MARCO WERMAN: Ben Gilbert arrived in Kabul this week on assignment for The World. Ben has covered conflicts before in Lebanon and especially in Iraq. But Ben, this is your first time in Afghanistan. What are your first impressions?
BEN GILBERT: Well, it's a bit different then Iraq, from my experience there. The first time that I went to Iraq in 2004, I arrived to the airport and had to lay down in the back of the vehicle so that I wasn't seen by any insurgents or people who wanted to kidnap or kill Americans at the time. Upon my arrival to Kabul International Airport, there's a big sign from a cellphone company that greets you saying welcome to Afghanistan. I got into a vehicle that wasn't armored. It was with a western security contractor. He didn't even bother to lock the doors actually and on our drive home, we dropped off an Afghan who was with us and I stepped out of the vehicle on the street with lots of Afghans around and got into the front seat. I said you know, that's okay here and he said yeah, this isn't Baghdad so my initial reaction was surprise actually at how laid back, at least, I mean this is a former military man and they are often more paranoid than journalists about security here so I was surprised actually at how laid back it is and more laid back at least compared to my experience in Iraq.
WERMAN: Hm, interesting. When I hear the word Kabul, when I hear the name Kabul, I think when a lot of Americans hear the name Kabul, we envision a bombed out wreck of a city. Describe it for us.
GILBERT: Well actually, I mean I was talking to people here about that and you know, in eight years since the beginning of the war here, it still is a very, very poor country and flying in there are still a lot of houses that do not look like they've been repaired but apparently geo workers and other people who work here say that actually the country has improved quite a bit since 2001 and especially the roads is what I've been told are the biggest improvement because before they were basically pot-marked with artillery shell holes and now they are smooth.
WERMAN: And physically what is Kabul like? Is it flat, is it hilly? What does it look like?
GILBERT: No, it's actually quite beautiful. I mean it's stunning actually. It's about, it's at about the height of Denver. It's about five, six thousand feet and when I came in it was raining actually and it was cold, like about probably fifty degrees but this morning, it was a clear day, you're at a high altitude so the air is thinner and there are these very spectacular, dramatic mountains kind of rising up on all sides of it which makes it a spectacular looking city. Obviously it's still a dangerous city and still obviously a city that's very poor and needs a lot of help, but visually it's quite stunning.
WERMAN: So tell us about the first story you're working on Ben.
GILBERT: Well everyone is anticipating the announcement by President Obama on whether or not to increase the troop numbers here and what the numbers will be if that does happen and so, I think, it's kind of anticipation. I mean the country kind of feels, it seems like journalists here and aid workers and various other people are kind of in a holding pattern right now. They're wondering what's next, what's going to happen, what is the U.S. decision going to be? This is the deciding moment for the future of Afghanistan. It's been eight years and I think people here are just kind of holding their breaths to see what's going to happen and what's happening next.
WERMAN: So where are you going first?
GILBERT: Well the plan is to go to Kandahar in the south of the country, which is not just a city, it's also a province and it's pretty much where the Taliban originated and it's seen as kind of a major priority in terms of the U.S.'s mission here and if President Obama does increase the troop numbers, it's widely expected that many of those troops will go there to try to secure both Kandahar and the larger province in the neighboring province of Hellman, which are both seen as strategically significant to the military strategy here and the counter-insurgency strategy.
WERMAN: Ben Gilbert who just arrived in Kabul this week on assignment for the program. Thanks very much for speaking with us.
GILBERT: Thanks, Marco. Happy Thanksgiving.