There are two ways of getting in and out of Afghanistan: the military way and the civilian way. One entails no visas or passport checks, no customs or baksheesh. The other features all of the above, and more. One offers little in the way of entertainment value; the other tests the most tolerant of temperaments. One eliminates all Afghan involvement; the other is wholly Afghan, with a vengeance.
This time, I left the country the Afghan way.
Gandamack Lodge courtesy taxis whisked my little group through the serene and sunny streets of Kabul to the airport without major incident (not counting an emergency stop to accommodate a colleague who had picked up a nasty stomach bug the previous day).
At the gates of the airport, men in uniforms perfunctorily check cars and paperwork. One approaches the first car in our convoy -- my car -- and the driver informs us we need to alight and present ourselves for "checking," pointing to an adjacent building. I deflect the request, saying our NATO minder, sitting in the second car, calls the shots. After a brief delay, we proceed unchecked. It later transpires our minder had greased the wheels with a $20 note.
We arrive at the parking lot where porters with trolleys begin carting our luggage unbidden toward the main terminal. We pass two checkpoints, free of charge, and the porter deposits us at another gate. His place is taken by a slicker-looking man, who retains the trolley. Once inside the building, our new guide points to a window, saying, "$10 airport tax," and returns a minute later with a tax receipt and incorrect change. He then makes the suggestion, "$5, no problem." I resist and continue doing so as the price drops: "$3, no problem," then, "$2, no problem."
Edging ahead toward the next entranceway, I suggest the porter consider the baksheesh received, on account of the missing dollar in the change. The porter protests, but seems unwilling or unable to accompany me past the next checkpoint.
This involves a metal detector, which I pass without further investment. Having regained possession of my bags, I round a corner, coming face to face with a young man in mufti, who in rapid and exemplary American-inflected English rattles off the instruction, "$2 government tax on bags, and tips for the guys, whatever you like." He proceeds to tie two plastic ribbons onto my bag. I pay up, but do not tip.
I am then handed over to a man in blue overalls who asks me, "Window or aisle?" I automatically respond "window," and the man conveys my request to the check-in desk. I pay him $1 and am presented with a boarding pass entitling me to a window seat. This concludes my investment in the proceedings. I later hear that hardier colleagues managed to negotiate their way without paying a dollar, whereas others could be said to have overtipped.
'Looking Is For Free'
This show of enterpreneurial spirit is part of the same continuum displayed in the weekly bazaars in larger ISAF compounds, one of which I had visited that morning. There, dozens of select merchants (selected how I never learned, but there must be thousands of them in Kabul) hawk carpets and other wares and engage older hands in leisurely bouts of haggling. Acceding to the exhortation, "Sir, looking is for free" usually results in significant expenses. The Afghans' commercial adeptness seems more than justified by the sense of complicity inculcated in the customers by the fact that the DVDs, CDs, watches, and sunglasses -- which sell best at these bazaars -- are all counterfeit.
The bazaars are as close as most NATO soldiers and officials get to real Afghan ambience without body armor. ISAF employees braving the streets of Kabul in civilian clothes are few and far between, and Kandahar, for example, is completely out of bounds.
This serves to highlight the chasm that exists between the reality of ordinary Afghans and that of ISAF personnel mandated to assist them in the betterment of their lot. Locals do work in ISAF camps in numbers, but their presence is limited to the absolute minimum. At Kandahar Airfield, I'm was told that not a single local stays overnight in the 10,000-strong camp. The separation between the two worlds extends all the way to separate toilet facilities.
The fact that ISAF and ordinary Afghans live worlds apart has implications going beyond the humdrum. There are people within ISAF who recognize that such a degree of self-insulation against the Afghan reality can only work to the detriment of the Western stabilization effort. There are (muted) calls for a bolder and more open ISAF presence -- for example, in the form of foot patrols in places like Kandahar.
But the bitter truth remains that as things stand, few if any ISAF nations are prepared to take such risks. The mind boggles, but fIve years into ISAF's presence in Afghanistan, a journalist in the company of an experienced local "fixer" is incomparably safer in the streets of downtown Kabul or even Kandahar than the members of an armored military patrol.
One cannot but wonder how much this chasm is going to cost ISAF in the long run.