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!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Holy Grail

I like a cup of coffee in the morning. I almost never have more than just the one cup, but I really enjoy that cup. Our cafeteria doesn't open until 7:00am and I am often on the compound before then and am forced to wait for my coffee. Many of my colleagues have those insulated coffee mugs made for commuters and bring a cup with them from home. This seemed to be a good idea to me, but I couldn't find one. I kept going to the commissary hoping to find one but, because they don't carry them, I never found one. Nonetheless, I looked for one each and every time I shopped at the commissary sometimes even making a special trip down to that end of the compound just to see if one had magically materialized.

Then one day before we destroyed my fleet of beat up vehicles and I lost my car to the vagaries of the Diplomatic Security Driver Training course I came up with a plan, I'd go to the market and buy my insulated coffee mug there! It's brilliance like this that has seen me become the successful Foreign Service Officer I am today. So I fired up my metallic pink KIA and headed for Khosar Market and a very nicely stocked kitchen supplies store. You can well imagine my disappointment upon discovering that this very nicely stocked kitchen supplies store carried everything from French coffee presses to Italian espresso machines but not a single insulated coffee mug.

Nonetheless I had come all this way and I felt fairly certain that the mug would appear if I put a little more effort into the looking for it, so I prowled the aisles, moved sundries, peered into gaps and spaces on the shelves and in general made a nuisance of myself. Then, quite reasonably, I got mad at the owner and clerks who were following me around and basically accused them of hiding the mugs from me. The Urdu word for "get out!" is "Jao!" but I didn't quite catch the correct pronunciation of the word for "lunatic".

The grocery store I frequent is right next door to the inadequately stocked kitchen supplies store and they carry Hagen Daz in limited flavors which would help take the sting out of my unsuccessful search for a mug. While paying for the ice cream I remembered that the grocery store had a small drug store type section upstairs and I climbed the stairs without any real hope of actually finding a mug. However, on a shelf directly opposite the top of the stairs was the last commuter's insulated coffee mug available for sale, quite possibly, in Pakistan. Between me and the mug were two Swedish diplomats, women who were looking at the mug, but, and I stress this point in my defense, they had not actually touched it yet. Using every inch of my reach I managed to wedge myself in between them and grabbed the mug. Diplomacy be damned, the mug was mine.

I paid for the mug and took it home. It was only several days later when I did the math that I realized I'd paid just over $35 for a mug that the Marriott Hotel routinely gives away as a promotional item. Of course, my mug doesn't have the Marriott logo printed tackily on the side. It has SIGG printed on the side, which turns out to be a Swiss company that manufactures mugs, water bottles and other promotional giveaways. All I can say is that my coffee has never tasted so good.

This week was a holiday week, someone left the doors of Congress unlocked and we had a surge in congressional delegations. Members of both Houses of Congress visit Pakistan with great regularity, never more so than over a holiday, to confer with various senior Pakistani officials including the President, the Prime Minister and the heads of the other two major political parties. That these Members are Honorable men is an indisputable fact, for it says so on their business cards, and they come in an honest attempt to educate themselves on the situation here to help them formulate our policy towards Pakistan in a way that best reflects our national interests.

A week when five separate delegations descend on us 'en masse' means two things to me; first, I will get very little sleep and second, my motor pool will be given every opportunity to shine. This week, between Monday at 3:00am when the fun began and Saturday at 10:00am when the last delegation boarded their military transport for home, we staged fifty-one separate motorcades and moved the five delegations around like pieces on a chessboard. Every vehicle was where it was supposed to be, when it was supposed to be there. Every Honorable Member was transported in safety and security, often at high speed, without incident. Our drivers did an outstanding job! I rode the Control Vehicle or Straggler in most of these movements. When the principal delegate and his/her party are strapped in, the motorcade moves out whether all of our embassy officers are in vehicles or not. The Straggler is there to make sure that anyone missing the move gets brought along to the next stop.

President Musharraf has a beautiful compound in Rawalpindi known as the Camp Office and the drivers, security people and I often sit there enjoying a cup of tea while the Honorable Members meet with him to discuss policy and have their pictures taken. The Prime Minister's residence is in Islamabad on a hill with a glorious view of the city and the Margalla Hills and he prefers to meet with our delegations there rather than in his office, leaving those of us who don't make policy in either Pakistan or America to sit outside and admire that view while hoping that the Honorable Members, against all odds, get it right. It is fairly evident to the committee of us who sit outside the meetings and don't take part in the photo opportunities that the problems here are huge and complex and won't begin to be solved until the grinding poverty in this country is addressed. Pakistan is a nation that needs schools and hospitals, an adequate power supply, a massive infrastructure building project, jobs and food. It has a nuclear weapon, a corrupt bureaucracy and an army that is 0 for 5 since 1947.

High speed motorcades out to the airport and the government offices in Rawalpindi with police escorts front and back and all traffic pulled aside to let us pass were very exciting when I first did them. Now I bring a book and my iPod along. I really enjoy sitting in the Straggler, reading my book, listening to music, sipping my coffee and looking out the window at this very green and beautiful city. It's quite similar to working for a living.

Standing on a hill overlooking the NWFP (Northwest Frontier Provinces).

The fabled NWFP, land of brigands, bandits, terrorists and a whole bunch of people just trying to eke a living out of rock and dirt.

We're in the Monsoon season now, it's come early this year. It's hot and humid and it rains nearly every day but the rain doesn't cool anything down. When the rain stops, the humidity in the air builds up until it rains again in a constant cycle of humid mugginess and torrential downpours. Surprisingly, I don't mind this at all. I find that I like the monsoons and that the heat doesn't bother me. It makes me feel like I'm living in a W. Somerset Maugham/Joseph Conrad sort of foreign place and I should be smoking cigarettes in long holders and drinking gin and tonics on a bamboo porch cooled by slow moving ceiling fans while complaining about the lack of 'good help'. This is also the beginning of the mango season and mango milkshakes are available at the restaurant on the compound, as are mango pies, mango ice cream, mango smoothies, mango ala mode, mango tea and mango smothered in fresh berries. Fresh mangos make the monsoons all the more bearable.

My blue aluminum commuter's insulated coffee mug works very well with mango smoothies and is, therefore, almost worth what it cost me. By the way, it turns out that the Swedish phrase, "alltfor dyr" translates as "too expensive", not "look, Sally, there's the mug we've been searching high and low for!".