In the summer of 2004, the U.S. Department of State (DoS) sent American police officers into Afghanistan as advisors to the Ministry of Interior. Several were plucked from the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and sent to Kabul. Others were picked by the contractor selected by DoS for the assignment. All ended up in Kabul and from there some went to various locales within the country to mentor police leadership, places like Mazari Sharif and Kandahar.
I was on a Harley-Davidson somewhere between Rochester, MN, and Sioux Falls, SD, when I got the phone call in July2004. I had spent 18 months in Kosovo and left in December 2003 to take up residence in Rome, Italy, where I lived for six months. My residency in the Eternal City had nothing to do with work; I went because I could. Of all the cities I had visited in Europe during my time in the Balkans, Rome was the place that grabbed my heart. It was enchanting, a combination of history, culture, the Italian people, and the food and wine.
I lived in an apartment that was a five minute walk from St. Peter's Basilica. I walked everywhere, then bought a bicycle and rode it over the cobblestone streets when I didn't feel like going on foot. When I wasn't exploring Rome I was on a train for destinations such as Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, seeing the sights and visiting every museum I could. There was the January wedding for an Italian policeman I worked with in Kosovo, who got hitched in a centuries-old church in a mountain village a couple of hours north of Rome where his parents lived (Paolo had grown up in Rome). His father gave each of us that attended bottles of red and white wine taken from the grapes in his personal vineyard.
Italy was a fantastic adventure and I wanted to stay, but legally I was restricted to six months without a visa, so back to the states I went. I was home a month before flying to Chicago and buying my HD, and was riding it back to New Mexico along the scenic route when the recruiter called about Afghanistan. Sure, I said without hesitation, I'm in. I was just shy of my 49th birthday.
I went to Virginia in September for a ten day orientation. There were three of us selected to deploy to Afghanistan, and over 100 American police officers in the class for Iraq. They were headed to Baghdad as police trainers. Some of our training classes were mutual, but most were exclusive and with different instructors. One class was taught by a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne named Dr. Marvin Weinbaum. He was a country expert on Afghanistan and spent an afternoon with us providing information on Afghan history, culture, and politics. He was a wealth of information. He'd been involved in Afghanistan since the 1960's. One story he told us reflected how liberal the government of Afghanistan had once been under the Shah. Women wore Western clothing, attended college, owned businesses, and were also on the national police force as traffic officers. They wore miniskirts and high heels as they stood on the concrete pedestals in the roundabouts and directed traffic!
Another instructor we had was a Marine Corps major who identified himself only as Major Tom (I know, sounds like a David Bowie song). Physically, he was a small, wiry man but hard as a rock and seriously tough. "This class is called defensive tactics, but I'm not here to teach you how to fight or take people into custody. I'm going to show you how to fuck somebody up so you can get away." He told us he had been a personal friend of Johnny Mike Spann, the former USMC officer turned CIA operative who was the first casualty in Afghanistan. He said he did not want what happened to his friend to happen to any of us. Major Tom had us for two long days of physical punishment that left us with aches and bruises. He also imparted on us a wealth of knowledge regarding physical confrontation.
The flight over was long, Dulles to Paris on a USA airline, then on to Baku on Azerbaijan Air where our passports were seized and not returned until minutes before our flight departed for Dubai. I wondered if Azerbaijan intelligence really thought we were intel agents from the USA, or if it was just standard post-Soviet harassment measures. Azerbaijan Air was comical, by the way. Several men ignored the requests of flight attendants to please sit down for takeoff as they stood in the aisle smoking cigarettes while chatting with friends. After we were airborne I lowered the tray on the seat back in front of me and it fell to the floor. The person in front of me reclined his seat and it ended up in my lap. I went to the lavatory and the commode and sink were comparable to a roadside gas station whose attendants had not cleaned it in thirty years and probably wouldn't for another thirty. We finally got to Dubai, had our bags seized by customs agents who X-ray everything going OUT of the airport, and were questioned as to why we had certain equipment like expandable police batons and handcuffs. I handed the customs official the letter from DoS written in Arabic that requested we be given free passage. After it made its way to various customs officials up the chain of command we were allowed to go. I presented the same letter the following day when we flew out.
The hotel we were put in was plush. I showered and by then it was evening and I went downstairs to meet my colleagues in the bar. I was the first one there. I was single in those days and as I walked in I thought, wow, must be my lucky night. There were several tables with good looking women sitting at them, and more women at the bar. Some were Asian, others European. I ordered a beer while waiting on my friends and as I took my first sip it dawned on me. All the women were hookers.
Dubai to Kabul is a little under three hours. Flying over the Afghanistan capitol one can see a city wedged into a valley between the majestic Hindu Kush mountains. Kabul itself is unremarkable, just a sprawling town with various shades of brown. We were picked up at the airport by members of the American contingent in a single SUV. The SUV was a Chevy Suburban. As I would come to find out, most of our vehicles were either Chevy Suburbans or Ford Explorers, soft skin (not armored). Nothing says, "I'm American, please kill me," like driving around in a foreign country in an American vehicle.
We turned off the paved road leaving the airport on to a wide dirt roadway under construction. It was apparent that the road was intended to be a major boulevard. As we drove in one of the guys that had picked us up pointed out flags, some black and others white, being flown from homes and businesses. "The black flags means that they are Taliban supporters." Something about that statement didn't seem right. Kabul was under government control. Wouldn't it be just a bit foolhardy for a Taliban supporter to show their colors like that? (That statement turned out to be misinformation. During my time there I asked one of our interpreters about the black and white pennants. Were they Taliban supporters, I asked? He laughed. "No, sir, those colors indicate tribal and religious affiliation. If they were Taliban, the government would arrest them").
Know before you go. More on Afghanistan in the next blog.