Maybe I've been in Afghanistan too much in the last eight months, because it amazed me today how easily they've made a little corner of Kabul look like the modern Western world.
In reality it's not magic. Folks in Hollywood do this. Land a couple of transport planes loaded with lighting equipment and palm trees and you can turn Quebec into Miami.
But Afghanistan? I was impressed.
Here, the transformation has taken place at the decrepit Kabul Inter-Continental Hotel. It's so seedy that the real Inter-Continental hotel chain writes my boss if I don't say that this one's NOT part of their system. But into its grimy interior, Western donors have inserted a modern press center.
When the lights are dim and you can't see the awful walls or carpet, the briefing room looks straight out of Washington, D.C. OK, the air conditioning doesn't work. But the podium's got stage lighting and a TV-ready blue backdrop. Nearby, for the writing press, are computers for Internet access—something unheard-of in these parts.
The press corps provides the extras in this movie. We dutifully stare at the big-screen television that shows the proceedings next door at the Afghan national assembly, an event known as the loya jirga. We listen earnestly as our translators tell us what's being said. We race out to briefings.
Don't look too close and you can imagine a scene from The West Wing.
I was truly impressed until the audio-video system collapsed, just as the first big event was about to start, the speech by the former king Zahir Shah.
I'd already seen a text of what he planned to say. Everyone knew what he was going to say. But it was still a historic moment that I and 300 colleagues were about to miss.
Except for a handful of folks in a pre-selected pool, the media aren't allowed in the huge white tent where the 1,550 delegates are creating a new government. That pool wouldn't emerge from the tent until day's end, possibly past deadline.
Kabul TV, the rickety local broadcast station, saved us. They still were getting their feed and rebroadcasting it in the city. I hurried back to our house to watch. Fortunately, my USA Today colleague Larry was still in town and he stayed at the Inter-Continental to cover any briefings or announcements.
Maybe it was the Western-style press center, but somehow, foolishly, I expected the rest of the day to follow the Western script. After the king's endorsement and a bunch of other speeches, Hamid Karzai would be approved as Afghanistan's next president.
Of course, neither Karzai nor the delegates felt any obligation to do as I wished.
The session ended abruptly without a vote on Karzai—or so I thought. And so did Larry and everyone else, until Karzai told a news agency that he'd already won. Worse yet, I heard it first from my editor. Yuck.
Larry, who I reached by phone, dictated his notes on the chaos. The chairman of the loya jirga commission had confirmed that Karzai had won. Sort of. Even though none of us saw any vote, he said the applause of the delegates might be enough to affirm a new leader.
From my experience, new democracies don't accept shortcuts like that. Instinct told me to get back to the hotel. Deadlines told me I couldn't. I tried to help Larry out by making some calls, without success. Boy, did I feel useless.
Then my editor found out from the wires, again before me (grrrr), that Karzai had reversed himself, that his spokesman said it was all a mistake. Because of deadlines, the desk wrote the top of our story.
For me, the sheen is off that new press center and it now looks more Hollywood than real.