The road leading to Bagram Air Base is a mess. Car-sized craters dot the lane, interspersed with ruts deep enough to get lost in. For stretches, it's hard even to know where the road is as it peters out into expanses of dusty scrubland stretching for miles. Every few hundred yards, a half-built structure rises from uneven ground. It's impossible to tell whether these buildings are in the middle of construction or demolition.
Filthy children play in shadows. They throw rocks at crippled dogs and kick makeshift soccer balls of wadded trash wrapped in string.
It's about half past 9 in the morning as I ride down this road with a man named Farooz, a driver and translator. I'd hired Farooz in the Afghan capital of Kabul, about 45 minutes behind us.
Through the swirling grit that fills the air, I see large, low shapes before us. A roadblock.
"It's not always like this," Farooz says. "There must be something going on today."
There is. Somebody called in the threat of a car bomb.
A traffic jam includes ancient minivans, half-broken pickups, and what's called jingle trucks — transport vehicles adorned with flags, bells, and banners. U.S. soldiers walk about in the dusty sun shouting testily.
"Stay the fuck there!" a soldier growls, pointing an assault rifle at a man on a bicycle. He stops and fixes the soldier with a bored stare.
Farooz pulls around the mass, attempting to jump the line. Two Americans materialize, weapons fixed.
"Are you kidding?!" one of them shouts. "Fucking stop!"
Farooz steers back to the road.
The soldiers retreat to the roadblock behind two massive armored vehicles. Gunners sit atop, helmeted heads rising above .50-caliber machine guns like turtle shells.
Around us, people wait, packed into cars like frogs in a pickle jar. The jingle-truck drivers smoke. I step from the car and trudge toward the soldiers.
A young grunt stands calmly in the sun, cradling a machine gun with a grenade-launcher attachment. I wave a crumpled piece of paper, my orders, telling him I've been assigned to cover a unit. Any chance I can get through the roadblock?
He ignores the rumpled document and listens implacably behind wraparound shades. Wait like everyone else, he says. He offers to walk me back to my car.
Just then, a sedan roars around the traffic. It bears down on us in third gear. The soldier shoulders his weapon. He aims at the driver's chest while marching quick time at the oncoming car.
The soldiers behind us raise their weapons. A dozen barrels follow the man on point.
"What the fuck are you doing?" the soldier yells at the car while I step behind him. "Stop now!"
The sedan halts just ten yards from us. The soldier lowers his machine gun and smiles. "Everybody speaks weapon," he says, chuckling.
So begins my vacation in Afghanistan.
Standing on that sunny road, watching the occupants of that car throw up their hands in stark terror, I begin to doubt the wisdom of my decision. Why didn't I go to the beach?
Like many Americans, I never questioned the justness of our Afghan adventure. Basic logic: We invaded Central Asia because of the horrors of 9/11. The Taliban sheltered bin Laden. They let al Qaeda plot in safety. We had to kick their ass.
But eight years later, we're still there, and I had no idea why. Conversations with smart people in the United States got me nowhere. They talked of "geopolitical ramifications" and "bookending Pakistan." What the hell does that mean?
So I decided to go to Afghanistan and see for myself.
Saifwah stands on the porch of the Media Operations Center at Forward Operating Base Salerno , a frown wrinkling his normally smooth brow. "Walking to my car is very dangerous," he says, staring off toward the parking lot for Afghan employees. "We have a separate entrance, and it's unguarded. We could all be killed by the time soldiers came to help."
Saifwah works as a liaison to the Afghan media. He translates Army press releases and monitors newspapers and radio broadcasts. He lives in a nearby village instead of on base, which is near the town of Khost, only a few miles from the Pakistan border.
A fastidious, conservative man, Saifwah seems uncomfortable with the soldiers' rough language, and he often gets in heated discussions over the length of women's skirts with Sgt. Barbara Ospina, the public affairs officer who is his boss.
He has bigger woes, though, than skirts that are too short. The mere fact that he works here could mean a death sentence from the Taliban.
But at this moment, he's just worried about making it to his car alive. He likes his job and his boss, but he thinks the military isn't too concerned about his safety. "They don't care about us," he says. "They don't protect us enough."