Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's Done Is Done

A friend and I went up to Murree last weekend. It's a resort town in the mountains about an hour and a half outside of Islamabad. We went up for the day and thoroughly enjoyed walking around, poking in and out of shops and eating in a restaurant. It's difficult to describe what a treat it is for us to be allowed to just walk around and act like tourists. My friend speaks Urdu so we decided to identify ourselves as Italians when people asked where we were from, nobody seems to mind Italians. I even spoke such Italian phrases as, "The small boy is falling off a big yellow umbrella" and "Those birds are wearing sunglasses" to add authenticity to our claim.

It's the end of the season in Murree because the snows will begin next month and close the road, so we went up there just in time. I've learned that if the opportunity to do something presents itself here, you have to grab it because you never know what will be prohibited next week.

Negotiating about to begin.

Old Murree buildings.

The shopping alley.

This is the local dentist, unfortunately he doesn't participate in our Medical Plan.

This restaurant boasts a minus four stars in the Michelin Guide!

This man was selling some terrific peanut and cashew nut brittle candy.

Murree is up in the mountains and is quite a bit colder than Islamabad.

I'm four days and a wake-up call away from heading home. On November 7th I'll take my last run out to the Benazir Bhutto International Airport to catch an Emirates Air flight to Dubai. It'll be my last ride in a fully armored vehicle in a high threat environment for quite a while, unless we designate Washington DC as a 'high threat' environment. My orders to report to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for further training have been cut and my ticket home has been issued. I've rented a furnished apartment in the Court House area of Arlington and am looking forward to nine months of the comfortable routine at FSI.

I divided my things into three piles for packing and shipping. The bulk of my things, my Household Effects (HHE), will go to a government storage facility in Belgium and remain there until I head off to Rome. Two metal trunks of clothing and odds and ends will be shipped by air to Washington for me as Unaccompanied Air Baggage (UAB) and, finally, I'll have my two duffel bags of things I'll need when I first arrive in DC. My pack-out took place earlier this week and all my things, except the stuff that will go in my duffel bags, are gone. I have the Welcome Kit that was loaned to me when I first arrived and, although it made my house seem warm and homey then, now it doesn't help as much and the place feels as empty and impersonal as a cheap hotel room.

The Warehouse guys have come by to inventory every single item in the house to make sure that I haven't, inadvertently, had Embassy furniture shipped to Rome or destroyed anything in some wild drunken party. Then the Facilities people came out to inspect the place and fix, at last, all the minor things that needed repair so the next guy will get a clean start. I've paid my final gardener's bill, written letters of recommendation for my guards, turned over my internet account to the guy who's taking my house and set him up with my old housekeeper. I've completed all the things I set out to do at work and intend to spend my last four days at the Embassy just walking around shaking hands with the guys and doing that air-kissing thing with the women.

Among the last things I had to complete was my EER. This is the comprehensive formal evaluation of my entire performance while at Post. My immediate supervisor writes it, the DCM reviews it and adds his own comments and then I write a page of self-evaluation (aka the suicide box). I served on a review committee that checked the EERs of first tour officers for inadmissible statements, typos and grammatical errors, so I've seen quite a few examples of good, bad and indifferent suicide boxes. Rather than draft a laundry list of my accomplishments, I thought I'd be really clever and just quote Macbeth, "What's done, is done". That's all I put on my page and then I gave it to our HR Officer to get her opinion. She was stunned, but finally managed to say, "Ya know, Larry, there's a reason this is called the suicide box. It's because you can commit career suicide more easily than you can possibly imagine just by being too clever." It turns out that your first two EERs are really all the Tenure Board has to go on to determine whether they'll give you tenure or not. I was assured by the HR Officer that they would not be amused by my single Shakespeare quote and would definitely want to see more from me.

So I added the laundry list, gave full credit to my team and expressed my honest appreciation for all the people who helped guide, coach and mentor me through this first tour. I stuck in a quote from Hamlet (Though this be madness, yet there is method in't) and called it a day. The HR Officer approved it and now my EER is in the hands of others.

It will be a while before I can step back and put this year in perspective. It's flown by faster than I ever could have imagined and I'm not really ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, things are not improving in Pakistan, the economy continues to deteriorate, the government is still unable to establish any sort of rule of law in much of the country and the security situation continues to worsen. Measures will always be taken to keep our own folks safe, but that will inevitably mean further curtailing movement and exposure. Trips to Murree may not be allowed down the road and while we're currently allowed to drive privately owned vehicles, I won't be surprised when that privilege is withdrawn and the Embassy moves to a 100% armored motor pool policy for all transportation.

I got to see the Khyber Pass from a helicopter gunship, Peshawar and Lahore from armored vehicles, Skardu and Murree on foot and Islamabad in great detail. I didn't get to Taxila or the jingle truck factory in 'Pindi, nor did I get to drive along the Grand Trunk Road or take a rental car down the back roads that run alongside the Indus River. I didn't get to Karachi, Sindh or Baluchistan but I did get to see the Crossing Ceremony at the Wagah Border. In the balance of things, I did okay.

These are a couple of 'jingle' trucks. Virtually every truck on the road in Pakistan is decorated this way.

During my tour, we managed to increase the size of our motor pool by almost twenty vehicles and we added six drivers. Most of the time I felt like a big kid who had the world's most amazing collection of armored toys. Our drivers have suggested that they should all take me out to the airport in a twenty-five car motorcade. Twenty-five black or white fully armored Land Cruisers in formation with lights flashing and horns blaring isn't really low profile, but I haven't ruled out the idea. If I decide to do it, I'll add one of the spare BMWs in the middle as a 'target' car and I'll ride in the Straggler. However, my replacement is here and she will probably not feel that this small twenty-five car gesture is necessary. I've enjoyed being a GSO and providing support to my colleagues. It's a great position from which to see just how an Embassy is put together and how the whole team operates. I honestly believe that we are doing important work in Pakistan and that we need to be here doing it. Places like Pakistan need the very best of our people, the most talented and the hardest working. With one or two exceptions (whom my career aspirations prevent me from identifying by name) we do have a talented hard working team in place.

These are the cars I intend to use for my departure ride to the airport.

My Motor Pool drivers!

Now it's time to sit back and enjoy the waning light over the Margalla Hills, smoke a cigar and watch the parrots fly in and out of my trees. I'll miss my place here. I'll miss the good friends I'm leaving behind, Americans and Pakistani, and the pace of work at the Embassy. I'll miss Islamabad and the adventure of trying to find a way to get to the Diplomatic Enclave amid random road closures every day. I'll miss the men who work for me and the people to whom I report. I might even miss my guards, given time.

I will certainly miss Pakistan. It's been an incredible year.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Marriott Hotel

A subtle difference between the old hands here in Islamabad and the newbies was made clear last Saturday night. During a barbecue party at a private residence in the city there was a flash that lit up the night sky, a tremendous bang of an explosion and the ground shook momentarily. The new folks all looked up and said, "What was that?!" Three or four of us who have been here a while were already calling our sections and heading for vehicles to get us back to the Embassy. If you live in Islamabad long enough, you recognize bombs when you hear them.

I've been here through four bombings:

Luna Caprese Restaurant. Four FBI agents were seriously injured and a Turkish woman was killed when a man ran up an alley next to the outdoor restaurant and threw a satchel bomb over the wall. This relatively small explosive device, thrown into a confined area, could only be heard in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant. It was determined, after the Luna Caprese bombing, that we were at greater risk in the markets on Saturdays because of the crowds, so Saturday shopping was added to the list of security restrictions.

Danish Embassy. A suicide bomber drove a small car down the street and detonated his bomb in front of the Danish Embassy, killing several guards and a young boy who just happened to walk down the wrong street at the wrong time. No Danes were injured in the attack, although their building suffered some damage. The Danish Embassy is on the street just behind my house and the blast blew out all my windows and doors and small pieces of the bomber's vehicle were found in my yard. Seven other Embassy houses were damaged to one degree or another, but mine was the worst. The advantage of that was that the houses were repaired in order of severity of damage, so mine got fixed first! This blast could be heard as far away as the Diplomatic Enclave. Security reminders were sent out and all our Motor Pool drivers were put through a refresher course covering their particular security responsibilities.

Red Mosque 2. A suicide bomber wearing an explosives laden vest walked into a group of policemen and killed twenty of them. The police were there to maintain crowd control during demonstrations on the anniversary of the storming of the Red Mosque. Although my house is well over a mile from where the explosion took place, I heard this blast quite clearly. While this explosion caused no injuries to Embassy personnel or damage to our properties, it served as a very clear reminder of why our security measures are in place.

Marriott Hotel. A truck carrying approximately one ton of explosives attempted to crash the security barrier at the Marriott Hotel. The guards at the barrier shot out his tires and prevented him from pulling up alongside the hotel before he detonated. When he triggered his bomb, he destroyed the hotel and left a crater in the road that measures forty feet across and twenty-five feet deep. His truck, a very large and colorfully painted dump truck, completely disappeared. After the blast, no piece of this massive machine was found that couldn't be held in the palm of your hand. Thirty-six Embassy houses in the area were damaged with the usual broken windows and blown out doors. I was more than two miles away and felt the concussion.

So, the Marriott is gone, destroyed by the explosion and the fire that followed it. The death toll is still being tallied as the wreckage of the building is searched for staff and guests who were killed in the fire. Three American diplomats, many other foreigners and the Czech Ambassador to Pakistan are among the fatalities. Our men were here TDY, which means on temporary duty. They had only just arrived. Similarly, the Czech Ambassador had also just arrived in Islamabad to begin his new assignment. As usual, the people who bore the brunt of this attack were working class Pakistanis. The guards at the barrier, the doormen, the bell-hops and concierge at the front door, and the front desk personnel in the lobby were all killed.

There were several very good restaurants in the Marriott and we were allowed to eat in them. The restaurants in the Marriott and Serena hotels and the Monal Restaurant in the Margalla Hills were all approved for Americans even though security concerns prevented us from eating in any of the other restaurants in town after the Luna Caprese bombing. People from the Embassy who were dining in the various restaurants in the Marriott on Saturday night tell of the waiters and waitresses who calmly led their guests out through the kitchens to safety after the explosion. Although many of these people, guests and staff alike, were bleeding and in shock there wasn't any panic in the smoke and chaos and most made it to safety.

For the time being, we aren't allowed to do anything any more. That includes all of the small freedoms we used to enjoy, such as going to the grocery store on weekdays or hiking on the one approved trail in the Margalla Hills or day trips to Taxila in armored vehicles. None of these activities are inherently more dangerous, or safer, than they were before the Marriott bombing but they are now prohibited. In this day and age, it is far better to be overly restrictive than to make a mistake. Right now our every focus is on ensuring the security and safety of our people.

The Czech ambassador was killed in the Marriott explosion and, because they don't have support staff here, the Germans offered to help repatriate his remains. They contacted us to see if we could give them a coffin. Coffins must be lead lined to be carried on airplanes and we have a small supply of them in our warehouse. We explained that we would have to charge the German Embassy for the coffin because it was an 'accountable' item in our inventory and the cost would be approximately $1,000. The Germans said they'd get back to us. Later I received a call from the French Embassy asking me if I knew of any local vendors who might sell them a lead lined coffin. They were flying the Czech ambassador home and needed a coffin. I told them that the Germans had already called about the coffin and I asked if they wanted it instead. They said, "the Germans, apparently, want to shop around". Ahh, Pakistan, everything is negotiable.

I made several attempts to get close to the Marriott to take a few pictures of the building and the crater in front of it but the police kept chasing me away. Not being one to let a couple of hundred angry nervous heavily armed Pakistani policemen deter me, I had Basharat (my driver) circle around to different approaches to the building. We were able to talk our way past the first two roadblocks and then I tried to walk in from there. Unfortunately, the police made it abundantly clear that if I didn't return to my vehicle and leave immediately, I would be given the right to remain silent, etc. The thought of having to phone the Ambassador to ask her for bail money helped me realize that I wouldn't be getting any pictures of the Marriott any time soon.

Virtually everyone here has a little countdown meter on their computer that shows how many days he or she has left on their tour. Even though I like it here and am not chomping at the bit to leave, I check my meter every once in a while like everyone else. A notable day in the timeline is the day you go into double digits and folks wander around announcing, "Ninety-nine to go!" The real countdown begins at sixty days when your official check-out list is issued and you start to mark things off. Once you hit the thirty day mark, you become a "double digit midget" and people begin asking you if you have room in your allotment for them to send stuff back with you. I'm under forty days now and have begun the rather formal process of getting my orders cut to return to Washington. I'm still trying to figure out how I'll get back because both British Airways and Lufthansa pulled out of Pakistan this week.

I was in Pakistan for the declaration of Martial Law and the ensuing riots, the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Karachi and the ensuing riots, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi and the ensuing riots, the relatively peaceful and democratic elections that returned two convicted felons to office, the steady and progressive escalation of the fundamentalist insurgency in the FATA, the targeted attack on the Principal Officer in our Consulate in Peshawar and the four above-mentioned bombings. It's been an extraordinarily interesting year and an experience that I'll never forget. We are reminded on a daily basis that Pakistan is the front line in the war on terrorism and that we are working under unique and exceptional conditions. I often am amazed that I've been given this opportunity especially at this stage of my life.

I feel like I've come full circle now. When I first arrived at Post, I walked around and didn't know any of the people I saw. Now, because this is a one year post and our turnover season is the late Summer and early Fall, I walk around and don't know any of the people I see. It's time for me to think about going home and letting the new guys have all the fun. In no time at all they'll look over at the even newer arrivals and say, "Oh, that's a bomb and now here's what we do..."

These are pictures of the Government building that was down the street a little way from the Marriott Hotel. The blast killed six men who were working late in this building.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

R&R Redux

The Man Who Would Be King

I have three guards. Azad is a man of about 40, bearded and serious. He speaks a bit of English and between that and my broken Urdu we communicate with some degree of understanding. Saqib is the youngest guard and he too speaks a little English but, as he is highly excitable and borderline insane, we don't communicate so well. Then there is Sher Mohammad, the 'Lion of the Pathans'. Sher Mohammad is in his late 60s or early 70s and speaks only Pashto so communication with him is all but impossible. He takes his work very seriously and always carries himself with great dignity so it came as somewhat of a surprise to us all when he returned from his days off and a visit back to his village in the FATA with his grey hair dyed bright orange. This may have some cultural significance among Pathans of which we're unaware, but more likely it's a simple fashion statement gone badly awry. Sher Mohammad continued to behave with the same serious and dignified approach to his work that he's always shown so I became used to his orange hair curling out from under his Wackenhut Guards hat. Then I came home from work one day to discover that the 'Lion of the Pathans' was wearing mascara, eyeliner and makeup on his cheeks. The Pathans are fierce and proud warriors who have controlled the mountain passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan for centuries. They have occasionally been defeated in battle but never conquered and they always avenge any slight, real or imagined. I was, therefore, careful to continue to treat Sher Mohammad with all the respect and courtesy due a cross-dressing senior citizen Pathan carrying a gun. And I immediately put in for my second R&R.

I made reservations at a resort in the Maldive Islands that was reputed to have great food and an excellent dive center. My plan was to spend ten days lying in the sun, reading books, eating big meals, smoking cigars, and doing some scuba diving. The resort was called Herathera which means "Hideaway" in the local language. I would live in a beach villa that didn't have a 'safe' room, Phase 3 security, two-way radio or armed guards. When the mood struck me I would walk up and down the beach and I wouldn't ride in an armored vehicle for the whole ten days. It took me just over 24 hours to get from Islamabad to Herathera. I flew to Dubai where I had a sixteen hour layover but the airline gave me a complimentary hotel room and I managed to both get some rest and see a little of the city. Then I flew from Dubai to Male, the capitol of the Maldives. In Male I transferred to a small twin engined plane for another hour and a half flight down to Gan, the island with an airport on the atoll with Herathera. From Gan I took a 25 minute speedboat ride across the lagoon to Herathera and then I was there, one speedboat ride too far, in my opinion, to be summoned back to the Embassy for any perceived emergencies.

The first thing I noticed about Herathera was that it was no longer called Herathera. It had changed ownership since I made my reservation and is now called Han'dhufushi which means something other than Hideaway in the local language but I couldn't determine exactly what that might be. Under either name my villa was excellent and opened up right onto the lagoon so after a short nap I visited the dive center to pick up a mask, snorkel and fins. The day was overcast but warm and I swam around the reef for almost three hours. It may surprise you to learn that you can become pretty severely sunburned while snorkeling for three hours under an overcast sky; it did me. However, because the sunburn was on my back and calves and I couldn't see it, I decided to just ignore it and hoped it would go away. When that plan didn't work so well I bought some exorbitantly priced spray stuff that actually took the sting out. I snorkeled every day and went scuba diving every second day. There were reef fish of every imaginable shape and color, dolphins, turtles, moray eels, manta rays and sharks all over the lagoon. The underwater scenery was amazing!

Sartorial splendor on R&R

The staff decorated my bed on my birthday

My vllla

Three meals a day were included in the price of the room and the food was delicious. There was a salad table, a bread & cheese table, a row of serving dishes with a wide range of hot foods, a dessert table and two chefs who cooked at the grill. There was no limit to the number of times you could waddle back up to the buffet and I began to feel as if I were conducting an experiment in seeing how far the human skin will stretch.

The view from my dining room table

I brought along a stack of books and a box of cigars and spent much of each day lying in the shade relaxing. Every day, in the late afternoon, bats the size of flying monkeys came out and flew up and down the beach. In addition to their well known powers of sonar and echolocation they also seemed to be able to sense when a very sunburned man was trying to take a picture of them and would only come by when my camera was back in the room.

Dolphins played around the dive boat every day

One of the dive boats

Bats aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Han'dhufushi Resort to anyone interested in a quiet relaxing vacation in a remote idyllic spot. Bring suntan lotion and, if you're so inclined, bat repellent.

Caped Crusader, where art thou?

It took another full day to fly back to Pak where I did my laundry, slept for a few hours, repacked my bag and headed back out to the airport for a flight to Skardu in Kashmir. I had reservations at a hotel near K2 and was looking forward to seeing that famous mountain and taking some pictures of it. While I was sleeping Musharraf resigned. The country didn't explode so I didn't cancel my trip.

The first thing you notice when you fly on Pakistan International Airlines is that the flight attendants recite a prayer before takeoff. "Bismillah heerachman neeraheem" or "We begin with the name of God". Prior to descent they say, "We will be landing, Inshallah (God willing), at Skardu Airport in ten minutes". The next thing that strikes you on the flight to Skardu is that after climbing for 40 minutes out of Islamabad and negotiating narrow mountain passes that seem to be only marginally wider than the plane's wingspan, you land. You don't actually descend to land, you just land. Inshallah! Skardu is well over a mile high and at that altitude it is still the lowest point in the entire surrounding area.

This ruffian was spotted near the warning sign.

I stayed in a 17th century fort that's been converted into a very nice hotel called Shigar Fort. It's in the next valley over from Skardu and involves an interesting drive across one of the passes and along a very narrow two lane road that, in typically quaint Pakistani fashion, has no barriers or guardrails along the drop-off side. "Bismillah heerachman neeraheem" indeed! Upon checking in at Shigar Fort I asked the Manager if it was possible to have a room with a view of K2. He thought about it for a minute and then said, "No, not from this hotel." I asked him which hotel had rooms with views of K2 and he said, "Well, to see K2 we can rent you a jeep and you drive eight hours north until the road ends and then you hike for seven days and if the weather is clear you can see K2 from that spot." Which explains why I haven't seen K2 to date.

Shigar Fort Hotel

The hallway to my room in Shigar Fort

The doorway to the hallway to my room in Shigar Fort

A 'charpai' on the grounds of Shigar Fort

Instead of going to K2 I hired a car and driver to take me to the Deosai Plateau which has views of lots of very tall mountains, although none of them are famous. The car picked me up at the hotel and drove back along the narrow mountain road towards Skardu then south to the Plateau. It was an old Toyota Corolla with no shocks, bald tires, loose steering and bad brakes but the driver managed to hammer it along at just under the speed of sound and gave a whole new meaning to the word "careening" as we rounded the turns. Looking down into the river valleys thousands of feet below us as we rocketed along the road I didn't want to distract the driver so I whimpered softly instead of screaming out loud. The situation became marginally more terrifying when the driver received a call on his cell phone and proceeded to have a long animated conversation while sliding around the gravel strewn mountain road. Then, as if to prove that it can always get worse, he began to use his non-essential hand (the one doing the steering not the one holding the cell phone) to fiddle with his tape deck. Although not many things worked on this small decrepit juggernaut of a vehicle, I'm happy to report that the tape deck functioned perfectly and for the next several hours I was treated to very very loud music. It was atonal, repetitive, wailing and each song lasted approximately seven hundred hours. The driver continued to shout into his cell phone and, from time to time, would use his non-essential steering hand to see if he could boost a bit more volume from the tape deck. Flying off the road into one of the river valleys below began to look like an appealing option to me.

This isn't K2, seen from the PIA flight into Skardu.

Satpara Lake seen in the distance

Satpara Village as seen from a very high mountain road

I had decided to visit the Deosai Plateau National Park because the hotel manager had assured me that there were more types of wild flowers found there than could be seen anywhere else in the country. I was no longer a novice at this so I made him guarantee that I could see this wild mosaic of color from the jeep on the road and wouldn't have to hike for days in order to do so. No, the flowers grew everywhere and the road across the Plateau cut straight through them.

The Plateau looked like a lunar landscape, dry, featureless and brown. When I returned to the hotel and told him that I hadn't seen so much as a green leaf the hotel manager explained patiently and slowly, as if he finally realized that I was a bit dim, that the wild flowers grew in great the Spring...and that I really should choose my time to visit more carefully. The absence of flowers didn't really bother me too much because the drive through the mountains was spectacular and the views from the Plateau were incredible.

This patch of lichen represents the riotous spray of colors seen when the wildflowers bloom in Spring

The Deosai Plateau, Skardu and Kashmir are amazing places to visit with magnificent views of the Karakoram Mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. The shopkeepers and businessmen in Skardu are suffering because there is virtually no tourism any more and tourism is the foundation of their economy. They repeatedly asked me to "tell Americans to come here" and assured me that Osama was nowhere near Skardu (and if he's up at K2 it'll take him seven days to hike to a road to hitchhike into town!). Unfortunately, after a period of relative calm, Kashmir seems to be on the verge of erupting into sectarian violence again. It's truly a shame that Kashmir isn't safe for tourists now because Americans would flock to this part of the world and they'd spend more money than we currently give to the Government of Pakistan. Tourist dollars put directly into the hands of shopkeepers, hotels, restaurants and local businesses would do more to reduce Pakistan's crushing poverty than all our well-intentioned government supplied aid put into the hands (pockets) of the politicians and military.

Town meeting in Skardu

Skardu's main shopping district

I flew back into Islamabad on Sunday and realized that I was completely rested and ready to get back to the job. I like the people I work with here, I enjoy the work I do and, in spite of our security restrictions, I like living in Pakistan. When the car bringing me back from the airport pulled into my driveway, Sher 'The Lion of the Pathans' Mohammad opened my gate, saluted touching his fingertips to his silver grey hair and smiled a make-up free smile. Everything seems to be back to normal (by Pakistan standards anyway) again and it's good to be home.

Last evening at Han'dhufushi

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Khyber Pass

The entrance to the Khyber Pass, seen from the open door of a Huey gunship.

I flew over the Khyber Pass in a helicopter gunship the other day. I'm not quite certain why I was given this highly sought after opportunity but when it was offered to me I jumped at the chance. A very senior State Department official and his Staff Assistant were here on an official visit and his program included a tour of Peshawar with a flyover of the FATA and the Khyber Pass.

The FATA is the Federally Administered Tribal Area and it's the place in Pakistan where most of the Taliban and other righteous militants gather, plot mayhem and hide from the light of day. The Khyber Pass is the historic route into the Indian Subcontinent and its military significance has been recognized and exploited by invading armies from Alexander the Great to the British Army of the Indus.

While it would be truly interesting to drive through the Khyber Pass and you'd gain a still greater appreciation for it if you hiked through it like an invading army, it's far safer and much easier to simply fly over it in a helicopter. The Government of Pakistan recently tried trucking a couple of helicopters over the Pass but, sadly, they were stolen by brigands along the way. No, it's much better to actually fly the darn things in the manner in which they were intended.

So we, the senior State Department official, his assistant, his Embassy supplied Control Officer and I, piled into two armored Land Cruisers and drove up to Peshawar from Islamabad. The senior State Department official (aka the Principal) and his Control Officer rode in the front car and I, as is my habit, rode in the back car (aka the Straggler). His bodyguard rode shotgun in his vehicle which meant that his Staff Assistant had to either ride three across in the back seat with him and the Control Officer or could ride in relative comfort with me. It is the nature of Staff Assistants to prefer to be close to power and I use the word 'prefer' in the sense that they would eat their own children for a chance to sit behind the Principal and whisper in his ear at a meeting. So the Staff Assistant had to be ordered into the Straggler and we set off for Peshawar, the Birthplace of Al Qaeda and current Home of the Taliban who, by the way, are the creature come into being with the full aid and support of the ISI, Pakistan's version of the CIA.

The Frontier Corps is responsible for maintaining control of this region.

Peshawar is now and ever was the gateway to the Pass. It has been fought over and occupied again and again throughout recorded history and is currently under the nominal control of the Government of Pakistan. Coming into Pakistan from Afghanistan, once past Peshawar, you are in the heart of the Punjab, the rich fertile Indus River valley. It's a two hour drive from Islamabad to Peshawar on a very modern and beautifully maintained motorway through a lush and green countryside and by the second hour the Staff Assistant had relaxed enough to begin to enjoy the scenery. Prior to that she had been very busy identifying every bearded man on a motorcycle as a potential suicide bomber. There are a lot of bearded men on motorcycles in Pakistan. Before she left the States someone told her that Pakistan is a 'dangerous' place and she, bless her heart, was certain that everyone we saw was poised to attack. I pointed out that anyone attacking us would certainly go for the front car, which we refer to as the 'Target', and that seemed to reassure her a bit.

Haystacks in a farm field on the Islamabad-Peshawar road.

Public transportation on the Islamabad-Peshawar road.

Public transportation in Peshawar.

When we arrived at the Consulate in Peshawar, the official party went off to have official meetings and I spent the morning with my counterpart, the GSO. He's a man about my own age, I know him well and we have a lot in common so I was able to "read between the lines" when he asked in perfectly phrased diplomatic terms, "How the f**k did you get a ride over the Pass, you a*****e?". The man's a poet.

This somewhat disturbing replica of a small plane going down in flames is at the entrance to the 11th Corps airfield.

After lunch he and I drove out to the 11th Corps military airfield to meet up with the official party and board the helicopters. We were driven out to the waiting aircraft and were told to board. The Principal and Control Officer were directed to the first helo which was painted in very military looking camouflage colors and the Staff Assistant and I were asked to get into the second machine which was painted olive drab. The Staff Assistant had had enough and stated most emphatically, "I'm going in that one!" and clambered into the camouflaged helicopter. As she was crawling into it she turned, saw me point at it and mouth the word "Target" and then I watched her knees buckle as I walked to my now private and personal aircraft.

The Khyber Pass!

The flyover was incredible! In the Khyber Pass we flew below the mountain peaks on either side and over forts, gun emplacements, rivers and roads. The doors were left open and I sat beside the door gunner on the left hand side. The winds were gusting with some strength through the Pass that day and we were batted around like a bingo ball in a mixer. At first it was a little unnerving to be flying in a narrow canyon, seemingly close enough to touch the rocks on either side, but I became so busy taking video and still pictures that I forgot to be nervous. The pilots, who do this regularly, were steering with their feet and eating peanuts from a bag with their hands. We spent an hour flying through and around the Pass before turning back towards home. The helicopters took us all the way back to Islamabad and we had an excellent view of the Punjab in all its splendor.

A fort in the Pass. Every time I asked the crew what this building was they looked down and said, "What Building?"

This is the beginning of the two lane road through the Khyber Pass. If ever a road needed a 'Don't Pick Up Hitchhikers' sign, this is that road.

This town may or may not have been in the FATA. If it wasn't, it was pretty damn close.

These fields are definitely positively in the Punjab. I think.

This is a Huey 2, a Vietnam era helicopter that's been refitted with new avionics, engine and rotors. It was my personal aircraft for over two hours.

The 'Target'.

One of my colleagues told this story of her encounter with the Islamabad traffic police. She ran a red light and was pulled over by the cop on the corner.

"Madam, you ran through the red light."
"Yes, I did."
"No, Madam, you ran through the red light."
"Yes, you're right, I did."
"Yes, you did!"
"That's right, I did. So you can just give me my ticket."
"I can't give you a ticket. We don't have any paper."

If that doesn't sum up Pakistan for you then consider that several of my colleagues have opened tabs with the traffic police. They put down money on account at the police station and the cops just deduct from it for each violation.

So, remember...Don't walk through the Pass, don't ride in the 'Target' and never leave your helicopter parked on a truck!