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Kabul by Submarine

Jon Else, a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, is a documentary cinematographer and director whose films include Cadillac Desert, Sing Faster, and The Day After Trinity. Else was in Afghanistan working on a new film and wrote this article, which was originally published in TomDispatch.

KABUL, Afghanistan – Flying into Kabul from the north in winter is eerily like flying into Las Vegas – the high desert, rimmed by mountains, is gray and ragged, the far-off city veiled in brown haze. Among journalists and NGOs, the folklore about what to look for on the approach is well known: Descending through 2,000 feet, over the rubble of the western suburbs, you can pick out along the side of the runway the blown up carcasses of airliners. As the plane touches down, it's clear that they are mostly old Soviet Tupolevs – like the one we are sitting in – Ariana Afghan Airlines planes with their wings or tails shot off. Some are rolled belly-up next to burned-out armored personnel carriers and parts of a Soviet fighter jet. This is the bone yard of Afghanistan's recent history.

We are headed for the American Embassy to interview the ambassador for a documentary film about Afghanistan's new constitution. Driving away from the terminal, we pass under an incongruous Russian jet fighter in mint condition, mounted at a 45 degree angle over the broad boulevard as though flash-frozen at the moment of take off, rearing up over the bicycle repair stalls and little open-air butcher shops. The jet, abandoned by the Russians 15 years ago when they airlifted the last of their embassy staff out of this airport, looks like a stuffed and mounted trophy, a feat of aluminum taxidermy.

Kabul today is alive with purpose. Every morning two million Kabulis hop out of bed and hustle off to rebuild their country, to construct some as yet uninvented and unborn new Afghanistan from the ashes of brutal Soviet occupation, civil war, the Taliban's medieval experiment in religious governance, and the American war. With help from NATO, the UN, and the U.S., this war-weary capital is lurching through its heady and dangerous first weeks of becoming an Islamic constitutional democracy, trying to embrace the Prophet Muhammad on one side and Thomas Jefferson on the other.

We wind though the noisy, exuberant city, teeming with guns and bourkas. The infrastructure is still ravaged. There is little reliable electricity, water, sewage disposal, gas, or garbage collection. Kabul feels like a huge, dusty campground version of New Orleans. At night, in the swirl of smoke from a hundred kebab stands and 10,000 little generators, it looks like Blade Runner on happy pills.

Past the rug shops on Chicken Street, and the flower stands on Flower Street, past the FedEx office and the Emergency Hospital for Victims of War, past the spot where the Taliban hung President Najibullah's bludgeoned, bullet-ridden, and castrated body from a traffic control tower in '96, we arrive at the first checkpoint on the way to the American embassy. This unmarked frontier is patrolled by heavily armed Afghan soldiers and police. The sandbagged checkpoint sits behind razor wire and chicanes at the desolate edge of what appears to have once been a good-sized city park, now brown and dusty. Still several hundred yards from the embassy, we are now in the Dead Zone, silent and colorless, negotiating one guard post after another, driving slowly past blast-deflecting gravel piles as we approach. There is no big bronze plaque outside announcing "The Embassy of The United States of America," but in the last 50 yards along the concrete wall leading to the main gate, there are signs in English and Dari every few yards reading "No Stopping / No Parking." Last May in a chaotic five-minute firefight, American soldiers dug in behind this wall shot to death three soldiers of the new Afghan army who had mistakenly stopped their vehicle across the street and stepped out carrying weapons.

Finally, after the friendly and talkative Marines body search us, Rocky the K-9 sniff-searches our van, and another Marine checks the undercarriage for explosives, we surrender our passports to a chipper young corporal from Georgia at the last gate. This portal is, in fact, a bunker: 10,000 pounds of concrete, gravel, and timber from which the soldier peers, flanked above and behind by sandbagged machine-gun emplacements, the final entryway into America's diplomatic compound. A sentry draws back the last accordion tire-spikes, and we enter the grounds, past a roaring 30,000-watt diesel generator which produces the only completely reliable electricity in this neighborhood.

Inside, the Kabul embassy building is unglamorous and cramped like an oversized old concrete submarine. It is high on the State Department's list of dangerous and "most extreme hardship posts." The ambassador and his staff doesn't get out much, and almost never without an armed escort. And who can blame them? Last summer, two Americans from the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan died in a grenade attack during Sunday morning church services just beyond the embassy wall. Americans you meet in Kabul all seem to describe our embassy as some variant of "the saddest place in town." (With their entire city so awash in sadness for so many years, would Afghans give that particular prize to our Embassy?) But the building will have to do until the new Embassy now under construction is finished.

Outside, in front of the forlorn building, on what once was a lawn, are a dozen gleaming-white steel shipping containers. It is in these windowless, 8-foot by 17-foot, shrapnel-proof ConEx boxes lined up in the inner circle of the inner circle of the American diplomatic hamlet, that the embassy staff spend their nights. Here, at the center of an eighth of a mile of concentric fortifications, our American Ambassador sleeps in his own private shipping container.

Ambassador Khalilzad is, as it turns out, very smart and candid, an enthusiastic and inquisitive diplomat apparently eager to engage the world. It seems like madness, his enforced isolation from the streets of Kabul, from those two million equally eager, enthusiastic, and hopeful people who live and work just beyond the outermost checkpoint. But who can blame the Ambassador? Someone lobbed three rockets into Kabul just the night before we met him. Al-Qaeda made mincemeat of our soft embassies in Africa and someone has more than once tried to blow up our Baghdad embassy. If he were living in a welcoming 1960s-style embassy, or in a guest house like the rest of us, he would probably be dead.

President Karzai's central government has only marginal control outside the capital, and a guerrilla war simmers in the south, but Kabul is fairly safe as Afghan cities go. Certainly, it is no Baghdad. But this is still the Baghdad "Green Zone" problem, even if writ small. At least here, the U.S. has linked arms with NATO and the UN, and a Kabul is patrolled by a multinational peacekeeping force rather than an occupying American army. By all accounts many Afghans are happy to have American personnel in their country. But while American journalists, aid workers, contractors, and even a few loony tourists walk the streets in relative safety, the embassy staff can realistically do little but retreat into the fortress, into the big tin can, isolated from the pulse and life of everyday Afghanistan. Security trumps everything. Mao Zedong said his guerrillas should swim "like fish among the population." In some sad and desolate sense, our diplomats in Kabul have been forced by the lingering combined might of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, various Afghan warlords, and persons unknown to move among the population of Afghanistan in a submarine.

© 2004 Jon Else