“From your street, go to XXXXX XXXX. Go straight through the circle and then take the first right onto XXXX Rd. You will pass a large military compound (XXXXXXX) on your right. The next road on the right will be blocked, but then the following road on the right will be open and unnamed. It will have a little water pump at the entrance on the right.
Take the right onto this street and follow it to the end. Once you reach the end, it will split, go to the right. Follow this through the checkpoints (should be 2) straight ahead- You will probably need to do this on foot. Once you pass through the 2nd checkpoint, go to the right and XXXX will be on your left. There will be a gated entrance past a few barriers that you can either knock on the door or just call me and I’ll come grab you.”
It’s Thursday in Kabul, and I am speeding through the dark on my way to the “address” above. Because Friday is Afghanistan’s weekend, Thursdays are the big nights for expat socializing.
Tonight, I am starting my evening with a fellow Tufts alum and his colleagues for dinner; they are DOD contractors with DOD-contractor-security-restrictions. We had planned on meeting at the Serena, one of two luxury hotels in Kabul, but because it is right before Eid, their ops manager denied that “request for movement.”
I am more alert than usual, not because of the supposed dangers of the holiday, but because I am trying to recognize the landmarks that M, the fellow alum, mentioned in his email. The night is dark, streetlights are sporadic, and the taxi is zooming through back roads not in M’s directions.
Suddenly, the driver stops in front of a military compound. “This is it,” he indicates.
“Where’s the circle?” I ask. I feel fairly certain that I could navigate us from there, but we didn’t pass one.
The driver, a twenty-something Kabuli with bright green eyes, is impassive. I’ve driven with him before, and he always enthusiastically teaches me Dari, motivated perhaps by his lackluster English skills limited to the destinations frequented by the city’s expats.
I call M for directions and hand the phone over to the driver.
But I am nervous. We are sitting at the entrance to the military base in an off-white Corolla with the engine still running. There are American soldiers standing guard about 20 feet to our left and, surprisingly, civilian contractors walking towards the gate in front of us. I didn’t know they were even allowed to walk around.
When I was last in Afghanistan at the COIN Academy, military intelligence issued daily BOLO lists of suspicious activity to look out for. (BOLO stands for “Be on the lookout for”.) Men in white corollas always made the list. This was of course problematic and indicative of the vague and often inactionable intelligence the Americans collected, since half the population drove white Corollas, but that’s for another post…
I imagine how we must look to the always skittish soldiers: two Afghans sitting in a car with the engine still running; the driver speaking rapidly in Dari into a cell phone; pointing every few minutes towards the base’s front gates. All of this, of course, at the very scene of a deadly suicide attack about a month ago.
But the soldiers aren’t paying us any attention. One of them is joking with the civilian contractors; another is petting a stray dog. This is the same military that drives around the city dressed in full battle rattle with M4s/M16s in hand, looking paranoid and ridiculous surrounded by the rest of us in our beat-up old cars. I am confounded by their perspectives on security and insecurity.
My driver hangs up and returns my phone. “So you know where we are going?” I ask.
“No problem,” he responds, but “no problem” is the Afghan response to everything. Before I can clarify, we are off, heading in the same direction that we had come.
Five minutes, and numerous sharp turns later, we stop in front of a blocked-off road. To the right is a tiny square out-building. I can just make out half a dozen security guards with AKs crammed inside around a pot of chai and some kebabs.
One climbs over the sandbags that block the entrance, and he and my driver converse in rapid-fire Dari punctuated only by gesturing – at me, at the blocked-off street, at the car.
Finally, I am told that I must go the rest of the way alone. I peer down the road, lit by a single flood-light and surrounded by high walls and concertina wire. This must be the first of the checkpoints that M had mentioned. I don’t like the idea of walking down by myself, but the head security guard promises an escort. Not that that is necessarily any better.
I get out. I am nervous, just as I was earlier in front of the military headquarters, and that sense of unease only increases as we reach the second checkpoint, manned by two bored Afghan National Police that sit up and nudge each other when I approach. One of them looks me up and down; I hate that of all of the cultural nuances, the male once-over of a woman is universal.
I wrap my headscarf tighter around me.
“Card.” The ANP demand. I shake my head; I don’t have the CAC (common access cards) that everyone working with the military has. “Card. “ They insist.
Reluctantly, I pull out my passport and show it to them. They grab it, and I remember what a friend once told me about never physically relinquishing passports to the ANP. We tug at it – they try to take it, I try to hold on while still allowing them to see my photo – but finally, I give in.
After what feels like ten minutes – really it couldn’t have been more than one – they return my passport and wave me through.
Another stretch of carefully watched road and I finally make it to the guardroom at the guesthouse entrance. More security here, of course, and the guard searches my bag. “Gun?” he asks.
I laugh. “What gun?” There is a strange shrillness in my voice. He laughs too, sheepish that he has to ask.
But tonight, I – my anti-NRA liberal self – wish, as I have never before wished, that I am armed.
I am often asked about the security situation, and my security situation, in Kabul. To the outside world, this city and country are a warzone, a perpetual trap of IEDs, suicide bombers, and firefights. And certainly, these things do exist, even in the capital.
On my second week in country, I was in a café when we heard the unmistakable sound of a firefight in our vicinity. For at least half an hour, the shots started and stopped and, most worryingly, seemed to move closer.
I was with two women that had been in Afghanistan for years, and they made light of it (on the surface at least – they also made numerous calls to try and find out more information.) Following their lead, I tried for calm as well. It wasn’t until I stood up from the table that I felt the tension that had settled into all of my limbs and the adrenaline that shook my hands.
But even in that incident, I knew that I was not in direct danger. In fact, I have never felt truly unsafe in Kabul – and the closest to fear was the night before Eid as I was heading to dinner with the contractors. Ironically, I was afraid of the very security systems meant to keep us safe.
Don’t get me wrong. I often feel uncomfortable as a woman alone in the city, sometimes lost, often with my headscarf slipping and a sliver of back or collarbone inappropriately peeking out. But there is an important distinction between insecurity and discomfort.
And so it is that when I am pretending to be Afghan and far away from the security forces – both Afghan and foreign – I feel perfectly safe in Kabul. I have no armored vehicles, no armed guards, and no movement restrictions. Instead, I depend on a network of trusted friends – especially Afghans; staying low-profile; and my own gut feelings.
But when I am confronted with security forces, my sense of security goes out the window. I feel the irrational urge to shout, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” – as if that is any safeguard at all. And if I feel this way, as someone that first came to Afghanistan with the U.S. military, I can only imagine the terror of the real civilians.