Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Saturday, 11 April 2009 12:14 UK

One-way flight to Afghan outback

By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Afghanistan

The day started badly with a rabid policeman waving his Kalashnikov menacingly at us, screaming "where's your card - get back!".

Old Soviet tank
We saw the rusting green remains of Soviet tanks... a reminder of how a world-class military might had been defeated by a tenacious, low-tech insurgency

My mistake had been, foolishly, to try to drive to the front-gate of the American Embassy where we had been invited to go on a press trip.

But fortress Kabul has become addicted to security - rather like those bodybuilders who cannot stop pumping iron and popping pills until they resemble some hideously bulging comic book villain.

The city keeps building ever more layers of barbed wire, blast walls, checkpoints, guns and angry policemen.

The US and the rest of Nato keep telling us how the security situation in the capital has improved.

But they are unwilling to practice the confidence they preach.

Off limits

Now whole streets of Kabul are off-limits to the majority of us who don't have "the card".

I have not actually seen "the card" but rather like the "golden ticket" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I believe it does exist and grants almost magical access to the lucky holder.


The press officer at the US Embassy came to our rescue and persuaded the Kalashnikov-waving guard to let us through.

We had been invited to go on a trip to Balkh Province in the north, for briefings and interviews on counter-narcotics.

The plane arrived in good time but it became immediately clear that the US team were less keen on briefings and more on palming us off on the Afghan officials.

Our luggage was unceremoniously dumped on the runway and we were told the plane would leave at 2.30pm.

The US team was whisked away by beefy special agents driving super-sized armoured trucks.

We squeezed into the back of a rather beaten-up car to make our way to see the opening of a new school, paid for with American money - donated in exchange for eradicating opium-producing poppies.

Unseemly retreat

It was now midday. We were told it would be an hour's journey. Just enough time to get there, see the project and get back to the plane.

One of the American vehicles broke down en route. Unknown to us, the agents were inside and decided to cancel the trip and beat an unseemly retreat to the airport.

People by a  stream
The journey was through a wilderness with few people

It actually took two hours of bone-crunching, off-road driving to get to the village. By the time we arrived, the whole district had gathered on either side of a long cordon to greet the Americans who had funded their new school.

Unfortunately, I and the BBC's cameraman, Sanjay, were the only foreigners to turn up.

We were greeted with silence and a look of awe and ushered through a long line of men and boys to the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Later the minister called me forward and presented me with a chapan, the full-length gold and green-striped cloak that President Karzai is often seen wearing.

I pulled it over my shoulders and smiled rather weakly for the camera.

The Americans had shown an astonishing lack of guile

It was now past two o'clock. Our American "hosts" were absent without leave. The plane was due to leave in half an hour and we were in the middle of the middle of nowhere with a story that would not even work its way onto the back pages of the local newspaper .

A few frantic phone calls established the worst. The plane had already departed without us because of bad weather heading our way.

We started to drive back. We passed along river-beds and mountain-tracks, waved at by the odd rough-looking shepherd, passing through breath-taking wilderness in a place untouched by modernity.

We saw the rusting green remains of Soviet tanks, kept by locals as a reminder of how world-class military might had been defeated by a tenacious, low-tech insurgency.

Two hours later we were in Mazar-i-Sharif, attending a banquet organised in honour of the minister and the now absent American agents.

Broken brakes

Despite facing the prospect of an eight-hour road trip over a snow-bound mountain pass in the dark, we accepted the invitation.

It is the Afghan way. You see it is not enough to throw money at good causes and leave early because of a little bad weather.

Here face-time and respect matter, deeply. They are the foundations upon which friendships are built and success achieved. The Americans had shown an astonishing lack of guile.

By now it was five o'clock. The minister kindly gave us one of his cars and a guard and we finally started to head back to Kabul.

Three minutes out of town and the driver pulled into a local garage - the car's brakes were broken.

Another hour on and we left the city - again.

I finally hobbled into bed at three in the morning. My back was sore, my neck seized-up and I could barely move my head.

We had been on the road for 21 hours and were only home thanks to the good grace, generosity and ingenuity of our new Afghan friends - and no thanks to our US hosts.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 April, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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