Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dushanbe-Tashkent Oct 22-23

The president of Tajikistan had us over to lunch today, which is the first time we've been fed (officially) since the King of Bahrain earlier this year.

After the hectic pace of the past few days, today was a bit better. Clinton's official program didn't start until 10:00 a.m., which at least offered the potential of decent night's sleep. Last night was quiet, and I ordered chicken shashlik from room service -- one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, perhaps just because it was different from the plane food, which has featured turkey at EVERY MEAL this week. We've had turkey sandwiches, turkey chili, turkey lasagna, turkey has been weird and, as the week wore on, sort of disgusting. But last night's shashlik was incredible...a hunk of perfectly "wood cooked" chicken, a fantastic salad of tomatos and onions, and that was it. Couldn't have asked for better.

Back to today's schedule: Clinton went to the Ismaili Center, which is one of the organizations funded by the Aga Khan, to hold another one of her "town hall" meetings with local students, activists, NGO workers etc. These are always pretty impressive, mostly because the people asking the questions seem so sophisticated and their questions (usually in very good English, no matter where we go) so earnest. She talked a lot about human rights -- not a strong suit for either the Uzbek or Tajik governments -- and about allowing religious freedom, which both places are trying to suppress because they fear the growth of Islamic militancy. It was a pretty standard Clinton performance, but you can tell she believes what she is saying so it is effective.

We then got back in the vans and drove back through Dushanbe to the "Presidential Dacha" where she was to meet the president, one of a group of authoritarian leaders that has persisted in this corner of the former Soviet Union. I liked the look of Dushanbe in the is small, grey, and has a lot of Soviet era architecture. But there are snow capped mountains in the distance and the boulevards are wide.

The dacha was a bit looked like an 80s modern office building on the outside, complete with mirrored windows. Inside it was all marble and presidential. She met the president, then came out and did a press conference with the foreign minister. His speech really showed you where Tajikistan is politically -- 100 pct apparatchik, stilted, uncomfortable, government-line. By contrast Clinton seemed very human and alive. She delivered the same message about religion and human rights, this time going harder and saying that regional efforts to suppress Islamic worship risked creating the very kind of militants they were out to discourage. The official party then went into lunch with the president, and we were taken to an other part of the dacha where, low and behold, the lunch above awaited. It was pretty good..little roast quail, hunks of mutton and pilaf, and big piles of cucumbers and tomatoes. Nobody was complaining.

We were not able to get Clinton to talk about the "Northern Distribution Network" -- the backdoor route into Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the other countries in the region. It seems pretty clear to me that that is why she is here, cozying up to these autocrats.

We're in for the evening in Tashkent -- she's off meeting President Karimov, the worst of the bunch.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Islamabad, Oct 20-21

This trip feels like it has gone on for a loooong time...and it isn't over yet. Something about the quick pace, multiple stops and lack of sleep all combines to make it feel like a real trek. It has been really interesting but I am tired!

We arrived in Islamabad from Afghanistan last night. Direct to the Embassy, where they put us up in their version of the container-dorm room "hooches". Not bad. We were back in the regular filing center, in the "community center" next to the embassy pool, where the staff had actually provided a refrigerator full of beer (gratis) which seemed above and beyond the call of duty.

And then we waited. And waited. Clinton, the new CIA director Petraeus and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs were all in town (an "interagency" intervention with the Pakistanis) and were all going to a dinner with their Pakistani opposite numbers. We were going to get a read-out of the meeting when it finished..which wasn't until 2 a.m. Not what we were looking for, but I can't imagine what it was like for Clinton and the other officials who actually had to think while they were waiting. We were just waiting. Finally Toria Nuland, the State Dept spokesperson, came out and told us that the meeting lasted four hours -- and absolutely nothing else. We could have gone to bed at 9. But that's the way these things back to the hooches, go to bed, try to sleep..and four hours later it is time to get up.

There's something about the cumulative sleep deprivation that makes it fun, in a gruesome sort of way. You have an excuse to be cranky, to sit there with your eyes closed...and everybody else is doing the same thing. The normal rules don't apply.

Except to Clinton, who has to keep on with her packed schedule of meetings. Woke up, had a bowl of cheerios in the little canteen, and then back in the vans to go to the Foreign Ministry where Clinton had a presser with the new, 34-year old Pakistani foreign minister. Islamabad is still such a weird feels suburban and threatening at the same time. There are checkpoints everywhere. And not many people smile (at least when you are riding in a U.S. embassy van).

The presser was ok..Clinton said her piece about how it is crucial that the Pakistanis go after militants, and the Pakistani said they totally agreed but it will take time to "operationalize" the agreement. Huh? Doesn't sound like the message got thru.

There was other stuff..Clinton holding a "town hall" meeting with various Pakistanis at the Serena Hotel in a ballroom that smelled very strongly of lighter fluid (accelerant? you think of that kind of thing in Pakistan)...another media "round table" with Clinton where she revealed that U.S. had had a preliminary meeting with the Haqqani network militants...back to the embassy, she did the "meet and greet" get the picture. Tired. In fact I forgot to take a picture until the last minute at the embassy, where I took the above pic of a signpost. Shows you how big the place is.

We are now in Tajikistan, home of the tallest flagpole in the world. More tomorrow.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kabul Oct 20

From Muscat we flew three hours to Kabul. The descent was the same as before: the close all the shades on the plane, turn the lights down low and then point the nose sharply down -- a steep, rapid plummet that is supposed to make the plane harder to shoot down. You gotta wonder how much of that is "security theater" and how much is real but they seem to take it seriously, so we all buckled up.

Once we landed they took the press off the back of the plane and loaded us immediately into Chinook helicopters. Clinton and the official team went by motorcade, but they wanted to keep the motorcade as short as possible so we got to go by air. Even tho I can be a nervous flier I like going in helicopters..there's something about the slow progress you make low over a city that is thrilling. This one was especially so as the pilot kept swerving and swooping -- presumably more "defensive flying" to make it difficult to target.

We got to the huge embassy -- its really a massive complex -- and were taken to the press filing center. Its a really weird place. There are a couple of "normal" looking buildings, and a big central hall, but most of the rest of it is in temporary container-type buildings ringed by sandbags. We were billeted in these "hooches" which are pretty basic but have running water and a shower, which is all you need. Lots of warnings about security like the one posted above. To get from one part of the embassy complex to the other you have to walk thru a subterranean tunnel that goes under a street -- it definitely feels like a military installation. We waited interminably for a briefing which finally came about midnight, so I updated the story and went to bed. (NB: I should note that on a lot of these trips much of the heavy lifting is done by the local bureau. I had emailed notes to our Kabul team before I left Muscat and they were able to use those to put together a pretty comprehensive story the minute she landed. I just took that and updated it with new quotes from the briefing).

Got to sleep around 2 a.m. and back up at 7. Heard a weird whirring, humming..was it an alarm? Strange to be in a place where they keep warning out about those things. But it didn't sound like a siren and when I opened the door it was clearly a piece of equipment operating nearby.

Back to the press center (after a breakfast at the canteen) and then Clinton began her series of events: a "round table with civil society activists", followed by a slow trip in an armoured convoy which we joined down to the Presidential palace where she was to meet Karzai and have a news conference. The whole trip couldn't have been more than 1/4 of a mile but they insisted we stay inside the armored vehicles. We got to the palace -- the former king's palace, a great structure of grey stone with huge wooden doors, and then went thru one of the most comprehensive security screenings I've ever endured. Every pocket, every inch of the body...weird but I guess this place is assassination central so they take every precaution.

I would continue but they've just told us we're leaving early for Islamabad and so we have to pack up. Safe to say Clinton had some very harsh words for the Pakistanis in her remarks in Kabul -- much stronger than we had led to believe she would deliver. So the whole next part of the trip seems very tense: I don't think the Pakistanis will appreciate being given an ultimatum about support for militants, but that was certainly her message.

Next stop Islamabad.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Malta-Tripoli-Muscat Oct 17-19

This is just a quick one -- haven't had time to do this since we left Washington, and there's a lot to say but I am just going to get down the main details and try to fill it in later.

We left Washington on Monday morning and flew through the day to land in Malta 10 hours later in the middle of the night their time. We went straight to the hotel and checked in, and I got to bed around 5 a.m. We were back in the press van at 9:00 to follow Clinton to her meeting with the Maltese PM. Malta looked pretty nice outside the window...lots of bays, old buildings, statues..I don't know much about it as a place but they have a crazy hybrid language (apparently one of the most difficult ones in the EU which is a cross between Romance languages and Arabic. Made for some very weird looking signs.

Clinton had a few public words after her meeting with the Maltese, and then we were back off to the airport. This time, instead of her regular plane, we all loaded onto a massive C-17 military transport plane. They are impressive pieces of equipment, but without any of the ususal frills. In the big empty interior they had bolted a "pod" of four business class seats for Clinton and her top advisors. Unfortunately these looked directly at two porta-potties, which were the plane's only facilities. Behind them was another bolted pod of about 20 regular plane seats, which the other officials sat in. The press and various other hangers on all sat along the sides. The plane only has a couple of small windows, so you feel like you are in a rocket as you take off...its ascent is very steep, but then it levels out and it feels absolutely rock solid.

The flight from Malta to Tripoli is only about 45 minutes, so shortly afterwards we were on the ground. The Diplomatic Security guys were all pretty nervous and as soon as we got out in was obvious why -- the airport is under the control of one of the various militias and they all were waiting outside, with guns and big smiles on their faces.

For the wire reporters it was hectic because we all had satphones and were trying to call in first word of Clinton's visit, which had been kept officially secret until her arrival. The service was patchy, the lines wouldn't go through..but eventually they did (although I fear mine was the last call to make it in so my story was probably last on the wire). We were taken to the interim offices of the interim gov't...a former Islamic center.. and Clinton had her meetings with the new leadership. Then she did a press conference and hit the themes that were repeated all day: congratulations for Libya, but also urging them to make good on their promises to open up the political sphere and to get the militias under control. I think she was also hoping to do some expectation management: its not all going to get better right away. Disillusionment could become a big problem.

From the gov't offices we went to Tripoli University, where Clinton had one of her "town hall" meetings with students. The students themselves were very impressive: all speaking good English (they must have been screened for English skills) and questions about women's rights, freedom of expression, preventing dictatorship, and how to integrate Libya in the broader international community. There were also a few wild card questions ("I am a dental student and I am interested in U.S. dentistry") and Clinton seemed tired -- she coughed her way all through the speech. The university looked fairly grim but it was festooned with pro-revolution graffiti and caricatures of Gaddafi being stamped by a boot etc.

After the university she went to a big Tripoli hospital where she visited some soldiers wounded in the fighting. She came to Libya with promises of more U.S. help for treating the "war wounded" and she met with one guy who had his legs shot off in the battle for Bani Walid. We weren't allowed in the hospital (except for a photographer).

Then it was off to the temporary U.S. embassy, now located in the former U.S. ambassador's residence because the main building had been trashed by Gaddafi's forces. She did her usual "meet and greet" speech but also gave special notice to the Libyan staff, who had stayed on through some pretty dire political pressure and kept things safe. Amazing what people will do.

Then..the drive back to the airport. Halfway there we passed from the zone of one militia to the zone of another, and the cars/trucks accompanying us all changed..jeeps packed with young guys carrying guys and wearing an assortment of fatigues, cheering and laughing and hanging out of their car windows, weaving back and forth in and out of the convoy. It was wild...and they went with us right out to the plane. There Clinton, always a good sport, posed with some of them, doing the "V" for victory sign. They all shouted "Allah Akbar" as she climbed back on the plane to leave.

Then back to Malta, plane change, six hours to Oman, where we arrived at 5 a.m. An hour to the hotel, and sleep -- for about five hours. Late lunch, back on the plane and now we are in Kabul.

I'll try to update/expand this later but wanted to get it down now while it is still fresh. Below is a shot of a mosque in Muscat that we passed on the way to the airport.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Santo Domingo Oct 5

This is not the ambassador's house -- it's the Dominican Foreign Ministry, which used to be the residence of infamous dictator Trujillo. Its got a crazy, Miami-vibe...lime green hallways, lots of deco chandeliers, and inner courtyards all done up in sun-blazing yellow.

We are only here for a couple of hours. Clinton is attending yet another "Pathway to Prosperity" event, trying to push for greater U.S. engagement with Latin America while urging countries to open up opportunity to more of their people.

The event itself, I'm sad to say, is pretty news free -- she comes, meets a lot of people, they talk about prosperity, and then she leaves. But it is part of the "showing up" ethos of Clinton's vision for her office. She often says the most important thing she can do is show up, to show people that the United States takes them seriously. It can be pretty exhausting but I guess the hope is that she can personally win back some of the goodwill that the U.S. may have lost (or be losing) through its other actions.

Anyway we flew down from DC this morning, arriving at around 2. From there straight to the Foreign Ministry, where the Pathways event was held. After a couple of hours, we relocated to the U.S. ambassador's house where she met embassy staff and then held a press conference (weirdly, in a very dark room..I doubt the TV cameras were able to get much). She gave us some good quotes on the Russia/China veto of the Syrian resolution at the United Nations and about the UNESCO decision to vote on Palestinian we had two solid stories. We're writing those up now and then -- while she has dinner with the foreign minister -- we go back to the airport to wait for her. I'm hoping that there's a beer hall there..its hot and sticky here, and my suit feels unpleasantly like snakeskin.