It was a war we thought we’d won. But after eight years of escalating violence, the Afghanistan conflict has morphed into something perhaps unwinnable. U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda, a goal we’ve largely achieved. But in years of occupation, Washington has apparently conflated counter-terrorism with nation-building. Now the U.S., NATO and their allies are struggling to destroy a deeply-rooted insurgency in country with a corrupt, ineffective government, poor infrastructure and few prospects for everyday people, but to fight. David Axe visits U.S. forces to see for himself.
by DAVID AXE
My Afghan visa expired on November 6. My flight home was on November 9. Before leaving the U.S., I called the Afghan embassy in D.C. and asked how I could get the visa extended a few days. Go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, they said. “Will it be difficult?” I asked. “No problem, my friend, no problem,” they said.
The words raised hairs on my neck. In the Third World, whenever someone says, “No problem, my friend, no problem,” what they mean is, “Yes, this will be a huge problem.”
I asked around. Some folks said the penalty for flying home on an expired visa was just a few dollars, paid in cash at the airport. Others said I might be detained, fined heavily, and held in the country for weeks. I should try to do things the legal way.
I flew into Kabul from Logar province on Oct. 28, aiming to tackle the visa problem. As I stepped off the helicopter, there were puffs of smoke on the horizon. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was witnessing the Taliban’s bloody assault on a compound housing U.N. election workers. A dozen people were killed. My driver negotiated our way through layers of security to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As I opened my door, a man standing on the street slammed it shut in my face. Everyone had left, he said. Come back tomorrow.
Uh-oh, I thought. The next was a Thursday, the equivalent of a Friday in the U.S. No one works very hard on Thursdays.
I crashed in a cheap hotel. That night, I had nightmares about passports, visas, airports and Afghan cops.
The next morning, I arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs bright and early. Can I get my visa extended? I asked. “No problem,” the man in the purple suit said. But first, I had to get a letter from the ministry’s media section approving the extension. So I walked down shabby corridors to the media section, where a man with a fat face and lazy eyes said, “No problem,” but first I had to get a stamp from the U.S. embassy notarizing my request.
I walked hundreds of yards through outdoor concrete corridors and several security checkpoints to arrive at the U.S. embassy consular section, where a very kind-faced woman told me, essentially, to go screw myself. She did, however, provide a phone number to the embassy’s media handlers, and said they might be able to help. I called, repeatedly. No one answered.
I talked my way past some Macedonian security guards at ISAF headquarters and got ahold of the American public affairs people. I needed some kind of endorsement, or I’m never leaving Afghanistan, I said. Air Force Captain John Stock helpfully printed out reams of documentation bearing the ISAF stamp. I confidently shoved this in the face of the Foreign Affairs media man. He shook his head. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs has no contact with ISAF,” he said. I needed U.S. embassy endorsement. When I explained the embassy did not endorse journalists, he just shrugged.
I returned to the man in the purple suit and told him everything. I looked deep in his eyes, tried to connect, one human being to another. Please help, my gaze said. With a sigh, the man in the purple suit filled out a form that, he said, would get me my visa extension, but only if I took it down to the Ministry of the Interior.
“No problem,” I said. My driver raced through traffic, only to get stopped at a police checkpoint. We were close, so I hopped out and ran. I arrived at the Ministry of the Interior at 1:00, precisely closing time. The cop at the gate sliced his hand across his throat, in the universal gesture meaning, “dead end.” The next day was Friday. After that, I had to be in Kandahar. Time was up.
Two days. Five agencies. No visa extension. What would happen when I tried to leave the country? I had no idea. But suddenly I wished I were back in Logar, buttoned up in an Army vehicle as the Taliban fired machine guns and rockets at me. That, at least, involved zero paperwork.
How to Bomb Nice
Afghan Pirate Radio Defies Morale Crackdown
Rescuers Re-Rescue the Rescued
Tale of Three Districts
Chicken & Egg
With Friends Like These
Op Donkey Haul
In Afghanistan’s Logar, Filling the Deadly “Bowl”
World Politics Review: Generator Delivery Underscores Afghan War Challenges
The Baraki Barak County Fair
Op Donkey Haul Video
Mosque Makeover Video
Afghan National Police Checkpoint Video
Vet Event Video