IT took a while, but my first embed with NATO forces finally got off the ground, even after an initial false start.
I was told to show up at ISAF headquarters at 2pm, October 28 in Kabul for transfer to the military airbase.
Lugging a 10-kilogram piece of borrowed body armour and helmet, another 18 kilograms of winter clothes, including long johns, wool socks, knitted cap and sleeping gear, plus computer, camera and boots, by the time I made it to the front gate of ISAF from where my taxi had dropped me off, I was already wondering if the whole idea wasn’t just another ageing fantasy gone awry.
American Sergeant Fabian Alvarado came to meet me, and we trundled off inside the expansive base, with my first question being: So, how far do we have to walk – a kilometre? He said that was about right. After signing a nine-page embed agreement, my escort took me to the pickup point where three armoured, unmarked vehicles were waiting. A British soldier gave a convoy briefing on our plan to get to the airport: what responses would be taken in an ambush, appropriate code words for the week, and how to find defensive positions so we could “prevail over the enemies”.
The ride was uneventful, save for the horrendous Kabul traffic. At the airport, it unfolded that my name was not on the passenger list for the C-130 flight to Kandahar, so in the end I hailed a taxi back into town, ending up at a guesthouse at about 10pm, sweaty and exhausted.
The next day, I was told tonnes of NATO cargo was on the move and seats would be sparse. Instead of waiting around I booked a one-way US$50 ticket on Ariana Airlines for October 30 to Kandahar, where I would be met by ISAF. The connection went smoothly on arrival and three polite American soldiers drove me on to the sprawling Kandahar Military Air Base, known in local parlance as KAF.
Anybody who wants to get an idea of the size of the NATO operation in Afghanistan need only set foot on KAF, which I was told has the busiest single-strip airport in the world. The base is absolutely massive, perhaps 50 square kilometres in total, although nobody I asked knew for sure. Around 20,000 soldiers and civilians live there, but even that figure was only a guess. Barracks, warehouses, rows of giant generators, and parking lots for military gear spread endlessly in all directions.
An American lieutenant welcomed me into the press centre, showed me my cot for the night, asked if I needed a shower, and then led me to what is called “the boardwalk”, where he said I could get a meal.
My jaw dropped. Spread out in a square, about 100 metres a side, was basically a huge rough-hewn mall. On one end were a Burger King, a Subway and a Pizza Hut. Another side had a Horton’s donuts, and then down on another corner was a Paris Deli, offering croissants and other savouries. Interspersed were carpet, jewellery, handicraft shops and a dozen shops selling military gear, from sweatshirts to combat knives to monogrammed ponchos.
Inside the wooden raised walkway was a sneaker hockey rink built by the Canadians, a football pitch, and volleyball and basketball courts. Soldiers and civilian contractors of all stripes strolled along, took a meal, checked emails at a WiFi corner of the field or just relaxed.
I was all geared up for a mouth-watering Whopper, but when they said they were out of burgers, I opted for an Italian sub. With a decent meal under my belt, I headed back to the press centre, had an endless hot shower that had the power of a firehose, and then hit the sack, the sound of incoming and outgoing Blackhawk helicopters, F-16 jets and heavy transport planes lulling me to sleep.
At 4:30am, Sergeant First Class Teresa Coble, the US military press liaison officer with whom I’d been emailing about the details of my embed, stuck her head in the bunk room and asked quietly: “Mr Hayes, are you ready for your flight to Tarin Kowt?”