Reporting from Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have just arrived in Kabul. (Traveling with us is Josef Storm, who spent a year in Kabul and has become interested in Cato’s ideas and work.) Since we’re writing about the war and American and NATO involvement, we decided that it was important to visit and learn as much as possible.

The journey in was sobering. On Saturday we flew into Dubai, a relatively liberal Gulf sheikdom. Female visitors had no need to cover their heads; men could wear shorts. Our hotel served alcohol. It didn’t feel much different from home.

Sunday morning we boarded our Kam Air flight (www.flykamair.com). Virtually everyone on the plane was a Westerner. Quite a few were Americans, but I heard a British accent as well as someone speaking German. Although the Afghans are suffering the most from the war, it really isn’t their war in an important sense.

Kabul is in a valley. The surrounding mountains are an impressive reminder of Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain. The culture also is conservative: for this flight I wore long pants. As we landed Malou donned her headscarf. 

The airport sported an abundance of military helicopters and United Nations aircraft. Like in so many poor developing countries, impoverished locals seek out foreign visitors to offer help with luggage and other “assistance.”

The poverty is manifest as one leaves the airport — as well as the concern over security. An armed Humvee sits outside the terminal and another outside the airport road. Road congestion is made worse by the proliferation of checkpoints over the past year.

We’re accompanied by an Afghan driver and armed Maori security expert. We’re staying at a lodge run by a British expatriate. There are no markings on the nondescript garage door, opened only after someone comes out to make sure you’re invited. Inside stands a guard with a Kalashnikov, who watches while the car is checked for explosives.

The impact of the huge expat community is clear. Allied military bases and embassies are many, and look like fortresses, sitting behind tall walls topped with barbed wire. Roads in areas with high concentrations of foreigners have checkpoints.

One billboard advertises a burger joint that serves Mountain Dew. The Lonely Planet guide talks about access to alcohol and prostitutes.

But not all is good in Afghan-allied relations. A NATO military action recently killed the family of a top government official, creating tensions. Only so often can one say, “Oops, we are sorry.”

Moreover, the government has initiated a crackdown on the sale of alcohol even to expatriates — one Afghan official called it a “war on alcohol.” Foreigners have been warned that carrying one bottle might be treated as “smuggling.” In fact, the government has established an alcohol “hotline” and businesses have been warned to beware of vengeful former employees.

Our meetings start later today. We’ll be spending several days in Kabul and then flying on to Herat and Mazar-e Sharif. We’d love to get to the south, but it’s too dangerous, unfortunately.  Nevertheless, we’re expecting to have an informative and interesting trip — an adventure, frankly, for a couple of policy nerds normally stuck behind their desks — and hope to report back periodically.