With the exception of immigration officers, no one working at Kabul International wears a uniform -- not even a name badge. This makes it hard to know if the person in jeans and a sporty striped shirt demanding information actually needs to know where you work or if he's just shady and wants to know. Likewise, the guys pushing carts and trying to help you with your bags -- they could be freelancers looking to make a couple Afghani, or they could be airport provided, or they could be someone else: unclear. There was a pack of foreigners -- 90 percent of the plane, it seemed -- trying to fill out the supposedly mandatory registration forms. Guys who might've been working (without uniforms in a chaotic environment, it's surprisingly hard to tell who's a worker and who's a hustler) asked where I worked, and when I whispered US Embassy, they waved me forward: no forms required.
My bag, an enormous military duffel that's far too large and will have to be scaled down, miraculously arrived. The guy from USAID's bags arrived as well and I was glad he was there: two Embassy people meant double the chance of a ride actually showing up. We grabbed rickety carts (the right wheel of mine was ellipse shaped and rolled like an egg going end-over-end) and pushed through, and a guy just beyond baggage claim was there holding an American flag sign. It turned out I had nothing to worry about: the Arrivals and Departures Unit at the embassy is massively organized, and unbeknownst to me I was one of something like 8 people arriving on that flight.
They led us to cars, past a large sign reading "NO WEAPONS" with a Kalashnikov with a crossed red circle over it. In the parking lot there were large police cars mounted with huge UN-style antennas that arc from the back the front bumper, where they're tied down when not in use, and the sides of the cars were stenciled in Dari with Poliis dar hidmat-e-mardum, "Police in Service of the People." Our drivers distributed body armor, triple checked that everyone was accounted for, and drove us into the city.
I was expecting Islamabad -- a sort of leafy green sleepiness with groups of men clustered around markets but the streets relatively empty and dotted with the odd donkey cart. Instead, it was Beijing: packed beyond any speaking of it. Cars were everywhere, veering down the wrong side of traffic, honking, pushing forward with little regard for traffic laws. Pedestrians were everywhere, seemingly with no regard for self preservation, leaping into traffic without looking and appearing to throw themselves in front of our cars. (A friend who works in Saudi told me that most Islamic head coverings eliminate peripheral vision for women, and I couldn't help but wonder if they could even see us coming). It was rush hour and the streets were packed with truly massive numbers of people milling around, almost what you'd expect to see outside of a stadium during a major sporting event in the States.
We passed checkpoints manned by guards carrying what appeared to be snub-nosed AK-47s. (The AK has a distinctively curved magazine that's significantly longer than those on the rifles that our guys carry, and that's what I'm going on; despite weapons familiarization, I know almost nothing about guns). It was hot and dusty on packed streets, and in an armored car wearing body armor I felt very conspicuous.
We arrived at the Embassy remarkably quickly and were met on arrival by representatives from Kabul/IPA/FSU -- that is, the bureau of Inter-Provincial Affairs/Field Support Unit. I was taken to my temporary housing (one of three beds in a surprisingly nice building; not the six-beds-in-a-hooch situation I was expecting). I took a deep breath, feeling like I'd made it: I was ok. I brushed my teeth in celebration.
They gave us cell phones ("consider this phone to be part of your uniform; carry it at all times") and had us fill out some paperwork -- standard Embassy forms acknowledging receipt of cell phone, requesting access to the computers, what have you. They gave us a quick tour of the compound, through the Embassy logo store (polos, t-shirts, keychains and other stuff emblazoned with the Embassy logo, as well as, somewhat inexplicably, a selection of locally grown vegetables). We swung through one of two cafeterias, where all food is free for the price of your initials. We passed the pool and volleyball court, and looked through the window at one of three gyms.
The USAID guy peeled off for a welcome dinner with other AID types, and I ate with the guy in charge of my in-processing -- surprisingly tasty chicken teriyaki, steamed vegetables, a pineapple juice box. I swung by the Marine guard to get my Embassy badge (different than a State badge, applicable only to Embassy Kabul) and then walked to the Embassy bar -- the Duck and Cover -- to meet a friend from training for a beer.
The executive summary is that Embassy Kabul looks good to very good. The main chancery is even architecturally sound (I'd include a picture but photography is strictly verboten), which isn't bad given that we're in a war zone. Compound life appeals to me: it's like college, where everyone's around all the time and there's always something going on if you know where you look. Only unlike college, there's a significantly larger amount of danger pay and I don't have to wait tables.
And all of that is good news, because I just accepted a handshake on a second year in Afghanistan, transferring from my post in the field to a position in the Public Affairs section in Kabul. I'm guessing that after a year in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a thousand soldiers and an incredible amount of dust, a swimming pool and a couple hundred like-minded civilians will do me good.