I ended up lending Biden my satellite phone to call Secretary of State Colin Powell, via the State Department operations center, to see if he could help.
“‘This is Joe Biden, could you connect me with Colin Powell?’ Biden asked the State Department operator. A few minutes passed. ‘Colin? Hey, it’s Joe Biden. … Yeah, I’m standing here on the runway at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, trying to get out on a military transport, and they’re telling me that the Pentagon has ordered that no civilians be let on the plane. I’m sorry to trouble you, Colin, but could you give us a hand here?’
“Powell told Biden to hold on for a minute while he tried to get Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was in church, so Powell tracked down his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. There were a few more minutes of phone calls to Centcom headquarters in Florida before Powell came back on the phone with Biden.
“‘Joe,’ said the Secretary of State, ‘let me talk to the air traffic controller there.’
“Biden then handed the satellite phone to the air traffic controller with the following words: ‘Captain, the Secretary of State would like to talk to you.’
“It was pitch-dark, but I was sure I saw that captain’s face turn completely white with shock that he was talking to the Secretary of State, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, no less. All I heard him saying to Powell was, ‘Yessir, yessir, yessir.’ When he was done, he handed back the phone and told Biden, ‘You’re welcome to board, sir.’
“As we strapped into the back of the C-130, the crew shouted that someone was firing tracer bullets at the other end of the runway. … With this big cargo plane empty except for us, it felt like we took off straight up, like a rocket, which was fine with me, since Bagram is almost surrounded by tall mountains that had already claimed two U.S. transports. Three hours later, we landed in Jacobabad, Pakistan, somewhere in the middle of the country, at a Pakistani base being used by the U.S. Air Force. We had a few hours to kill before we hopped a C-17 to Bahrain.
“Talking to the U.S. airmen at Jacobabad was an eye-opener. One of them told us, ‘We don’t have a flight to Afghanistan that doesn’t get shot at by small-arms fire from inside Pakistan somewhere near the border.’