Life in Afghanistan Today
Everyone is asking me if things have changed in Afghanistan since 2002, when I was last here. Of course it’s a too-simple question, with a non-answer: they have, and they haven’t. Kabul for instance is still dirty and exotic, still full of tan old sheepherding men with white beards and wrinkled faces (even now they might be chatting on a cell phone as they guide their flock around town with long sticks). Some new buildings have gone up, but not that many. On the military side, the US Army is still stocked with an endless parade of energetic young men and women, and now as ever they are fitness fanatics and will work out every day even if they have to run laps back and forth through some muddy field on the edge of their base as the sun rises. But they’re more jaded now than they were in 2002, after so many tours in Iraq and now here.
The central military hub in Afghanistan, both seven years ago and now, is Bagram Air Base, an hour’s drive from Kabul across a spectacular plateau nestled between the mountains. I stayed at Bagram for some time in 2002 as well; back then all the press stayed in one large tent located next to the barbed wire perimeter of a now-infamous detention facility. (No getting anywhere near that place, now.) Opportunistic Afghans had set up impromptu bazaars just outside the front gates, and we’d discreetly purchase incredibly bad Uzbek vodka and other things for our nightly rabble-rousing party in the press tent. Off-duty soldiers would walk by, peek in, and find themselves downing a quick beer and flirting with reporters for a few minutes, dashing off into the night again if they saw an officer or sergeant-major heading our way.
Those days are gone. Bagram today has evolved and changed in spirit; everything is far more organized and uptight and the base has spread out, like a California town exploding into a tangle of urban sprawl. Rather than in tents, troops now stay in long rows of stacked housing units that look like the apartment complexes near college campuses. MPs hand out tickets to drivers who are speeding or not wearing a seat belt. Sometimes the trappings of home are faintly ridiculous; I saw a flyer touting free swing dancing classes.
One thing hasn’t changed: the troops doing their physical training every morning en masse along Bagram’s broad main boulevard. Inspired, and clearly not going anywhere for a few days, I laced up my own shoes and went for a run. The main street ends after a few kilometers and opens up onto a broad flat plain; a few kilometers more and the running path fringes the edge of the flight line itself. I stopped and watched all manner of military aircraft taxi and roar into the sky: stately C-130 workhorses, massive C-17 cargo carriers, strange, Russian-looking planes and the incredible fighter jets, lithe wedges of physics-defying magic that scream overhead louder than a train thundering by. The scope of it all is staggering; Bagram is a small city and big airport, all built from nearly scratch in the middle of this inhospitable countryside, for billions upon billions of dollars. And there are hundreds of other bases more or less like it, all over Afghanistan. If there’s anything I wish I could convey to the general American public who will never visit this place, it is the enormous scale of the undertaking being done here in our name. Try as I might, photos never seem to convey it.