Everyone told me leaving Afghanistan through Kabul International Airport was the most obnoxious of all security I would experience. They were not kidding!
A little background before my narrative; Since 2009, no vehicular traffic is allowed directly outside either the domestic or international terminals, except for a bus that looks like it has survived the 1979 Soviet invasion. The no vehicle policy is for security reasons; the government takes no chances of a suicide car bomb or something similar.
No one can drive a vehicle directly outside of the airport entrance, everyone must walk, that includes VIPs, other dignitaries and everyday people like you and me.
When you first arrive in Kabul airport and leave the terminal instead of being assaulted by a menagerie of vehicles, constant motion, people scurrying about, loading and off-loading passengers and baggage, like most airports, at Kabul one is met by near silence. It is an eerie feeling and one I never experienced anywhere else. Conversation is minimal and you can hear the rolling luggage wheels and footfalls of your fellow travelers. Otherwise, it feels like you are in the wrong place.
From what I could tell there are three parking lots, serving different groups.
Lot A is for VIPs and such ilk.
Lot B exists, but I don’t know if it’s special, and Lot C, is for everyone else.
You can only reach Lot C, by walking through Lot B. Don’t even think of walking towards Lot A, the numerous security guards don’t like that.
Lot A is closest, while Lot C, for the commoners is a solid 10-15 minute walk from the terminal doors.
That gives a general idea of the heightened airport security.
Now let me tell you about trying to re-enter the perimeter to fly out of Kabul during the last week of Oct.
I was in an armored SUV, with a co-worker, our security escort and a driver. Immediately upon entering the airport access road; the SUV drove past two pick-up trucks, each with three or four soldiers in the bed, operating huge machine guns.
I do not know much about guns, but the bullets on the belt were about three inches long and as wide as two of my fingers. In other words, these soldiers were not messing around. After being in Kabul for 12 days, the sight no longer fazed me, but the proximity to the airport was still disconcerting.
A few feet later, soldiers surrounded the truck, walking around the perimeter of our vehicle with a mirror, checking the undercarriage, while everyone but the driver got out out and proceeded to a security check-point on the sidewalk. I walked through a simple metal detector, slid my backpack through an x-ray machine, and kept walking down the sidewalk. About 15 yards down the road, our SUV pulled up and we got in. Not for long though.
Less than 100 yards later, I disembarked from the truck, this time bringing both my large suitcase and my backpack. Again, I strode through the metal detector, showing my ID to the guards on duty, while my bags coursed through the x-ray machine.
We entered the truck again, and drove to Lot C.
In Lot C, I grabbed all my bags, because the SUV was going to drop us off and leave the airport. I stepped through a dilapidated waiting room, full of Afghans and emerged on the outside of the building in a large courtyard with many flowers. My security escort told me at this check-point they would look at my passport, and my travel itinerary. This was the first time in any of the security checkpoints they asked for proof I had a ticket to fly.
I am so used to Western methods like a credit card for verifying a flight and receive a boarding pass that I didn’t think to print out a paper itinerary. The security escort asked if I had a flight itinerary on my phone. I said technically I have it in Gmail, but I had not saved it locally on my phone and I did not have overseas Web access.
I realized I made a mistake and began panicking. He kept saying ‘this isn’t America, this is Kabul, and they want to see something in writing. They want to see hard copy proof of your flight.’
After a few seconds he softened his tone, ‘actually, they can’t read, so just show them any sheet of paper. That will be good enough.’
Luckily, my Dubai hotel receipt was in my pocket from a few weeks earlier. I confidently walked up to the three guards monitoring the walking path leading to the airport terminal and checking passenger documents. I thrust my passport and the lone piece of white paper in front of them. They gave both documents a glance, asked my destination and waved me through without a second’s hesitation.
I thought to myself, for all the security rigmarole I just endured, they just let me pass to the terminal and my flight without seeing any real evidence that I had an actual ticket. Seems like a slightly broken system.
I walked a few hundred more feet, passing through Lot B.
At the front entrance to Lot B, I again put my bags through the x-ray machine, was subjected to a pat-down and walked through a metal detector.
Keep in mind, this is all outside the terminal, I was still a few hundred feet away from the airport entrance.
Finally, I reached the terminal, checked into my Emirates flight, secured my boarding pass and walked through another security checkpoint.
At this one they asked the reason for my stay in Afghanistan. When I told them I was there for work, they asked, for which company. I produced a foreign registration card that I had filled out previously, when I arrived in Afghanistan on Oct 7. They patted me down and sent me on my way. They carelessly threw my foreign registration card in a bin.
I removed my shoes, belt, emptied my pockets, separated my laptop and mobile phone and put them in grey plastic bins. I received one final pat down, walked through another metal detector and they swabbed my hands for explosive residue.
In summation, I went through four separate metal detectors, x-ray machines, endured three security pat-downs and verified my ID and travel documents twice, all before entering the airport waiting room.