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Cultivating Afghanistan: Getting There is Half the Battle

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My journey begins in Indianapolis with a flight to Atlanta. Then there is the 14-hour, 7,500-mile flight to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai. It is one of the few places that have flights to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Sitting having a Starbucks latte in Terminal 2 at the Dubai Airport — waiting for my 3:00 AM flight to Afghanistan — there’s a group of Emirate men in their blinding white caftans and headdresses sitting around a low table. Beside them, the women cluster in their black robes, faces obscured except for their dark eyes peering from slits in their scarves. The Starbucks barista knew where I was going. He says he sees a lot of Americans these days, waiting for the middle-of-the-night flight to Kabul.

Pamair Flight 210 departs with a full load of passengers: Pashtun tribesmen returning home with bales of trade goods, south Asian businessmen with briefcases, NGO aid workers; multinational corporation workers with military contracts. An Afghan mother with her small son turns as I sit down beside her: “Afghanistan!” she says with a laugh.

Run by former Soviets, Pamair is a utilitarian airline serving central Asia with worse-for-wear 737s. Refreshment during the three-hour flight is basic: a paper cup of water just after takeoff.

With Afghanistan’s perilous security situation, getting safe transport from the Kabul International Airport to the U.S. military’s Bagram Air Field, about 40 miles away, is a critical part of the trip. After a nerve-wracking search from Indiana, I find Afghan Logistics. Through email, the company assures me a trusted driver will shuttle me to Bagram.

“This company’s drivers all speak English,” said Satar, my driver. “[We] have good cars, new cars. It’s famous.”

The road the Bagram is a crumbling asphalt highway. Walled villages with watchtowers and herds of dreadlocked goats punctuate the drive. Beside the road, graphic billboards urge Afghans to fight the Taliban. The road soon becomes a rutted dirt trail. Satar guides us past tankers, gaily decorated lorries called jingle trucks, packed minivans, bicyclists churning away-all headed like bees to the hive of Bagram Air Field.

Protected by high walls and endless tangles of razor wire, Bagram is both an airfield and a military logistics center.

Bagram’s Public Affairs Officer Captain Scot Keith said if it flies for the U.S., it probably leaves out of Bagram.

“Bagram Air Filed serves as one of the principal logistics hubs for all of Afghanistan, as well as supplying most of the logistics for Regional Command East,” said Keith.

My early-morning flight to Forward Operating Base Salerno, the Hoosier National Guard ADT post in Khost Province, is on a lumbering short-take-off-and-landing plane called a STOL. The 45-minute flight takes us over a dry, dusty mountain landscape, periodically splotched green by narrow cultivated valleys and farm fields surrounding isolated villages. Once I arrive in FOB Salerno, Sergeant Major Daren Hudson says the ADT’s earlier journey to their new home in eastern Afghanistan was just as arduous.

“Our trip to Forward Operating Base Salerno took us 8 days,” Hudson said. “From Indy, we traveled to Iceland, then on to a base in Germany near Berlin. From there, we flew to Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan, where we spent about 5 days, before flying to Bagram. From Bagram, we flew a C-130 to FOB Salerno. That was our trip.”

It’s Memorial Day in America. So the team members gather that night in a plywood hut for the Indy 500, beamed to them by Armed Forces Network.

For now, the soldiers’ Indiana homes have been replaced by a base in a remote – and increasingly dangerous — part of central Asia.  That story next week.

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