Under a veil of secrecy for the sake of security, First Lady Laura Bush headed to Afghanistan over the weekend.
The White House cover story was that Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky was making the trip - a ruse designed to conceal the identity of the American VIP making the visit.
The unspoken fear was that the wife of the U.S. president would be an irresistible target for Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists - were they to learn of her visit in advance.
So reporters travelling with Mrs. Bush were bound to secrecy until she touched down in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
There was no more vivid evidence of the threat to Mrs. Bush than the magnitude of security arrangements accorded her in Afghanistan.
She always travels with a Secret Service contingent. But in Afghanistan, it was supplemented by members of CAT - the counter-assault team of the Secret Service. Usually they keep a low profile, but on this trip they were deliberately highly visible - dressed in black combat uniforms including helmets, flak jackets and carrying what looked like M16A4 rifles. For some reason, the CAT members were reluctant to let me examine the weapon more closely.
To get to Bamiyan Province about a hundred miles due west of Kabul, the Afghan capital, Mrs. Bush flew by helicopter. There was none of the airborne luxury of the so-called "white tops" - the Sikorsky Sea Kings that usually serve as Marine One. On this trip, she boarded a U.S. Army CH-47D Chinook - a twin rotor helicopter outfitted for combat.
In the doors on each side of the aircraft and on the tail ramp were soldiers manning 7.62mm machine guns. In the air, they scoured the countryside below ready to open fire on any threat to Mrs. Bush and her entourage. That included the 10 members of the press that were covering her visit.
On board the chopper, Mrs. Bush and the rest of us were required to don a flak jacket in case the aircraft came under fire. The jackets were brand new, beige - and unexpectedly heavy - reflecting their ability to stop a bullet or piece of shrapnel from penetrating your body.
The choppers flew fast and at times the pilots employed combat flying techniques - accelerating and weaving right or left when over suspicious areas. The chopper crew also fired flares periodically as a counter-measure in case a heat-seeking ground-to-air missile was to be fired at the chopper. There were no incidents, and each of her three helicopter flights were completed safely.
Mrs. Bush kidded about it later while addressing American military personnel at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
"You know, I've kind of gotten used to flying on Marine One, but it's not everyday you get to ride in a helicopter staffed by the men and women of the 101st (Airborne) and that was really pretty terrific," she said to cheers of pride from the troops.
Her visit to Afghanistan had a dual-purpose. It was meant to showcase some of the progress being made in Afghanistan, especially for women and children. But Mrs. Bush also went to cast a spotlight on Afghanistan's profound need for more international assistance.
The trip was a prelude to the International Donors Conference being held Thursday in Paris. Mrs. Bush and Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai will deliver personal appeals for more foreign aid for the war-ravaged country. Mrs. Bush announced two U.S. grants of $40-million over five years to fund the university level education in Afghanistan and another to underwrite a program to combat illiteracy.
Despite the limitations of a ten hour visit, it was evident that Afghanistan is in desperate need of help. It's a country in ruins. In Bamiyan, much of the housing seen by Mrs. Bush amounted to little more than shantytowns. There were homeless people, mothers and children, living under trees on the side of a road. They looked emotionless at Mrs. Bush's motorcade as it drove by.
Only a short stretch of the central thoroughfare in Bamiyan is paved. At a ceremony at the point on the street where the paving ends, Mrs. Bush cut a ribbon and announced a $778,000 U.S. grant to extend the paved section for another few kilometers. It's hard for a community to build an economy when the roads resemble the surface of the moon. Her motorcade vehicles were military-equipped SUVs, and the ride on the unpaved roadways was, at best, erratic.
She also visited the construction site for an orphanage. According to the Ayenda Foundation, a group that funnels private sector contributions to programs that benefit Afghan women and children, the war has produced hundreds of thousands of orphans in Afghanistan. Ayenda also says that one million Afghan children suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some Afghan orphans sang a couple of songs to Mrs. Bush. They waved Afghan and American flags. She rewarded them with tote bags made of fabric resembling a world globe.
But even with foreign assistance, Bamiyan is a dismal place - and the progress made there so far is minimal. From many points in Bamiyan, Mrs. Bush was able to see the site where statues of a standing Buddha once stood. But in March 2001, the Taliban regime found them to be idolatrous and destroyed them with artillery and explosives, ignoring the pleas of the world to let them be.
Even the grounds of the Presidential Palace are in disrepair, though some parts are pristine - including a flower garden where the First Lady had a brief press conference with Karzai. Put the emphasis on brief. After just two questions - including one from a New York Times reporter asking Karzai about corruption in his government - he called an end to the press availability.
"Is that it?" asked Mrs. Bush, clearly surprised that Karzai had enough. "I think so," he said.
If there was a moment at which Mrs. Bush appeared in danger of her life, it was her visit to the military base in Bamiyan that is home to a contingent of forces from New Zealand.
They performed a "Haka" warrior's dance, in which they angrily chant, grunt, shake their fists, pound their chests, stick out there tongues and make threatening advances. One soldier approached Mrs. Bush wielding a spear.
Clearly her Secret Service knew what to expect and did nothing to stop the performance, but Mrs. Bush conceded later it looked menacing.
She was much more comforted by her visit later to an Afghan Police Academy - where 12 of this year's graduates are women.
In a country where women were once barely tolerated, they were training for positions of authority and Mrs. Bush was impressed.
"Seeing those women hard at work in their classroom was a vivid reminder of how far this nation has come since the Taliban's reign when women were not even allowed in school," she said as her trip came to an end.
Mrs. Bush arrived in Afghanistan on a US Air Force C-32A jetliner. It's a Boeing 757 that's part of the presidential fleet. It's used to transport government leaders and members of Congress on official business. On rare occasions, it serves as Air Force One - so it has the high-tech communications and aviation capabilities needed to support the Commander-in-Chief. It also has the capacity to refuel in the air - but on the trip to Afghanistan, it made a pit stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Only four reporters, three still photographers, one TV producer and camera crew accompanied Mrs. Bush. As usual, we sat in the back of the plane which is equipped with internet access even while airborne. Nice feature.
Out of an abundance of caution, the First Lady's protectors arranged for her to switch planes for her flight out of Afghanistan. Instead of a clearly identifiable VIP aircraft, she left the country on a grey, nondescript C-17 military cargo plane, one of many that fly in and out of Bagram Air Base every day.
Clearly, passenger comfort is not a top consideration for these behemoth aircraft. Some of us spent the six hour flight from Afghanistan to Slovenia on hard plastic seats attached to the inside of the fuselage. For Mrs. Bush, the Air Force installed a 60-foot long RV-style camper. We both got to our destination at the same time, just not in the same style.