift back from Kabul airport with the British, our vehicle got held up in traffic. So we simply drove across the central reservation into the opposite lane and straight into the oncoming traffic, scattering vehicles and pedestrians as we went. I told this story to a western civilian, who sighed – “great way to win hearts and minds.” Some diplomats here argue that the military are misapplying “Baghdad rules”, to a situation that is actually less perilous. Still it is not all gloom, doom and fear here in Kabul. You can actually go out to a few local restaurants that are on a security-approved list. When I first heard this phrase, I wondered what it signified. Did it mean that the proprietor had a friendly face?
Not at all. The security-approved Lebanese restaurant I went to, had got its certificate in several ways. First, there is no outward sign that this was a restaurant – just a load of concrete and corrugated iron and a shack-like door. To get in, you have to be inspected by a Kalashnikov-weilding guard and then walk down a narrow, fortified passage. And then, hey presto, it’s a restaurant – and its all the houmos you can eat.
I will be leaving this delightful place soon. And my Tuesday column in the paper will be devoted to a more considered appraisal of the situation in Afghanistan.
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