Tue, 05 May 2009 21:15:21 +0000 – By Kathleen Troia "K.T. " McFarlandNational Security Expert/Former Pentagon Official
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz
The first thing that strikes you getting off the plane in Kabul, Afghanistan is how DIFFERENT this place is. Not just different in that it's poor -- I've seen plenty of poor places - in the Caribbean, in Asia, in Latin America. But different in the sense one gets of entering a wholly different culture, with REALLY different rules.
Once we got through emigration to the airport reception area, we were met by a private security services driver we had hired to drive us to Bagram Airbase, an hour and a half drive from Kabul. It was a ten-minute walk through the open air parking lot, which held few cars but dozens of idle mostly bearded young men -- all of whom started at us intently, without saying a word and distinctly unfriendly. There were probably two hundred people in that parking lot and I was the only one without a Y chromosome. Had I not been accompanied by a 6'2" highly decorated former Marine, who looked like a NY Giants linebacker, I would be been really spooked.
Once in the car, my colleague pulled his knife out of his backpack, "just in case" and we took off at a breakneck speed with a driver who spoke no English, to a place somewhere in the desert. We sped past rows of open shacks selling carcasses of meat, spotty brown bananas, and plastic sandals guarded by guys with turbans and beards and rifles balanced on their knees.
Suddenly the driver veered to avoid a small, light-blue bundle of rags in the middle of the busiest intersection in town. we looked closer and realized it was actually a small women, kneeling underneath a full body, head-to-toe burka, with a gauze grill where the opening for the eyes, nose and mouth should have been. When I looked at our driver with horror, he just shrugged. I later found out she was most likely a beggar, who would either be tossed a few coins or be run over -- and no one seemed to care much either way.
After an hour's drive through the most desolate, deserted, semi-arid dessert, whizzing past mud walls, occasional open shacks, and even more occasional groves of grape vines, we pulled up behind a row of trucks waiting at the barbed wire entrance to Bagram Airbase.
It was like that moment with Dorothy, Toto, Scarecrow, the Tin Ma and the Cowardly Lion arrived at the gates of Oz, and the movie goes from black and white to color.