The security at the very large military section of Kabul International Airport has recently been handed over to Belgian paratroopers, from a more relaxed unit of Macedonians .It’s hard to say if this is because NATO-led forces feel they need to step up security after a bloody shooting at the airport and Taliban threats of more attacks, or just the vagaries of NATO staffing.
But the reception they gave me – and some Afghans who arrived at the gate at the same time – was a reminder of why NATO is having such problems retaining Afghan support, despite all the blood and money being spent to secure the country.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” barked the soldier. I got out my media pass, military travel authorisation and said I was going to spend time with the military, for a reporting trip journalists and the military call an ‘embed’. “I do not know what that is.”
I explained and said a media relations duty officer would come and pick me up. “What is their name and rank,” he barked again. I said I didn’t know, as they were a duty officer. “This is a military base, not a market” I was warned. “You say you are a journalist. Who do you work for?” I said Reuters. “What is that?” A news agency, I replied. “What is that? I only know the BBC”.
This went on for some time more. And as a blonde, obviously Western woman, I probably wasn’t top of their profiling list of suspicious visitors.
Afghans coming to a hospital on base were treated even more harshly, with the same barked orders and warning “this is a military base, not a market”, and when the paratrooper waved them in saying “go on, get cured, get help”, they went only with great resentment.
Yet he was not an unkind man. When the shouting stopped, he asked with real interest about life outside the base in the real Kabul – which few soldiers see. And when, frustrated by his endless demands, I offered to go wait beyond the camp’s outer perimeter, he looked aghast and said “no stay, its safer here” by his inner perimeter.
It’s a cliché that war brutalises and alienates people, but the encounter at the checkpoint reminded me of it, and also made me sad that a man who has been sent so many miles from home, and is risking his own life, could end up so resented by the people he believes he is trying to help.