Midway through our round the world trip with Secretary of Defense Gates, we made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan. Arriving under the cover of darkness we landed in Kabul Sunday evening. We had switched from the E4B to a C-17 for our descent into Kabul. I’ve corkscrewed into BIAP a number of times so i’m familiar with combat landings in this aircraft. Still, when the red lights go on and the security guys don the armor plate, I’m reminded of just how dangerous a place like Afghanistan can be.
Gates’ plane touched down around 1930 local time, and we accompanied him to Camp Eggers. The Secretary had made on the record comments on the flight from Singapore, expressing cautious optimism about progress on the ground in Afghanistan, so traveling press headed right to the PAO to file their stories. We had to shoot a standup and take a voice track for CNN correspondent, Jamie McIntyre and then get the tape to a local “fixer” who would ship it to the feedpoint.
Afterwards, some of us unwound outside our housing talking with great young soldiers before we called it a night. While accommodations at the base weren’t quite as nice as the the Shangri-La we’d just left in Singapore, I slept well and was up at 0500.
Monday was a big day for the Secretary. Boarding helos, we choppered to Morehouse Commando Training Camp just on the outskirts of Kabul, where the first ever Afghan Special Operations Force battalion. We followed Gates as he reviewed the training and spoke with Afghan commanders. Afghan National Army Lt. Col. M. Farid Ahmadi spoke with Gates as he toured the training camp. He was very proud of the his men saying they were the best people for the job. CNN’s Jamie McIntyre interviewed him about the Army’s progress.
Then it was back on the helos to a flight back to the LZ in Kabul. Gates met with US commanders before we moved to the Presidential Palace, where the Secretary would later meet with President Hamid Karzai. Security at the palace is thorough to say the least. After being screened, we did the typical waiting associated with these types of events and then lined up for a shot of Gates arriving at the palace. Commander Greg Hicks had kindly pre-set my tripod for the joint press conference between Gates and Karzai, so my only challenge was positioning myself for the photo op with the two leaders.
This is all about a burst of pure physical speed up the stairs, elbowing past what seemed like 15 local camera crews. Good thing I’ve got a long stride! In the press conference Gates and Karzai touched on a number of topics ranging from reconstruction, to Afghanistan’s suppression of the Taliban’s rumored spring offensive, to Iran’s involvement with the emergence of sophisticated new IED’s.
Next, we were off to Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan, where the Secretary met privately with troops, to get “ground truth” from the boots on the ground – labeled as a free and open discussion about what works and what doesn’t. We were allowed what felt like 30 seconds for a photo op at the top. I think at this point in the trip the Secretary of Defense had grown tired of seeing me and more than once remarked in this photo op that as soon as they could speak freely (hint for me to leave!) they would begin the open dialogue.
I always try to eek out as much video as possible from these events and don’t like to try the principals patience. As much as the OSD bristles at comparisons between Rumsfeld and Gates, I must say this Secretary of Defense has yet to scowl at me. I’ve been to these events with Rumsfeld and at a very precise point in the photo op, Rumsfeld would shoot an unmistakable look at the camera crew, which unequivocally meant LEAVE THE ROOM.
We left Afghanistan that evening flying out of Kandahar on the C-17 that brought us there. This was my first trip to Afghanistan and it was a truly unique experience, but I am quite content that we’ve left and are on our way to Normandy for D-Day memorial ceremonies.
At this point it’s important to note that, working to coordinate all of the logistics, update editorial elements, and generally make sure things run smoothly, is a tremendously hard-working, capable, and talented colleague of mine named Courtney Kube. Long after we’ve all gone to bed she’s on the phone coordinating satellite feeds, writing ediorial notes and doing it all with personality and energy that are miles long.
Flying from Asia to Europe, we’re watching Saving Private Ryan on the plane as I write this. Fitting as we gear up to cover the Secretary’s participation in D-Day ceremonies at Normandy.
Here’s what my traveling buddies filed From Kabul.