Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
December 6,  2001
Reporter looks back as he exits Afghanistan

At War With Terror
E-mail from Afghanistan

On the chopper out of Bagram airbase.

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan - After all the hard work to get into Afghanistan two months ago, getting out proved easier than anticipated.

I woke up yesterday morning expecting to spend a day or two more in Kabul, tidying up one final story, perhaps shopping for a rug. I planned to give myself a week to get out of Afghanistan, allowing plenty of time for flight delays due to bad weather or possibly having to drive out over the snowy Hindu Kush.

I heard about the flight at breakfast. NBC was expecting a plane to arrive yesterday from Dushanbe, bearing fresh journalists to cover the war.

The flight was scheduled to return the same day - practically empty, it was said.

I called the network contact person in Dushanbe who was organizing the plane and got myself onto the manifest for the return flight.

Until that moment, I wasn't in a hurry to wrap up my work on a story that had consumed me since September. But now the same thing happened to me that I had seen happen to several other hacks in recent months: The momentum had rapidly shifted, homeward.

I was packed and checked out in 30 minutes.

There was a small group of journalists waiting outside Bagram military airport about 25 miles north of Kabul, where the war's front line had been a few weeks before. Now it is operated by U.S. Army troops.

The plane was late, we were told. The flight's organizers were still negotiating with the Tajiks and the Afghans over landing fees. Any number of previous flights from Tajikistan had never showed up for the same reason.

I settled in with a book, figuring I'd spend the day waiting.

As I sat, a few other flights landed: A U.N. cargo flight, a couple of Russian helicopters. Meanwhile, messages kept coming back from Tajikistan about our plane: Delayed. Still delayed.

Then our fortunes turned. A man with a radio came out and asked if anybody needed a lift on a Russian helicopter that was heading back to Dushanbe after delivering some medical personnel to Kabul.

A stampede ensued.

After a quick check-in, we boarded the heavy-lift helicopter on the tarmac and I strapped myself in to one of the fold-down seats.

As the helicopter lifted off, I got an aerial view of the Shamali Plain, the undulating farm region north of Kabul where I had spent a month waiting for the Northern Alliance troops to attack the entrenched Taliban. The flatland is surrounded on three sides by mountains that rise dramatically to snowcapped peaks. We rose and headed north, across the highest of the ranges, the Hindu Kush.

The flight took a little less than two hours. The unpressurized cargo hold was cold and the air was thin.

Three-quarters of the helicopter's floor space was taken up by fuel tanks - the trip over the 15,000-foot high mountains is energy-intensive. At its highest point, the chopper passed just a few hundred yards beside the rocky peaks.

As the helicopter set down on the runway in Dushanbe, the 16 journalists broke into applause. But I felt strangely glum.

For nearly 10 weeks, I had felt as if I owned this story.

Each day, as the country revealed itself, I grew increasingly captivated by Afghanistan's complexity and rich detail. It is a beautiful place with a horrible history. Many of the Afghans I met were gracious and thoughtful, and I admired their colorful language.

Now I am leaving the war as its endgame is being played out. I am sitting in a cheap, poorly heated hotel room in Dushanbe that is luxurious by the standards to which I have become accustomed. A small television set sits before me with images of Afghan politicians in Bonn, signing an agreement for a transitional government. I haven't seen international television for 10 weeks.

With the signing of the agreement, there is a sense of optimism about Afghanistan, a sense that warring factions can put aside their differences and form some sort of unified government.

But there is also much reason for caution.

In 1992, when mujaheddin factions ousted a Soviet-installed government, Kabul was at peace for only a few months before war broke out among the factions. The trigger: They were unable to agree on a long-term government.

The book I was reading as I flew out of Afghanistan puts the nation into an even longer historical view.

The Life of Abdur Rahman is the autobiography of the man who ruled Afghanistan at the end of the 19th century. It is a story of violence and political intrigue, a story about clan leaders who form alliances one day and stab their allies in the back the next.

A story that - if not for the Victorian prose - could have been written last week. home page   
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