Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Obama’s Kabul jaunt: Hello Afghans … and goodbye.
Press conferences at the presidential palace in Kabul can be tedious affairs but the frustration felt by the local press corp topped a new level when U.S. President Barack Obama came to visit Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday evening. Mainly because there wasn’t one — a press conference that is.
At around 4:30 in the afternoon, just when government ministries are wrapping up for the day, a selected group of foreign and domestic journalists received a telephone call from palace officials: “Be at the palace at 5 o’clock.” That was it. No more details.
Having been to Karzai’s heavily guarded palace a number of times over the last two years, I am now familiar with the ritual. I emptied my pockets of anything unnecessary and rushed out the door.
Karzai’s palace, in the centre of the city, is probably the most heavily guarded and fortified compound in the country, bar a few foreign military bases dotted around the desert of course. Getting in, even if you are invited, is a long procedure.
After flashing our media badges half a dozen times to jumpy Afghan palace guards trained by a U.S. private security firm, a series of invasive pat-downs by palace officials in cheap suits, our belongings sniffed over by German Alsatian dogs, the same belongings then checked in two separate X-Ray machines, our mobile phones (and cigarettes) confiscated, we were finally in — two hours down.
Nothing unusual so far except that the palace media staff were particularly unforthcoming with information regarding the event. “We know nothing. You will find out soon,” one official told me. For security reasons journalists are normally given as little information as possible so as not to jeopardize a VIP visit. But this time it seemed even they didn’t know anything. I believed them.
When all the journalists were finally led into a grand room in the palace, not normally used for news conferences, we were pretty certain Karzai’s guest was not the Slovakian foreign minister. The U.S. flag behind the podium gave it away. “It’s got to be Obama. It has to be him,” journalists whispered to each other. With our connection to the outside world cut off now that our phones had been confiscated, all we could do was wait. Three hours down.
When Obama’s helicopter finally landed in the palace grounds, rattling the windows as it touched down, all of the journalists were led away into a back room corridor, while Obama’s secret service agents combed the room. I climbed the stairs to an upper level where a small window gave view to the palace grounds. Through the window I could just make out Obama shaking hands with various Afghan cabinet ministers, Karzai beaming at his side. That would be the first and last I saw of the U.S. president.
Finally all the journalists were ushered back into the conference room, this time joined by the travelling White House press. We waited some more while Karzai and Obama had private talks. Four hours down.
“All travelling press come through for a camera spray (a chance to photograph the two leaders)”, one of Obama’s press team shouted through one of the doors. As the White House correspondents grabbed their laptops and Blackberries and scurried through the door, we were left waiting again. Only this would be the last time.
“I’m sorry that is it. There will be no press conference. You can go home,” one of Karzai’s team announced after a further 20 minutes. The Afghan journalists were not pleased.
“This is ridiculous! We have been here for five hours,” shouted one Afghan journalist. “You know, I covered George Bush when he was here and I hate the guy. Now I didn’t get to see Obama and I actually kind of like him.” Five hours down.
Our frustration aside, Obama’s whirlwind and long-overdue visit to Afghanistan almost 15 months after taking office will come as a disappointment to most Afghans. Obama’s short comments in front of the cameras at the palace, to which Afghan media were not allowed access, seemed forced. He talked about progress achieved and progress still to be achieved.
With that the president was whisked away in a helicopter back to the U.S. Bagram Air Base north of the capital where he delivered a speech to thousands of troops. The Afghans did get a short mention: ”I am honoured to be a guest in your country,” he said and spoke of their “decades of suffering”.
But for some Afghans, Obama’s long-awaited visit was a letdown.