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.