'On the Edge' with Rumsfeld in Afghanistan
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
HERAT, Afghanistan, April 30, 2002 Security agents tasked to protect Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described his recent meeting with Ismail Khan here as a situation "on the edge."
Those who accompanied Rumsfeld on his April 25 to 29 swing through Central Asia described the night visit to a desert airstrip here as "surreal." Herat, in western Afghanistan, is less than 50 miles from the Iranian border. None could say when they'd ever before been with a defense secretary in such an uncertain, potentially hostile environment.
Before the interim government was established in Afghanistan a few months ago, the press would have referred to Khan as a powerful warlord with an army estimated at about 30,000 fighters. Today, Khan is known as the governor of Herat.
Rumsfeld -- self-proclaimed risk taker that he is -- decided he wanted to meet Khan during his trip to Afghanistan and neighboring nations. As a security precaution, defense officials did not announce the complete trip itinerary to the media in advance as they usually do. Instead, the world pretty much learned of the secretary's travels stop by stop.
Flying first from Washington to Kyrgyzstan to visit U.S. and coalition support troops, Rumsfeld and his delegation went to Afghanistan early the next morning. At various times, members of the delegation heard that the Herat meeting was on, then off. By the time Rumsfeld's Air Force C-17 transport plane touched down at Bagram Air Base, the meeting was on again.
After addressing U.S. and coalition troops at Bagram, Rumsfeld took off on CH-47 helicopters for Kabul, the Afghan capital city. Fighting had broken out in the Gardez area, about 65 miles to the south, so security was extremely tight. The choppers, escorted by Apache attack helicopters, flew evasive maneuvers at low levels to get the boss to his meetings in Kabul.
Arriving safely in Kabul, Rumsfeld met with Interim Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai before returning to Bagram for his flight to Herat.
Instead of boarding a C-17, the aircraft defense secretaries normally fly in a combat theater, Rumsfeld and his group boarded a U.S. Air Force MC-130 Combat Talon. Similar in appearance, but far smaller in size than a C-17, the Talon can land virtually anywhere, anytime, without landing lights.
The Talon is used to insert, extract and resupply special operations forces and equipment in enemy territory. It's equipped with night-vision equipment and boasts a special, high-tech communications console.
Rumsfeld's traveling party of about 30 people, a few assistant secretaries, other staff and 12 members of the press, boarded the combat-ready aircraft's front stairway. Inside, dim red lights showed two rows of metal-framed, red-canvas seats along the walls and two more rows sitting back to back in the center, separated by black harness- netting.
Members of the delegation had to sit knee to knee, and tall folks had to interlace their knees with the passenger across the narrow aisle. They could hardly move in any direction. Fuel fumes and constant engine reverberations filled the enclosed air space. It was tight and noisy. And hot, then cold, then hot as air heaters went on and off.
All of this should have indicated that something was up to those who've often traveled with the nation's defense secretaries. They should have known that somehow, this visit was not going to be like any other.
But as the special operations aircraft took off and reached flying altitude, the jet-lagged group from D.C. settled in for the hour-and-a-half flight. Many napped, heads bobbing onto their chests or shoulders as the MC-130 swayed and bounced in turbulent air. People only began stirring when the plane started its descent and the Air Force crew prepared for landing.
Touching down with a jarring whack, the plane taxied to a halt. When the crew lowered the tail ramp, all anyone could see was a full moon in the black night sky, and, in all directions, nothing but desert -- perfectly flat desert. As Rumsfeld and his group moved off the ramp, they stepped onto the metal grates of a temporary airstrip and into the hot blast of the engines' roaring exhaust.
On the ground, they saw no lights, no other aircraft or vehicles, only a small, dimly lit, white terminal about 200 yards away. A short distance from the plane, Ismail Khan was waiting to greet the defense secretary of the United States. Dressed in a pale blue robe with long white vest and black-and-white checked headscarf, the elderly Afghan had a full white beard and looked like he'd stepped out of a biblical age.
As the two men turned together toward the terminal, a swarm of about 60 photographers, reporters, straphangers and soldiers -- Afghan and American -- seemingly from out of nowhere surrounded them. The crowd stayed at arm's length, moving as the two dignitaries moved, slowly forward into the night. Amid the dark, noise and confusion, Rumsfeld's staff and traveling press had no choice but to join the throng.
Moving away from the idling MC-130, Khan directed Rumsfeld toward the edge of the airstrip. There, a blinding television camera floodlight revealed Khan's honor guard and military band. Dressed in green uniforms, white spats and black boots, the Afghan soldiers stood at attention in one rank along the airstrip's edge.
Rumsfeld, decked in his traditional dark suit, white shirt and tie, accompanied by Khan and a translator, then trooped the line and shook hands with each soldier along the way. Reaching the end, they turned back, returned to their starting point, turned and walked the line again this time with no handshaking.
All the while, U.S. and Afghan photographers kept weaving in and out of the throng, scurrying for position in front of the advancing duo. At the end of the row of honor guards, Rumsfeld and Khan turned a right angle to troop another line.
A couple hundred serious-looking, mostly bearded Mujahedin, dressed in white overshirts and pants and wrapped in black and white headscarves, stood in line all the way to the terminal. Each was armed with an AK-47 or other rifle. Some had sabers dangling from their waists.
As Rumsfeld and Khan moved from man to man down the line, again shaking hands, U.S. security agents cleared the way and motioned for the Afghan soldiers to keep the sabers DOWN. Mounting a ceremonial stand in front of the terminal, the defense secretary and the Afghan governor then stood at attention as the band passed in review playing an Afghan march, followed by Khan's honor guard, goose-stepping in typical Soviet style.
Overall, the arrival ceremony and setting might have looked unusual by day. It's not often Westerners get to witness such a scene. But by night, under a full moon, in the wind, and with the aircraft's engines still revving in the background, it was extraordinary, and admittedly, a bit frightening. Unbeknownst to many in Rumsfeld's delegation, however, the situation was far more secure than it looked.
Two fighter jets flying wingtip to wingtip had escorted the MC-130 to Herat. Two others would escort the plane out. The MC-130 kept its engines running and moved without lights from one spot to another as a tactical shell game, just in case anyone was targeting the airfield. The crew was in contact with the Pentagon through a classified satellite network hookup.
Earlier that morning, Rumsfeld's security team also had tasked military officials to deploy about 40 infantry soldiers in full battle dress at the isolated, remote airstrip. U.S. snipers stood watch atop the terminal, scanning the crowd. An Army Special Forces team based in the area was also called in, and one could only guess the affiliation of a number of other Americans in the crowd, some in partial uniforms, others in civilian clothes.
When Rumsfeld and Khan and their immediate staff entered the terminal, most of the crowd remained outside, milling in wait. Inside the grim, stark terminal, according to a delegation member who went in with Rumsfeld, the Americans entered an ornately decorated, red-carpeted conference room. Two large chairs sat at the center of a half-circle of seats. Here, Rumsfeld and Khan held their talks. A senior official later told the U.S. press that Khan had agreed to support an Afghan national army and that he thought it would work.
Outside, the press and other members of the U.S. delegation, particularly the four women in the group, became star attractions. Groups of Afghan soldiers blatantly stared continuously at the Western women whose faces and hair were uncovered, forbidden in their world. These men rarely see any woman without a concealing burka, except their mothers, sisters and daughters.
At first, the American women felt uncomfortable and self- conscious. When one began to smile, laugh and talk to a male American colleague, the Afghan men moved even closer to better hear her. The tense atmosphere changed somewhat, however, when an Afghan soldier indicated to a woman journalist that he wanted her to take his picture. She obliged and then showed the soldier his picture on the camera's digital screen. That proved to be an obvious delight for the men.
Shyly smiling and gesturing, more and more Afghan soldiers asked to have their pictures taken. They'd take a quick look, nod and move away. One gray-bearded Afghan man made eye contact with the photographer, then put his hand on his heart and nodded before he disappeared into the crowd. Others simply said, "Thank you."
By the time Rumsfeld and Khan emerged from the terminal more than an hour later, the size of the crowd and the tension had diminished. Still, the members of Rumsfeld's delegation were relieved to cram aboard the MC-130 and take off.
Two and a half hours later, after a stomach-turning aerial refueling, the delegation landed at about midnight in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. When they arrived at their Western- style hotel, the contrast between where they'd just been and the plush lobby was striking. The next morning, when the group boarded their C-32 passenger jet for the next leg of their journey, it was like coming back to the mother ship after their adventure on the Combat Talon.
Shortly before taking off for Astana, Kazakhstan, Rumsfeld greeted the press seated in the rear of the plane.
"I think you all owe me a round of applause for taking you with me to Herat last night," the grinning defense secretary told the press. "Was that a setting or what?
"I didn't go there by accident," Rumsfeld noted. "I'm glad I did. It's helpful for me to meet the players, to get a sense of them and to hear from them what they're thinking publicly and privately."
Khan's "an appealing person," the secretary added. "He's thoughtful, measured and self-confident." The Afghan leader only spoke one word of English during the meeting, he said. When Khan began speaking before the secretary was finished speaking, the Afghan leader cordially said, "Sorry."
Wrapping up his remarks, Rumsfeld candidly told the inquisitive reporters: "I could tell you what we talked about, but I'm not going to."