Registering in Afghanistan

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, left, talks with journalists during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid K
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, left, talks with journalists during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. A suicide bomber killed four people on Dec. 13 outside a US airbase in southern Afghanistan, hours after Defence Secretary Leon Panetta visited, said officials. An official with the NATO-led military force said Panetta had left Kandahar airbase hours before the bombing. (AP Photo / SSabawoon, Pool)

Reporting in Afghanistan is complicated. Of course, there's the challenge of operating in an insurgency-wracked land, where every decision has to be weighed for risk. Is that a secure location to meet? Is that person trustworthy? Is that boy hurrying through the bazaar with the pressure cooker in his wheelbarrow a suicide bomber or just curious?

Then there's the complexity of dealing with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Any embed with American troops takes a spiraling nebula of approvals. And when embedded, journalists are now often so tightly hobbled by escorts that reporters probably got more candor from Soviet leaders on May Day. Public affairs-savvy U.S. officers in today's Afghanistan are sticking to well-honed talking points.

Kabul-based U.S. diplomats and USAID officials are no less wary. Press officers view interviews requests like IEDs -- potentially explosive events that require much time-consuming consideration. Take a number. Get back with us.

But for some reason, the Afghanistan Foreigner Registration Card is the thing that causes me the most anxiety. It looks simple at the outset: guidebooks counsel bringing two passport photos and a passport copy to the Kabul International Airport office just behind the baggage claim. But like most things in Afghanistan, simple never is, because the office is never open when my Dubai flight arrives in Kabul.

And if you don't have that simple little rubber-stamped registration card when you (desperately) are trying to fly out of Afghanistan, there can be a big problem. Maybe you are going to held up by some Afghan functionary as the minutes tick down to flight time -- maybe for a major bribe by selfsame functionary. Or maybe not. Last time, a older Afghan in a suit coat who was collecting the cards cheerfully told me to get one "next time when you come to Afghanistan." But who wants to take that chance? At that point, you really want to leave Afghanistan.

The other way to get the registration card is to go to the Ministry of Interior's registration office in downtown Kabul -- a "major hassle" the guidebooks promise. Well, when I flew into Kabul in early January, the airport office was closed -- naturally. But as I was headed to embattled eastern and southern Afghanistan, I had other things on my mind. Worry about it later.

But soon enough I am back in Kabul, and my lack of a Foreigner Registration Card is looming large in my fervid imagination. I need the card.

A kind Afghan at the institute guesthouse where I am staying assures me it is no problem. He will go with me. So one morning we're off to the Ministry of Interior, a decaying ferro-cement complex with all the charm of an ancient prison. Crowds of Afghan throng the gate as cars and carts disgorge more. Inside the courtyard, a surging semi-mob pulses amoeba-like around an entrance. (Afghans have not embraced queuing as best I can see.) My Afghan guide says the Afghans are here to get the newly required universal Afghan identity card.

Dipping his shoulder to enter the crowd, my guide makes a beeline to an office off to one side, glancing back to be sure I'm in his wake. A tiny sign on the door reads, "Foreign Registration." I can only imagine how long it would have taken me to find the office. Just inside the door, a wizened dwarf sits imperiously behind a desk sorting piles of Foreigner Registration Cards. Half-hidden by a large black turban and a red and black neck scarf that almost reaches his mouth, his wrinkled face is a mask of disapproval. He purses his lips. He glares. His tiny feet swing below his chair in barely bottled frustration. He barks Dari in a high sing-song voice at the three young functionaries crowded into the small unlighted office with him.

One points us toward a divan at the end of the room, where an older Afghan in a wool Panjshiri hat waits in the gloom. I fill out the application and hand over my paperwork. He translates into Dari, and fills out a registration card. While he carefully trims one of my photos with a pair of battered red shears, I notice a typewritten sign on the wall, addressed to "My dear esteemed foreign visitors and there colleagues," notifying all that the Foreigner Registration Card is "free and gratis" and no one should ask for payment. No one does.

Then it's back through the courtyard throng to a building on the other side. The hall is Afghanistan in review: Elegant Tajik women in head scarves and narrow high-heeled platform shoes, Haraza men looking like the Great Khan's men, a team of stolid Uzbeks, Westernized young swains in suit coats, Pashtuns with cockscomb turbans, tiny women hidden beneath thousand-pleat blue burquas, an understory of self-assured, clear-eyed children. My guide sweeps into an upstairs office, where he directs me to give the bureaucrat my passport and card. I no more than hand them to him than he pushes past me into the melee. As I lose sight of him and my passport, I think, "Oh, darn -- so close." But suddenly he's back, waving me into another office, this one with the magical sign: "Foreign Registration." A second later, an official behind a desk takes a moment from his conversation to reach into a drawer for his stamp. Bam! It's done.

"Let's go," my guide says.