THE passenger profile on the flight to Kabul from Dubai was indicative of the situation on the ground. Of Safi Air Fl.4Q 204's 130 seats, about 70 percent of the passengers looked like they were Americans with jobs in the private security industry, working for companies like Blackwater or DynCorp. You know, crew-cut guys with big necks sporting wrap-around sunglasses and hands with thick fingers that look like they were made to use heavy tools.
The rest of the passengers looked like aid workers or diplomats. Only a handful of Afghans were on board.
Kabul has a new airport, so arrival was reasonably pleasant. A robust air-conditioning system kept the 40-degree centigrade heat outside at bay.
To keep potential terrorists at bay, the entire parking lot in front of the airport is kept empty. No private car or taxi pick-ups are allowed. Passengers have to walk 200 metres, beyond a cement blast wall, and then find transport.
Everybody I talked to before arriving in Kabul said to make sure to arrange a secure airport pick-up. One former resident put it this way: "You don't want to get kidnapped, dragged off to some remote spot and sodomised on your first day." Veterans of the Afghan scene are known to be fans of black humor.
Fortunately my old friend, British photographer Tim Page, is in Kabul, and even with his inability to use email or SMS, he managed to be at the airport waiting for me, arms flailing, with a big hug, gushing, "Doctor, it's so good to see you."
As we left the airport, Page welcomed me by saying, "This road into town is called IED alley. And see that car without any plates? That's a narco warlord; they run the place."
Page has secured a three-month gig with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to train Afghan photographers. He has been given the title UNAMA Photographic Peace Ambassador, and even Page has been constantly marveling at how, after living for four decades as a semi-gonzo snapper and published storyteller, he has managed to obtain the rank of ambassador at the ripe old age of 65.
I didn't take long driving into the city to realise that Kabul is a mess. The tranquil city with around 600,000 residents I visited back in 1972 is gone. In its place is a throbbing, dusty, ramshackle urban sprawl with over 3 million people scrambling to survive. I've never seen so many people living in or working out of beat-up shipping containers.
Thirty years of war, invasion, regime change, Taliban indifference, warlord shoot-outs and ongoing insurgency have shaken this city to its core.
All government ministries, embassies and military installations are heavily guarded. Key buildings are surrounded with 4-meter-tall cement blast walls. On many streets you find yourself driving down concrete canyons with no idea which institution is behind the walls.
Heavily armed cops, Afghan soldiers, NATO troops and private security forces are guarding intersections, checkpoints and buildings all over town. Convoys of pickup trucks with machine guns or more serious-looking Humvees are on the move regularly.
National elections take place in two days, and the Taliban say they will do whatever they can to disrupt them. By Thursday night on August 20 the world will know whether Afghans turned out to vote in the face of serious intimidation. Sadly, for the moment the Taliban's terror tactics seem to be having an impact.
Last Saturday a suicide bomber blew himself up outside NATO headquarters at 8:30am, killing seven and wounding over 90. The blast, which rattled the entire city, took place at the gate where I was supposed to pick up my press pass at 9:30am. Needless to say, this did not happen.
This morning - Tuesday - two rockets fired from surrounding mountains landed in the Presidential Palace at 7am. The explosions woke me, and I thought, "Oh, only small stuff," and went back to sleep. No casualties were reported.
At noon a suicide car bomber rammed a NATO convoy several kilometres outside of town, killing seven and wounding over 50. I learned about that attack sitting inside my hotel from many of the 65 channels on the in-house cable satellite TV system.
Though the Taliban said the target was foreign soldiers, it was, once again, mostly Afghan civilians who were injured or killed.
A brief scan of a recent NGO security report lists 70 incidents nationwide over a two-day period. Most of these are either IED explosions or armed confrontations between the Taliban and Afghan/NATO forces.
Nonessential NGO personnel have been encouraged to leave the country, always a reassuring sign for their local counterparts.
The Taliban have said they will cut off the finger of anyone they find with the purple ink stain of a voter on the first digit. The ink is supposed to last more than a week.
The elections in Afghanistan mean a lot, for the people here and for a US$4 billion-a-month international effort to help the country let its people have their say in who governs the nation.
None of the potential winners carry a magic wand. There are more troubled days ahead for this pained corner of the planet.