As soon as we looked out of the window and saw an F-14 jet fighter on either side of Secretary of State Colin Powell's plane, everyone aboard knew this was not going to be a normal day of visiting foreign dignitaries.
Powell's excursion this week to Afghanistan was serious diplomatic business with a dash of nostalgia thrown in. Leaving the comforts of his usual air force plane behind in Islamabad, Pakistan, Powell and his traveling party - senior diplomats, 13 reporters and a beefed-up detail of diplomatic security agents - boarded a USAF C-17 Globemaster for the hourlong hop to Bagram air base outside Kabul.
During the trip almost everyone climbed a short ladder to the cockpit to take in the view of the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. Crossing the border from Pakistan it was easy to imagine how many hiding places there could be in the mountains below for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorists.
Once on the ground, Powell's entourage piled into two Chinook helicopters, each equipped with machine guns. The short ride into Kabul was made only a couple of hundred feet off the ground, the pilots zigging and zagging to avoid any potential threats on the ground. Blackhawk helicopters followed for more protection.
Powell's first stop was downtown at the palace where the chairman of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, met the secretary of state for the first time. After meeting for about an hour, Powell and Karzai had just started a press conference when the lights went out, illustrating only one of Afghanistan's many, many problems.
Powell and Karzai kept talking, the lights came back on after a minute, and Powell publicly made the point he wanted most to stress: He had come to Kabul notwithstanding the precarious security situation "to deliver a message of commitment. We will be with you in this current crisis and for the future."
To hammer the point home, Powell said: "You can take that message to the Afghan people. The American people are committed."
Karzai repaid his American guest by thanking the U.S. for freeing his country from "the occupation of terrorism" and by pledging that the hundreds of millions of dollars Afghanistan is about to receive from the international community will be well-spent to rebuild schools, hospitals and roads.
The Afghan people will be free, Karzai said, but "one area where we'll be extremely tough and rather oppressive will be against corruption. We will be very, very, very rough there."
American officials were pleased to hear that, but will be watching closely when the money starts flowing.
After his meetings with his Afghan hosts, Powell's motorcade brough him to the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy. Prior to the recent ouster of the Taliban, the embassy stood empty for 12 years.
During that time, local Afghans had taken care of the embassy buildings and vehicles and Powell publicly praised them for that. He singled out one employee who had been jailed because he worked for the U.S. and gave another a replacement certificate for one the State Department had awarded him in 1996. The original was destroyed by the Taliban.
Speaking to the small group of Afghans who work for the embassy and to U.S. troops who are now protecting it, Powell officially changed the facility's designation from a liaison office to an embassy and said: "We are back in business. We are here to stay. We are committed to the future of this country."
Having spent about six hours on the ground in Afghanistan, Powell left as he came, returning to Islamabad and on to another hot diplomatic potato: Trying to resolve India and Pakistan's latest crisis over Kashmir.
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