The city had been brutalized by the fighting that took place between warring factions during the various battles and sieges of Kabul in the 1990's and into the early 21st century (the ten year war with the USSR from 1979-89 left the capital relatively unscathed). The destruction of the buildings reminded me of photographs of European cities following battles and bombings during World War Two.
Kabul had seen its fair share of sieges over the centuries, the first recorded in the year 709. Afghanistan is a mineral-rich country with a geographic strategic value (it was the crossroads for east-west and north-south trade routes) and had been fought over for centuries. While this article is not intended to be a history lesson, it is my opinion that recent events (the past forty years) are merely a reflection of what has occurred there for well over a millennia. The only change of significance is the sophistication of the weaponry.
Besides the obvious structural damage to edifices in the city, some of which were quite beautiful, the infrastructure of the city had been badly damaged. There was no electricity or sewer system, although the roads in the city were in reasonably good condition, all things considered.
It was said that approximately seventy percent of the air we breathed contained fecal matter. I remember seeing people defecating in open lots because there was nowhere else to go (this was a common sight in later deployments in east and west Africa). Everything ran on generators, as is typical in third-world countries. When it rained there was mud everywhere; when it was dry, which was most of the year, the dust was ubiquitous.
Kabul sits at 5,876 feet above sea level. The city is surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains, which are stunning. It was around ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived in September 2004, but temperatures would drop off soon enough and the weather would turn cold, as one would expect at that altitude.
We were on a compound off of a major thoroughfare called Bagh-e Bala Road, ten to fifteen minutes driving time from the old Inter Continental Hotel (not related to the Intercontinental Hotels Group chain). The compound was reportedly owned by a friendly warlord, who rented it out for tens of thousands per month. Buildings had been converted with sheets of plywood to form separate rooms for each of us, about 6' x 10', just large enough for a metal bunk with mattress, armoire, desk, and television with DVD player.
A little more than three weeks prior to our arrival, the staff had been put up in a house in a nicer neighborhood that reportedly had been one of the hideouts of Osama bin-Laden. It was targeted by a car bomb on August 30, 2004, with several employees and neighborhood children killed. There was Nepalese security at either end of the street, but no barricades to prevent vehicles from entering. At least two American cops died in that blast, and our DPM (retired brigadier general) was wounded. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/30/world/the-reach-of-war-afghanistan-7-killed-in-kabul-as-bombing-rips-a-us-contractor.html
Our security on the new compound was provided by a platoon of Nepalese police (I would have the privilege of serving with Nepalese cops in various assignments around the world, and they are among the most professional and dedicated I have ever worked with. In 2013, I would serve a ten-day assignment at the police academy outside of Kathmandu for the purpose of evaluating one of their units for deployment to the UN mission in Liberia--I'll write more on that in the future). A team of four Gurkhas guarded our DPM. The Gurkhas are an elite fighting force and second-to-none as soldiers.
Besides the eighteen American police advisors, Gurkhas, and platoon of Nepalese police on the compound, we had Russian fixed-wing aviators, their mechanics, Ukrainian rotary aircraft aviators and their mechanics, two former US Marines who also served as bodyguards to the general, and two former jarheads who did some sort of work relative to communications. In addition to that, we had Indian kitchen staff that cooked pretty good meals, give or take a generous amount of curry on everygoddamnthing (I loved those guys: they were gregarious, good-natured, and down to earth. Their only fault, to the man, was their love of cricket. There was a TV in the small dining hall, and they would watch cricket matches that went on sometimes for three days. And I thought extra innings in American baseball could drag on).
All in all, there were roughly eighty of us on the compound. With that number of personnel in mind, we had six showers (with two usually out of order); two sinks for brushing teeth; and eight toilets, half of which were usually not functioning. I learned quickly that arising at five in the morning was a wise choice. A few of the guys (and the one female on the compound who was a medic) had their own showers in the rooms in which they lived, and I would get one of those accommodations about two months after arriving due to a promotion.
More on the mission in the next post.