A story of travels to Kabul and a suitcase

Starting in January 2002 my flights into and out of Kabul where on the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) charter planes between Dubai or Islamabad and Kabul. I would land in Dubai or Islamabad on a commercial flight, pick up my bag and check into a hotel with my other IMF colleagues for the UNHAS flight the next day. In Islamabad we stayed in the Marriott (since blown up by terrorists) and in Dubai we stayed in any number of first class hotels.

Departure the next day was from a remote part of the airport in Dubai or Islamabad to a remote part of the airport in Kabul. The idea of checking my bag through to Kabul for the convenience of not having to go through immigration to pick it up and recheck it (I was almost always in a rush to get there with no time to stop over anywhere) was a number of years off.

With the advent of commercial flights into Kabul and the ending of the UNHAS flights three or so years ago, our Dubai departures (we had given up on Islamabad after the bombing of the Marriott) moved from the small old Terminal 2 to the big modern Terminal 1 (I always found this numbering confusing). However, it was still not possible to check our bags through to Kabul. We had to wait in the immigration line, then wait while the generally unsmiling Arab immigration officer examined, then stamped, our passports, go pick up our bags, and re check them with Safi Airways, re-emigrate and fly on. The immigration officers, by the way, where just about the only Arabs I encountered in the UAE in a working capacity. Cab drivers, porters, hotel clerks, restaurant waiters and virtually everyone else who serviced us in any way were Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis and sometimes Bangladeshis.

More recently, agreements were struck with United, BA and other airlines and Safi Airways that make it possible to check our bags through from Washington to Kabul. Thus in Dubai I could go directly from my arriving flight to the departure lounge of Safi without immigrating (i.e. transit). Shoppers will enjoy the massive collection of shops and goods in Dubai’s mammoth airport, but I am not one of them. Most of our IMF team choose to hang out in the airport for the 4 or 5 hours between flights rather than enjoy the sterile splendor of modern Dubai. Some of my colleagues worried about the risk of losing their bags if they checked them all the way through, but I preferred to take the risk in exchange for the convenience and never had a problem until the day before yesterday.

For some reason that I do not understand the check through arrangement does not seem to work in reverse. It is not yet possible to check my bag from Kabul to D.C., though there is some confusion about this. My return home from Kabul yesterday illustrates this point.

After a year of difficult and inconclusive negotiations with the authorities, our IMF team finally agreed with the authorities on a program that we thought our Executive Board could support. The measures that had been taken and were agreed to be taken to resolve the failure of Kabul Bank (potentially the largest bank fraud per capital in history) had been the main stumbling block. The amazing and shocking history of Kabul Bank is set out in detail in: http://www.uspolicyinabigworld.com/2011/09/21/the-kabul-bank-scandal-and-the-crisis-that-followed/.

As the prospect of an agreement became clear, our short five-day visit to Kabul was coming to a close, so we delayed our early Thursday morning departure until Thursday evening. To add an extra hour and a half to the time available to us (my colleagues had gone with only a few hours sleep for the last three days as it was), the Finance Minister (our negotiating counterpart) arranged for our boarding cards to be issued and bags to be checked in the VIP lounge before we left for the airport. One of his aids collected our passports and bags and my hopeful instruction to check my bag through to Washington. When he returned to the IMF guesthouse with our boarding cards and baggage claims, he also had a bill for me for $85 for the check through arrangement. It was worth it to me not to have to recheck my bag in Dubai.

We successfully concluded the negotiations, held a donor briefing (World Bank, USAID, DFID, ADB, ISAF, UN, and others), issued a press release from Washington, http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2011/pr11358.htm, and headed for the airport. I must say that it almost made flying enjoyable again to be driven through security up to the VIP lounge (rather than having to drag our bags from a remote parking lot), skipping all the security, emigration, and check-in lines. We boarded soon there after and three hours later deplaned in Dubai.

As we entered the terminal, I was expecting to immigrate and head to the local Hilton for a good night’s sleep. But just inside the door stood someone holding up the unexpected and unwanted sign: “Coats, Jr. Warren L.  Why was I being stopped, I asked? “Follow me please.” To make a confusing story short, a reception service had been engaged to take me passed the long immigration lines to the baggage carousel and arrange for my transportation to the Hilton. As this was not what I had paid for nor wanted (though skipping long immigration lines is always appreciated), and the young lady escorting me around had her own instructions, considerable confusion ensued as we walked from one place to another until it became VERY clear that I would not be able to recheck and leave my bag there until I returned in the morning. So be it. I had a good sleep at the Hilton with my bag at my side and lugged it back to the airport in the morning and was soon on my way to London and home.

I use to hate going through London’s Heathrow airport, but with the addition of BA’s Terminal 5, I rather like it. So my three and a half hour lay over in Terminal 5 passed pleasantly (the BA wi-fi pass word for the day was “Singapore”). On the nine-hour flight from London to DC, I watched one movie, and slept the rest of the way, skipping dinner.

My suitcase drama had one more chapter. When I arrived in DC, it didn’t.  In addition, the BA office at Dulles was closed (typical British service) and its mix of automated and live human telephone service was unpleasant. Nonetheless, my bag was delivered to my door one day later (last night), in time for a quick repack and departure for Grand Cayman this morning for this quarter’s meeting of the Cayman Financial Review’s Editorial Board meeting.

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About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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2 Responses to A story of travels to Kabul and a suitcase

  1. JSR says:

    Warren,
    Your posts are a “must read” for all those involved or interested in international affairs. Under the cover of pleasant to read travel notes, you point to reports and news that illuminate the dangerous gray areas articulating political expediency and rotten to the core governments. Governments only in name, promoting corruption and lawlessness to foster their private interests at the expense of their own people.
    Well done, keep going.
    JSR

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