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I first came to Afghanistan nine years ago — at the beginning of this war, slipping into the country in the dark of night aboard a raft poled by Russian soldiers across the Amu Darya River.
The Taliban still ruled the country then — and I, and a handful of other journalists were headed for the small thumb of territory near the Tajikistan border — the only area held by a coalition of anti-Taliban forces known as the Northern Alliance. It was late September when we arrived, but with a massive U.S. bombing campaign, directed by American and British commandos on the ground — the Taliban were routed and by December we were sleeping in dusty rooms with no running water at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.
Though a tactical victory, the war was not fully won then, but instead back burnered by Pentagon planners and largely forgotten by the American public — as military resources shifted toward the invasion of Iraq.
Now, with the war in Afghanistan the highest foreign policy priority of President Barack Obama’s administration those resources are shifting back and many see the military buildup here as the long-delayed final showdown with the Taliban — a showdown, that if unsuccessful, could lead to the eventual downfall of not just the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, but also of Obama in Washington.
I have come back to Afghanistan, my fourth time since 2001, to possibly witness elements of this decisive moment — and I land the same day General David Petraeus arrives to take control of all U.S. and international forces here. But while he is in the capital, Kabul — my colleague Ben Brody and I are 283 miles southwest in Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.
Also on this day in the northern city of Kunduz — six Taliban suicide bombers overran a USAID compound killing four people.
On this day — it’s relatively quiet in RC-South (Regional Command) a geographic battlespace that stretches nearly 500 miles from the Iranian border in the east to the Pakistan border in the west and is comprised of almost 35,000 troops from 17 nations.
We are billeted at the Kandahar Airfield which is contructed like a patchwork quilt of micro-camps, each nation has its own compound of tents, commdex containers or hastily constructed buildings, many divided by concrete barriers in which the philosophy, even amongst allies seems to reflect the Robert Frost poem, “that good fences make good neighbors."
But there are little touches that soften the separation. The Dutch, for example have a replica of their national icon, the windmill, atop one of their barriers — giving it the impression that it might be Hole 7 of a miniature golf park, rather than a military base.
There are also flourishes at Kandahar Airfield like an actually elevated boardwalk square with a pizza restaurant, coffee shops, clothing tailors, carpet and jewelry merchants, internet cafes and even a TGI Friday’s restaurant that would certainly seem to make the multinational soldiers more comfortable during their long time away from home but which one officer friend says adds to the “bizzaro”atmosphere of this deployments.
There is even a posh NATO Gym, where users have to deposit their combat boots in lockers and wear clean sneakers to exercise. The contrast is the dark and dirty American “Kandahar Gym” a few blocks away, which is nicknamed “the prison gym” for good reason. Here there’s more ink than Pelican Bay and everyone from beefed up soldiers the size of Sub Zero refrigerators to pony-tailed contractors are pumping iron and punching heavy bags.
But this obviously isn’t where the real war is being fought — even though the airfield is the target of frequent mortar and rocket attacks and insurgents even tried, unsuccessfully, to storm the gates in June.
The war is beyond “the wire” and after a thorough briefing by officers of the engineering unit, Brody and I are slated to link up with platoons in the south, clearing routes of roadside bombs.
After an hour waiting on the flight line in 106 degree temperatures we are told our flight is cancelled — the reason is that the old Navy helicopters we’re supposed to be flying aren’t made to endure heat over 40-degrees Celsius and we’re already at that level of heat.
We gather our gear and wait for our ride back to the base … and the boardwalk. If we hurry, we may still have time to orders some chickenwings and fried mozzarella sticks at TGIF’s. While it is a far different setting from when I arrived by raft to Afghanistan the first time — it is indeed, all this time later — the same war.