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It's hard to tell the soldiers from the civilian contractors at Kabul airport

Photo by: Robert Davis

Robert Davis became an embedded journalist in Afghanistan for some weeks.  These are his dispatches from the region.

Kabul International Airport does not seem any different from any other airport in South Asia, until you step outside.  Ford F-350 Widebody trucks whiz by with huge antennas protruding like antlers, loaded with the latest satellite navigation equipment,mounted weapons and armour piercing protection. And those are just the private security companies. Then there are all different types of military personnel carriers.

I did not have far to go, literally a few minutes to the other side of the airport where the main military gate is located. Once through security and given credentials I was left at the military terminal while I waited for a flight to Mazar E Sharif. At Kabul Airport soldiers fromall over Europe gathered; Belgium,Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Romania,Lithuania, Germany, Finland, Sweden,Great Britain and the United States.

There were plenty of soldiers travelling alone looking for a spot to sit or lie down. Plus there were all the civilian contractors. If you thought the queue at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport took a long time, try here.

Some of the soldiers were just arriving and others were going home,and many were just in transit from one mission to the next. Everyone waspacking multiple weapons; pistols,knives, grenades, rifles and more. I felt a little insecure with just my two Nikon cameras strapped to my shoulder.

Case upon case of all types of ammunition were loaded and unloaded,tossed about like loaves of bread while coffee and cigarettes fuelled the men.

Then there were the uniforms. If it were a fashion contest, first place would to go to the Italian officers. By the way they were dressed,  could not tell if they were soldiers or runway models. Last place would definitely go to the Belgians, as their uniform was as bad as the weather in Brussels.

''with all the weapons being carried around you’d think they would skip the check-in security procedure. But no, we were all asked to pass through a metal detector.''

The US soldiers seemed to be wearing the most modern equipment. Each US Army soldier was kitted out with an armour protection vest that included front and back Kevlar plates and a groin protector. Padded gel straps, Lombard back support and a water hydration system that allows soldiers to drink up to a litre of water from a mouthpiece.
There is an IOTV (Improved OuterTactical Vest) with a pouch on front that can hold seven to eight magazines of 30 round ammo clips, amedical kit that includes combat gauze with a blood clotting chemical,tourniquet and basic first aid supplies.

All in and including the helmet it weighs about 16 kilogrammes. And that does not count the backpack with field supplies.  Then there were the weapons. Most US soldiers carry M-16s or shorter M-4s (4.5kilogrammes) that have a shorter stock. Some carry a M249 (eight kilogrammes)machine gun or an M240 machine gun (nine kilogrammes).

I did not have a confirmed seat, but registered on what they call Space A,which means “space available”, just like being wait-listed on a commercial flight. The flight was called and each passenger lined up in single file in front of a set of scales.

First the bags, and then ourselves with our body armour. Weights were noted, names crossed off and boarding passes issued. Then we passed through security. I had to laugh at that one, with all the weapons being carried around you’d think they would skip the check-in security procedure.But no, we were all asked to pass through a metal detector.

"'Thinking that I had met the motherload of all contacts within an hour of arriving, I listened''

Once in the waiting area, soldiers and civilian contractors clustered around talking about the latest missions or what they did on R & R. While waiting, I met one man with a neatly trimmed beard and he asked me how long Ihad been “in-country”. I said I was a writer and had just arrived and it was my first time there.
He was dressed in all the appropriate khaki military style fatigues and desert combat boots, black and brown wrap around Oakleys, he had a camouflage Kevlar vest and helmet and had a big knife strapped to his pants leg. By the way he walked and talked, I was sure he was private security or a soldier of fortune type.

He said that what he was about to tell me was off the record and he wanted to remain anonymous. Thinking that I had met the motherload of all contacts within an hour of arriving, I listened for 15 minutes while he talked on all things Afghanistan and military.

He spoke in the preferred language here in Afghanistan – acronyms. Dozens, no hundreds of three-letter code speak that seemed like another language that would take Wikipedia months to define. Eventually, when I was able to ask a question, I asked him what he did here.

Some soldiers had just sat down beside us and he looked a little sheepish, and then he lowered his voice and leaned over and said “waterpurification”.

“What?” I replied. Then it hit me, he was a civilian contractor. Not to make light of civilian contractors, and providing water in the desert is certainly an important task, but I quickly learned that many of these civilian contractors had let the military style of dress and hardware go to their heads.

One can only imagine the stories of derring-do they tell back in the bars of Bangkok.

By the way, as an embed I was required to supply my own protective vest and helmet. I was able to get everything I needed in Phnom Penh from EnvoTech, which is down NationalRoad 6A. EnvoTech is run by Finn Viggo Gundersen and he exports body armour all over the world.

Before leaving Phnom Penh for Afghanistan, local expat Humphrey Hollins, an avid military historian and book collector, suggested I include a reading list with each dispatch on the places visited and what some of the men were reading.

Recommended reading on Kabul:  

  • Baburnama, Babur
  • The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk
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