A couple of weeks ago, I took one of my clients Peter Middlebrook, Chairman of Geopolicity to dinner at Nobu in Dubai.
Peter’s company is sponsoring one of our events in Algeria, and 2 in Iraq.
Over dinner, Middlebrook told me he wanted to be the lead sponsor of our New Silk Road Investment Summit which we are hosting in Kabul, Afghanistan.
But I told him we are not doing anything in Kabul…
He replied, “yes, you are and I am going to be your lead sponsor and President Karzai is going to open it.”
Within a week, Peter Middlebrook’s office got my visa, and confirmed a meeting for me and the President of Afghanistan, President Karzai as well as meetings with the Director of the World Bank, UN and two other important organizations based in Kabul.
I was excited to visit Afghanistan, especially to visit Kabul. I looked forward to meeting President Karzai.
From Dubai, It’s an easy 2 hour flight to Kabul on the low cost airline, “fly dubai.”
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to experience dodgy countries – adventures in south Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, several countries in East Africa … so I wasn’t concerned about my safety – however, to ensure I didn’t make anyone worry, only my Personal Assistant, Nic and Adam knew of my trip.
I didn’t tell Sophie.
The night before my trip, (just 8 hours before I flew) I was watching the Olympics when the program was interrupted to tell a news story about 6 Americans being killed in Afghanistan.
I am not superstitious, but as I tried to go to sleep that night … I thought about my Olympic program being interrupted to tell me about the 6 Americans killed in a country that I was just about to travel to …
Was someone whispering in my ear telling me not to go?
The flight to Kabul was easy, but the last 15 minutes were ridiculously turbulent – I had been warned that the last part of the flight would be turbulent, but what we endured was beyond anything I expected … aggressive turbulence all the way to the very end, even as we were landing.
Immigration was easy, and within 15 minutes of landing, I walked out of the Kabul Airport.
Peter had me picked up in a white UN jeep which has special security and he told me it was bullet proof and semi-bomb resistant …
I have never been in a bullet proof, semi-bomb resistant jeep before.
The traffic was terrible, but the cars pulled to the side to let our jeep go through and for safety reasons we didn’t stop at any red lights.
Peter called me to say that 3 more American’s were killed in the morning, thus he was running late to meet me because his government meetings got changed due to the American killings.
Our meeting with President Karzai was scheduled for the next day at 13:00.
Kabul has endured 30+ years of war … and large areas of the city are sand bagged, tightly fortified buildings and checks points.
It was a unique experience to drive through the road blocks, and across the city – and to witness the destruction.
I noticed how the people seem numb to the discomfort and just get on with their lives, as if they are callous to it all.
That afternoon, I met Peter at a heavily fortified building where we had our first meeting with the World Bank.
The security was the tightest I have ever experienced.
I had to go through 3 separate checks, in 3 separate walls and finally I got through, but still had to go through a last check.
Our meeting was excellent, and well worth the trip.
I quickly realized in Afghanistan, Peter Middlebrook is the man to know.
Peter lived in Kabul for 5 years from 2002-2007 and then in Baghdad for 4 years and has worked with many famous world leaders, including Hillary Clinton.
That night, over dinner he told me that 15 of his western friends (all non-military) have been killed over the 5 years he lived in Afghanistan…
I was scheduled to stay at the Serena Hotel, a 5 star heavily fortified hotel in the city … but after our first meeting, Peter suggested I stay at his Afghan friend’s house…the son of the previous deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of Afghanistan under the last King and one of the richest men in Afghanistan.
To be honest, I wanted to stay in the heavily protected hotel … because I was nervous staying at an Afghan’s house … I envisioned being woken up in the middle of the night, kidnapped …
but I didn’t want to look like a pussy in front of Peter so I “happily” agreed.
As we drove up to his friend’s house, Peter pointed to the wall of a building and told me how 3 weeks ago a suicide bomber killed 3 police .. and how there was blood and guts on the wall for several days – Momand, the man whom I was staying at his house had to get his servant to clean the wall because he was tired of looking at the blood and guts each time he left his house.
Quietly, I sat there staring at the wall …
I was staying at someone’s house who lives 4 houses away from a police complex that was recently targeted by the Taliban. Perfect.
Once inside the house, I quickly felt comfortable and forgot that I was in a semi-war zone.
The house is a large walled in compound and quite big. On the wall of the main sitting room is many beautiful pictures of Momand’s father with famous world leaders like JFK in the White House, President Johnson, Chairman Mao in China, and Ghandi.
Later that night, we had a big family dinner with some of his children – he has adopted 14 kids.
He is Afghani, but was born in America and his daughter and ex-wife, both americans live in America.
After dinner, Peter and I went for a walk around the neighbourhood.
There are no street lights so it was pitch black and we didn’t see anyone else on the street. Peter briefed me on our meeting with President Karzai the next day.
To show how small a world Kabul is, at dinner President Karzai’s brother called Momand on his mobile. Momand explained that they are close friends and speak several times a day.
I had organized with Momand to wake up at 6am and go with him to his farm (he recently bought a farm and is re-developing it) – its 20 minutes outside Kabul.
I wanted to see/experience as much as I could. He showed me the bombed out palace and pointed to a white balloon in the air … and explained that there are several balloons around the city and they are used for listening…
We had a good visit to his farm which is a bombed out complex of building … it was recently, de-mined. Surreal experience.
On the drive home we stopped by a bombed out school and he showed me drawings on the wall … the kids had done many years ago. Nearly all the walls had drawings on them, child drawings. Many drawings were of war.
He took me into the hills of Kabul .. and we drove all the way to the top.
We saw many people carrying large buckets of water up the mountain. Momand told me that there is no running water in the hills, so every day people have to get their water and carry it home (some walk several miles).
I saw a large group of men sitting at a what looked like a bus stop, Momand explained they come here and wait for free lance construction jobs, or any other labor related jobs.
We got back to the house by 10am and my meeting with President Karzai was scheduled for 1pm so I had plenty of time to change and get ready.
But when we got back, Peter told me our meeting with the President had been cancelled due to emergency meetings over the 9 killed Americans and they wanted to reschedule for the following day.
But I couldn’t stay an extra day. My flight was booked and I had to be back in Dubai. To be honest, I was looking fwd to going home. It’s a tough life in Kabul.
Peter gave me a big smile and said, “this works out better because now you have to come back to Kabul…”
After our UN meeting, Peter took me to a French restaurant called “bistro.” Solid security, and after going through two security checks, you end up in an oasis like garden, restaurant.
Beautiful area – everyone was western – many French business men.
We had a great lunch and Peter told me lots of stories (I cannot imagine living in Kabul for 5 years and then he lived in the war zone of Baghdad for 4 years) …
He explained to me in incredible detail on how rich Afghanistan is, and why the country is so strategic in the world.
We spent the rest of the afternoon, driving around and visiting check points, other areas of Kabul.
We drove past the iconic “Kabul Zoo” which I had read about…
In the evening, I flew back to Dubai.
The trip was a great adventure, and business success – but as I type, (I am sitting in a cafe in Paris writing this blog)…
as i enjoy the beauty of Paris, I think of those kids who chased me shouting “don’t take our photo.”
And what is going to become of their lives.
All the things we take forgrantted … running water, safety, being able to walk down the street …
I should point out that there are 2000 – 3000 non military westerners living in Kabul, and surely most of them do not drive in bullet proof cars — and they live safely, enjoying the adventure … so I dont want this blog to give a false impression.
It’s just another world.
An American friend of mine, Mac who lives with his family in Nairobi having lived in Rwanda for a few years sent me a message which I really like:
“Don’t let the world’s fear hold you back from experiencing it.”