CHRIS ALLEN: Afghanistan Journal — ‘You’re Going To Afghanistan? Will You be Safe?’

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to Afghanistan with three University of Nebraska at Omaha colleagues and a colleague from UNO’s office there. This was a needs assessment mission as we begin work with Kabul University and Balkh University in Afghanistan. We made a decision as a group not to blog or say anything on social media while we were there because of security concerns. I wrote some blogs while I was there, and I am publishing them now over the next few days. This is the second.

 The sound a heavily armored door on a security vehicle makes is unique.

Most doors on modern cars make a good, solid sound that might have a bit of reverberation from the sheet metal. You might hear the click of the hasp on the door engaging the post on the frame. Maybe the window rattles a little bit. It’s a “clunk” of a sound, one we’ve grown up with. The sound varies with the size and age of the car, but we all know it.

The armored door shuts with a thud. There is no other way to define it. It’s a heavy thud. There is no slight reverberation because the insides of the door are filled to the top with steel plate, at least a hundred pounds. Thud.

The climb into the SUV in is much the same as climbing into any Toyota Land Cruiser, with one exception. If the vehicle is on any sort of upward slope — even just a small upward tilt — holding a hundred-pound door open while you step on the running board and heft yourself in is a challenge, and it’s a little dangerous. The door wants to slam home, and it doesn’t care if you’re in the way. Remember when you were little and your mom said, “Watch your fingers?” This door could probably take off your arm.

Conversely, if the vehicle is tilted even slightly downward, pulling that door closed feels like an Olympic weightlifting event. Two hands are required — and maybe the outside assistance of the driver, too.

Opening the door is just the opposite. There is no “stay” to hold the door open while you get out. The door is just too heavy. It would overcome any pause on the hinge that all our regular cars have. On flat ground all is OK. On any sort of incline, it’s courteous to hold the door for others.

If you need to stow anything in the back before climbing in, the rear window panel goes up and the tail gate goes down. Then the armored door swings open to protect passengers and their possessions from attacks from the rear. The driver will place any luggage, bags or parcels in the compartment, close the armored door, lift the tail gate into place and pull down the window panel.

Are these last two armored? I don’t know; I didn’t operate them. I’ve had lots of practice with the doors, though.

Our armored vehicles have no way to roll down the windows. The windows on an armored security vehicle don’t roll down. It would pretty completely defeat the purpose of the armor. The regular safety glass has been replaced by thick, crystal-clear, bullet-resistant glass. There is no fresh breeze on a sunny day. All ventilation comes through the SUV’s air system. I didn’t ask if it’s specially filtered.

This armored SUV weighs at least a thousand pounds more than your typical off-the-lot Land Cruiser, already a heavyweight among SUVs. The eight-cylinder diesel behemoth that purrs under the hood roars to life just to overcome the inertia as you start up.

Our cars have manual transmissions. Maybe the car was just too heavy for an automatic transmission and would burn it out in no time at all, but I imagine it’s really so the driver has more control. Automatic transmissions can be a bit hesitant when you need to tear out of a dangerous situation, but a manual transmission is immediate.

Our drivers are excellent. In Mazar, where the traffic is a little lighter than in Kabul, our driver sped along at 50 to 60 miles an hour, flashing his brights (at night) or honking at vehicles ahead to move or stay out of the way. In heavier traffic he also preferred speed, but at the same time considered other drivers and especially pedestrians. And he used his turn signal, something you rarely see in Afghanistan.

He wove us into traffic and back out. On little two-lane streets that carried four lanes of traffic, he forced our SUV into forward positions, narrowly missing bumpers and fenders of other cars also trying to get ahead of others as lanes merged.

At roundabouts, that diabolical traffic system designed by British auto body shop owners, he could cross multiple lanes fearlessly, cutting off slower and smaller cars, getting us to destinations in no time at all.

The same is true in Kabul, but with heavier traffic. It takes a skillful negotiator behind the wheel to successfully navigate the thousands of cars that populate roads built only for hundreds, or even dozens.

Our drivers are always pleasant, helpful, and vigilant.

Security on this trip, for me, is tighter than it’s ever been. On my first two trips, I stayed at the UNO Team House in a residential part of Kabul. I rode in the office’s dated and unarmored SUVs, driven by the men UNO hires to do that and other odd jobs about the house. I would exit the cars on the street and walk through a door in the steel gate that led into the house’s courtyard.

This trip, my fourth, I’m staying in a fortress. A velvet prison. It’s a nicely appointed, well-equipped hotel that caters to expatriates who are here working for NGOs, contractors, security companies and businesses with deep interests in Afghanistan.

It sits at the end of a gardened and paved courtyard and is surrounded by 12-foot high walls topped with coils of razor wire. It has a fantastically equipped gym, a lane pool, sauna and steam bath, coffee shop, a pretty good buffet restaurant, and according to the hotel literature, a fully stocked bar somewhere in the facility. I never did find it.

To get into the hotel, our SUV pulls up to a cross bar. Behind that is a huge, thick steel door. When the guard identifies us, the door opens, and the cross bar is lifted. The car pulls into an area designed to hold only it. Passengers exit and walk into a security area.

The first time we had to take off our shoes, put all our bags on an X-ray belt, take everything from our pockets and pass through a metal detector. From then on, the security badge issued by the hotel was enough to get us in.

The car, meanwhile, has to wait until the first gate closes behind it. An equally heavy gate in front then opens and the car pulls into a second secure holding area, big enough for two or three cars. Presumably it is here they are checked for hidden explosives using mirrors to see underneath. We are not allowed to see this procedure. After that, a third heavy gate opens onto the courtyard where the SUV is parked.

(I usually include a photo or two that illustrates what I’m talking about. In this case, I have no photos of the SUV or the hotel. Because of security, I didn’t take any. It didn’t seem a good idea at the time. It still doesn’t.)

We are driven everywhere. On the Kabul University campus, we are allowed to walk once we are dropped off at our building. But in Mazar, it’s a different story.

We were meeting with Balkh University teachers one day when we got a call that the chancellor wanted to meet us. We climbed into the SUV, drove no more than two blocks and got out on the other side of the street. It would have been an easy and refreshing walk. But we drove, because of security concerns.

Everyone here, everyone, is aware of the security issues. They apologize we cannot simply take a drive around the city or get out and buy something in the shopping district, as I did on my first trip here in December 2010, or shop in the bazaars and street fairs, or just walk in the neighborhood and meet people, as I did in April 2013. When I told one KU faculty member that I had stayed in the team house and ridden in an old SUV with a cracked windshield three years ago, he was horrified.

“You should take more care,” he said. “You cannot do that now. It’s not safe. Even we sometimes feel not safe.”

I know this, and I’m grateful for the security. Just three days before we left for Afghanistan, a suicide bomber killed several dozen people outside one of the ministries. But this is the first time in four trips here that a bombing hasn’t happened somewhere in the city during our stay.

Fortunately on the campuses, I can meet people, talk to students and shake hands with someone other than my teammates. It’s a slim connection to Afghans and their culture, but it’s a connection I need, one that I crave.

The heaviest plated armored SUV hasn’t kept me away from that.

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