Impressions of Afghanistan

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—One of the advantages of being an “old hand” in the Middle East or Central Asia is that almost anything one does conjures up memories that make for interesting contrasts. My first visit to Afghanistan back in 1962 began by car, driving up the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. I was accompanying Governor Chester Bowles, then “the President’s Representative for Europe, Asia and Latin America,” that is, the holder of a title but with no real authority. As befit his title, we had an American military airplane but, as governed by the reality of his lack of power, it had broken down. So we drove. I liked that better since I had pored over Kipling as a boy, and the Khyber was, of course, where the wild tribesmen hung out.

They still do. We didn’t then see any of them, but read the signs of the passing of the British and Indian regiments carved into the rocks. It was a wonderful way to reach Kabul. And it was a portent of the future.

In those days, Kabul was a rather sleepy little city of about 50,000, roughly the size of the Fort Worth, Texas, into which I was born. Fort Worth was cleaner but Kabul was far more interesting. And it had the most marvelous rug stores. It was also the jumping off place for my 2,000 mile trip around the country by Jeep, horseback and the occasional plane. I fell in love with Afghanistan from the first. To me it is “the wild East.”

My second visit was a decade later. Kabul had hardly changed but the regime had. Afghanistan was in a sort of golden age of reform. Everyone was full of hope. The markets were full of furs, rugs and the melons Babur Shah thought worth more than all of India, Hippies, then known as “world travelers,” flooded into the country equipped with their parents’ credit cards to the delight of local merchants. But what was really impressive was the university. Filled with earnest young men and bright, alert and daringly dressed young women, it had an air of excitement.

Today’s entry into Kabul is not less exciting but is stunningly different. The “advised” way to go these days is by air from Dubai. The take-off point is Dubai airport which is a huge shopping mall, almost entirely manned by Filipino expatriates, with attached airlines from every part of the world. So large is the terminal that I was taken from the lounge of the feeder airline, Safi, to the gate by one of those little electric carts that are now standard airport transport. Even the speedy cart took a quarter of an hour to make the trip.

Settling back in my seat on the Safi plane, a modern Airbus with pilots of dubious background (one moved over from, as he put, “Libya, you know Qaddafi”) I flipped through the airline magazine. There, instead of the usual ads for perfume and watches, were advertisements for fully armored cars:

You are moving in a dangerous region, you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, within a matter of seconds; your vehicle has become a target. Not a problem if you have to have an armored vehicle from GSG…GSG’s armoring provides you with valuable time, enough for you to grasp the situation, assess the threat and be able to react appropriately. German Support

If this did not make you want to rush to Afghanistan, the airline magazine also provided enticing pictures of shattered buildings.

My reading complete, I was ready for Kabul’s “International Airport.” It was even more spartan than the airport I knew in the 1970s, but this time, as we moved toward the terminal, we paraded past dozens of planes of other airlines. To judge by the tarmac, it was bustling. What was particularly striking was that Kabul is the “hub” of a United Nations virtual airline of helicopters and jets. And, although the Americans run a far larger airport at Bagram, their planes and particularly their jets, overflow into Kabul. Nothing like that was to be seen in my earlier trips.

When we got into the terminal, I found the Afghans to be still the same polite and welcoming people I had known in previous trips. Then signs began to appear of the ugliness of civil war. I would see many such signs in the days ahead, but a hint came in the first minutes. I was met outside the customs by an American embassy expediter. He had been expecting me, he said. We shook hands; then he sat down. Or rather squatted since there were no chairs. Why were we not walking out to the car? I waited for him to speak, but he just motioned me to sit. Slightly annoyed, I asked what we were waiting for. He replied that he had seven other arriving Americans to escort into Kabul. They were just a trickle in the daily flood. Indeed, it appeared that half Kabul was made up of new American arrivals. However, the expediter, seeking to assuage my impatience, rather proudly said that I had been honored with a special car. Then why, I asked, could I not just get in and go. “Ah,” he said, “it is not that easy.” It turned out that not even embassy cars were allowed to within about two hundred yards of the terminal, so everyone had to walk from the exit to the guarded car park. And, naturally, as “nature” is defined these days in Kabul, one could not do that without an escort.

First lesson: nothing in Afghanistan is easy.

Before I got to Kabul, I had received an email from the escort officer assigned to me, saying that since Kabul is a “high danger” area, the embassy wanted me to rent from a private security company known as “Afghan Logistics” an armored Toyota “4 Runner” and hire both an armed security guard and a bullet proof vest at 20,000 Afs (roughly $450) daily. I was to be reassured that the rates included the driver’s salary, fuel and taxes. No bullets were stipulated. I guess they were extra. However, the daily rate was only for 8 hours and overtime was at double rate, Kabul being presumably more dangerous at night. But my embassy escort officer said, these arrangements were both necessary and standard procedure, and with them I would thus be reasonably well protected.

I declined. My doing so was not a sign of bravery but a calculation that such a display would mark me as a worthwhile target.

Flashing through my mind were memories of experiences in other “high danger” areas. I had arrived in Algiers in 1962 shortly before the return of President-designate Ahmad Ben Bella (and met him at the airport with our ambassador-designate). During that confused and nearly frantic week, when the French had more or less completely pulled out and the “external” army of the Provisional Algerian Government had not yet taken over, the “internal” or wilayah guerrillas were not only settling scores with the French and the Algerians who had collaborated with them, but also with one another. The wilayah underground fighters were impressive fellows; they had fought an army 30 times their size and had worn it down, but almost none of them could read. So documents were more objects of suspicion than passes. A smile and a handshake were better than passports. But many people, particularly those associated with the Organisation Armée Secrète, had little experience in smiling and if their hands shook it was because they were carrying heavy weapons. Not surprisingly, CIA sources indicated that in those few days some 16,000 people were “disappeared.” Yet, I felt safe walking around the city. Two years later in Saigon, I watched a fire-fight one night from the Embassy roof, standing next to former Vice President and then Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Everyone even then knew that the Viet Minh “owned the night.” But, during the day, I felt no hesitation in walking about the city.

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William R. Polk served as an advisor to President John F. Kennedy and later became a professor of history at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Eastern Studies. More

William R. Polk served in President John F. Kennedy's administration, where he was the member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for much of the Islamic world, including Afghanistan. He later became professor of history at the University of Chicago and president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of 17 books including Understanding Iraq, Violent Politics and Understanding Iran. He is now at work on a book on Afghanistan to be entitled The Cockpit of Asia. His website is

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