Apr 16, 2014

The First Day and the Last Day

 

As members of the delegation stepped off the road and onto the hillside, one of the guards let out a firm "No!" In his defense, he’d warned them earlier to stick close to the security team. "We have to watch for land mines," he said. "Let me check first."
 
They were standing at the side of the road in the mountains of Iraq, close to the point where Turkey and Iran converge at the northern border. Their escorts, armed Kurdish security guards, knew the terrain well and were a little nervous.
 
This would be the last of nine days spent trekking through rural Afghanistan and Iraq by this curious delegation and their security team. The delegation consisted of American philanthropist and farmer Howard G. Buffett, his son Howard W., who serves as a director of agricultural development for the U.S. Defense Department in areas of unrest outside the United States; Andy Weber, Chairman of the Farm Journal Foundation; and Kip Tom, President of Tom Farms and Farm Journal Foundation board member. Video photographer Eric Crowley and marketing executive Lou Pierce were along to document the trip and create a film about the agricultural progress that has been made in both countries since the two wars there began.
 
Howard and his Foundation have been working with the Department of Defense and the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) and other organizations like the United Nations’ World Food Programme and the Borlaug Institute to help bring stability to food-insecure regions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Andy and Kip  joined Howard on this trip as representatives of the Farm Journal Foundation and its program called Farmers Feeding the World.
 
Together, these gentlemen feel that they can tell the story of success in Afghanistan and Iraq that other media might be ignoring. Howard W. has been key to getting this delegation approved and organized – a monumental task in itself.
 
The trip started seven days ago, as the group flew into the dusty city of Kabul – a city of 2.8 million people with no discernible downtown – at least from the air. Unlike other large cities, this one consists mostly of single-story dwellings.
 
 
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The airport was buzzing with military helicopters and cargo planes. The mix of commercial airlines and military assets made it clear that this is a war zone. Kabul’s airport is big, but there’s nothing fancy about it. No grand cultural or architectural statement is made here. It’s an airport. That’s all.
 
The group was met at the entrance by a professional non-uniformed security detail that drives unmarked, armor-plated SUVs with blast-resistant windows that cannot be rolled down. These former Navy Seals and Special Operations troops would live with, transport and protect the delegation while in Afghanistan. Once packed into the convoy, the team headed for a plateau that overlooks the city of Kabul.
 
The drive took them down roads and past buildings that reminded them they were in a hostile place. Many buildings were reinforced with sandbags, concrete obstructions and tall cement walls that effectively prohibited anyone from seeing what was on the other side. The convoy drove up right past the Presidential Palace of Hamid Karzai, but no one could see it. The protective walls hid it from view.
 
Soldiers, machine guns and armored vehicles could be seen protecting buildings and strategic corners throughout the city. The security team warned the group to avoid showing cameras or taking pictures as they drove through the many military and police checkpoints. No one wants their picture taken if they are in the military or among the police here. Not right now, anyway.
 
The plateau above the city was protected by Afghan police and military personnel who viewed the convoy with caution as it passed. As the group emerged from their protective SUVs to take in the view, they noticed that at least one of the Afghan guards moved in close to keep an eye on them.
 
From this summit above the city, you can see in every direction. It was early spring and there wasn’t much color – just a dreary, grey-brown cast over everything.
  
Above the plateau was another small plateau with a swimming pool and a high-dive platform. The security detail said that it was built by the Soviets during their occupation in the 1980s and that the Taliban used the high-dive to hang people from in the 1990s.
 
There were beggars up here – two little girls who asked everyone in the group for a "dollar." They didn’t get money, but they were given bottles of water. Beggars, of course, can be found everywhere in the world, including any U.S. city or town. These two were cute. Their parents probably sent them up here to fetch whatever they could.
 
 
 
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It was starting to get dark, so the delegation was packed back into the cars and headed to a secret compound for the evening. As they drove past the Afghan military who were guarding the plateau, one of them turned back to see where the two little girls were. They were waving goodbye from fifty yards away.  That was a surprise. Beggars usually take what they can get and then scurry away. But these weren’t beggars. They were sweet little children.
 
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This was just the beginning of the arrival in Afghanistan. There was a hectic schedule planned for this group. And there would be a lot more surprises.
 
As the convoy of armor-plated SUVs made its way through the crowded city streets of Kabul, the security detail explained how they work. The vehicles are designed to blend in with others all around them. They never travel the same way twice and avoid the more traditional convoy habit of driving bumper-to-bumper as if in a parade.
 
At the compound, everyone would sleep with bullet-proof vests at their side. If they heard gunfire, explosions or sirens, they were to move quickly to a designated safe room within the facility. This is a dangerous place.
 
 

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