Thursday, December 24, 2009

NORAD and Santa

This has always been one of my favorite stories about the softer side of the American defense establisment (or the military-industrial complex, if you prefer).

Allegedly, the whole thing got started in 1955 when a department store in Colorado Springs set-up a phone number which local children could call and talk to Santa. They misprinted the number, and the calls were routed to the new NORAD Ops Center at Cheyenne Mountain. A quick-thinking USAF sergeant on desk duty that night, realizing the child on the other end of the line was not a Soviet spy, gave the kid a radar fix on Santa's location and assured him that the USAF was tracking St. Nick and that presents were on the way. Word got around, and the calls started to come in droves. With no official guidance or instruction, the night watch staff at Cheyenne Mountain simply continued to give rather vague updates of Santa's current position, thus reassuring an entire generation of local schoolkids. Hence, a tradition was born.

The problem with that story is that NORAD wasn't founded until 1958 and Cheyenne Mountain didn't go operational until 1966, eleven years after the supposed first phone call from Colorado Springs.

Still, I like the story better than the reality.


Lest you think I was kidding when I wrote one of the interliner notes on this post, here is confirmation that DBIEDs do exist.*

*The NY Times story calls this a "horse drawn cart" but I suspect that is simply a manifestation of the journalists of the "Grey Lady" being unable to determine the difference between a horse and a donkey. Even in Kandahar, donkeys pull the carts.

The disturbing bit is that when I was down in Kandahar a couple of weeks ago, I considered staying at the Continental for the night. My ISAF contacts told me it was "perfectly safe." That's why I rely on the locals to tell me what's safe and what's not.

Merry Freakin' Christmas

So I'm sitting in a hotel room in Dubai on Christmas Eve, which, I am fairly certain, is not the ideal place to spend such a holiday occasion, even for a grumpy old pessimist like myself. Despite my general disdain for the holiday season, there is something especially depressing about a solo hotel room in a faux-Arabic country on Christmas Eve. Enough to drive one to drink.

Fortunately, I was able to procure a bottle of my old standby at the airport, so the night's not a total waste.

Depending on how much I consume, this site may become extremely active or go oddly dark for a few days. There's a very fine line between inspiration and intoxication, and I usually tend to trample all over it. Besides, Dubai One is showing Gone With the Wind tonight*, and I'm a sucker for old movies.

*Yes, I know, not exactly It's a Wonderful Life, but then any true Jimmy Stewart fan would agree that It's a Wonderful Life is easily his worst movie ever.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pundit Pablum 2

Yet another quick post in the new series of pundit take-downs I've been calling Pundit Pablum. Maybe the name will stick, but I'm not overly fond of it. Just can't find anything better to play off of "Pundit."

This time the victim is Dov Zakheim, who usually writes good stuff for Foreign Policy. His recent piece talks about the contrast (as he sees it) between life in Afghanistan and life on the homefront. To Zakheim, there is a serious disconnect between what Americans do at home and what is going on here. He argues that American cannot continue to "pretend to be a nation at peace."

He may be right (in fact, I think he probably is), but his opening paragraph bears all the hallmarks of a journalist who is overstating the reality in order to persuade his audience of the overall point.
Kabul is a city at war. There are green zones and red zones, and roadblocks everywhere. The city is awash with a host of uniforms -- those of NATO states, as well as others, from Australia to Mongolia. Americans in uniform walk the streets fully equipped and armed. American government civilians wear body armor, as I did when making the short twenty minute walk from Camp Eggars to the U.S. Embassy.
Here Dov reveals his ignorance (or hubris) by trying to paint an inaccurate picture of Kabul. I have no doubt that the short walk between Camp Eggers and the U.S. Embassy is "awash with a host of uniforms," but that's hardly true of the rest of Kabul. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen ISAF soldiers in Kabul outside of the main thoroughfares and the military district around Eggers,* and I've been here nearly ten months. They certainly don't "walk the streets fully equipped and armed." Quite simply, they're not allowed to go out. Personally, I think they should get out more, leave the body armor and tricked-out M4 carbines behind and just go shopping and meet locals, but the risk-averse U.S. military won't let them.

*Oh, and not to be nitpicky, but he misspells Eggers as well. What, Dov, didn't read the letterhead on the fancy stationary they let you take home?

While it's true that Kabul is not entirely safe (after all, I do travel with a PSD or a weapon, or both), to describe the entire city as an armed camp is simply not accurate, at least as far as ISAF is concerned. There are plenty of ANP and ANA on the streets, and lots of checkpoints, and a large number of private security guards, but the ISAF military presence is limited to an extremely small area and most Afghans go about their daily lives as best they can. If you're going to provide a travelogue on Kabul, you should at least get out to see the city.

And there are no "zones," green, red or otherwise, except perhaps on some staff officer's map in Eggers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pundit Pablum

I generally avoid commenting on the the various political-military debates about Afghanistan on this site. That's partly because both of my loyal readers (thanks mom and dad!) don't really care about that stuff, and partly because I would be loathe to give the impression that I'm some grizzled frontline soldier down in Paktika who's life is directly affected by the decisions made in D.C. In truth, the causal link between U.S. government policy and my job, although significant, is highly indirect. Washington sets the stage (by deploying the troops) and adjusts the conditions (by spending the money), but it's not like I have to go out on a search-and-destroy mission because word came down from the Pentagon.

However, occasionally I read stuff that just begs for a comment,* and I can't resist. So, I'm inaugurating a new class of posts which will address some of the more interesting, compelling, egregrious and just-plain-stupid stuff that comes from the various so-called experts. I'll try to keep these short so as not to annoy those of you who would rather hear about my close-encounters with Afghan culture.

*OK, so it's more than "occasionally."

And no, I don't have a snappy name for this new class of posts. I tried to come up with one but it's late and I'm tired. Maybe later.

For today's opening sample, I direct your attention to a brief piece that David Rothkopf wrote in advance of President Obama's recent speech on Afghanistan. His point was that the cost of the "surge" in Afghanistan ($30 billion by his calculation) was money better spent at home creating jobs and revitalizing the U.S. economy. I'm not enough of an economist to know if that's true (Keynsian multipliers being such tricky things to pin down), but this paragraph struck me as particularly ill-thought:
That's the choice Obama would be making with this troop commitment. In a nation ... or any enterprise ... with limited resources, everything is about asset allocation. And there is absolutely no credible argument that can be made that could conclude that spending $30 billion in Afghanistan is better for America ... or enhances our national security more ... than spending it in the United States.

Really? Is "everything about asset-allocation?" I mean, we're not running an investment club here. Aren't there other important factors to consider beyond simple economic math? No one argues that we're in Afghanistan to make money, and yet lots of people argue that we ought to stay. Surely they have something in mind other than return on investment.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Back in Kabul after a particularly harrowing trip out east to the Tora Bora region. I'll post some details later, but for now it's enough to say that nothing went "boom" near me while I was on the road.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down South, The Return

Although we finished our business on the base at Spin Boldak within a day of our arrival, one can't just hop in the car and zip back to the airport. Kandahar Province in general is pretty nasty, and the stretch of road between Spin Boldak and Kandahar City is particularly dodgy. Plus, we were dependent on our hosts/client to provide the transportation. When one is hoping for a favor, it's best not to put conditions on it.

In this case, the favor was not a small one. It's technically not their responsibility to get us back and forth to the airport, and before you protest that "It's simply the nice thing to do!", remember that the trip from the airport to the base required two armored trucks, four PSDs and enough automatic weapons to keep a Latin American dictator happy.

For the reverse, we were going to require essentially the same load-out. The complications were that, this time, we had to presume that the bad guys 1) had seen us arrive at the base or were otherwise tipped off, 2) knew that we were not part of the regular rotation and therefore would probably be leaving again shortly , and 3) because of our in-and-out schedule, would assume we were VIPs (we're not).

The preferred tactic in this area is VBIEDs*, or Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, better known as carbombs.** They just nuzzle up close in heavy traffic, shout a prayer to Allah and push the button.

*Sometimes the militaries love of acronyms kind of gets out of hand. IEDs, VBIEDs, SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) and, my personal favorite, the DBIED (Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Device.) Yes, they actually have those.
**IEDs and carbombs, the Irish' contribution to modern life.

The U.S. military's solution to this devilish problem is (not surprisingly) to throw money and technology at it. They've deployed all sorts of fancy jammers, scramblers and "black-boxes" to Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed results. The bad guys have simply reverted to bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and two wires attached to a car battery.

We, of course, have no access to the fancy Pentagon magic, but the PSDs we were riding with used an approach more psychological than technological. Quite simply, we left at 4:00 o'clock in the morning. Even the Taliban has to sleep, and in the hours before dawn the roads are clear. The only other vehicles on the road are trucks running to and from the Pakistani border and the occasional mini-bus making an all-night run between Quetta and Kandahar. The disadvantages of driving at night are outweighed by the advantage of having a considerably reduced number of potential threats to monitor. Plus, these guys know the route so well they can drive like NASCAR champions and brake just before speed bumps they can't even see. Sounds crazy, but these guys are professionals and I was willing to trust their judgement. And they were right.

The downside of leaving before dawn was that we arrived at the airport with six hours to kill before our flight. Waiting at any airport for six hours is like six years in Purgatory, but the euphemistically-named Kandahar International Terminal is worse than most.*

*Not to be confused with Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, which is the military-side of the airfield. I'm sure over there they at least had hot coffee. And chairs.

However, I once again found myself the beneficiary of traditional Afghan hospitality. While the guard at the gate couldn't let us into the airport until it officially opened at 9:00, he was kind enough to let us share his fire and fetch us some chai while we waited. Then, once we were actually in the airport proper, it took only five minutes of conversation to secure a comfortable seat on the couch in office of the Deputy Commander of airport security, where we waited out our time, sipping tea, eating biscuits and hard-boiled eggs, making small talk with various Border Police officers, and watching Hindi music videos.

I don't know if he would have done this for anybody who came in that morning (I doubt it), but it's fair to say that he didn't have to be pushed or cajoled into it. As soon as he understood our situation, his first response (like a good Pashto) was to say, "Well come to my office and have breakfast and we'll pass the time together." He even summoned the local airline rep to his office to arrange our tickets in person.*

*The Pashto code of hospitality, or Pushtunwali, has been alternately praised and excoriated (and misrepresented) in the public press, but in this case it really worked in my favor.

When the flight arrived and was ready to board, he personally escorted us to the plane, bypassing all the security checks and lines, and made sure we got seats in business-class. All in all, a stellar performance completely at odds with my notions of airports, bureaucrats and police. The only wrinkle was a slight delay in the departure while we waited for a Predator unmanned drone to land and taxi off the runway. It does somewhat shake one's faith in the safety of air travel to see a plane with no pilot land in front of you. Makes me want to get up and check the cockpit, just to make sure there is someone flying my plane. Then again, in a country with a surplus of Russian pilots and black-market vodka, maybe I'd rather not know.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Down South

Yet another trip into the shitty bits of this country last week.* This time it was a flight down to Kandahar and then a tense hour-long ride out to the Pakistani border and a decrepit little town called Spin Boldak.

*And, yes, I realize that "shitty bits" is a relative term. It's not like Kabul is a glorious thriving metropolis full of interesting sites and fun things to do. Unless of course you're a garbage-eating goat, in which case Kabul is probably pretty close to Paradise.

The base that was my destination is a slapdash modern facility built within the walls of a ruined British fort from about 1860. Typical military construction from the British colonial period in Afghanistan, mud-brick walls about three feet thick, complete with a parapet and crumbling battlements. Plywood and sheet metal guard towers added more recently to provide overwatch of the approaches. The contradictions inherent in this country really struck me on the second night there when I was out having a cigarette at about three o'clock in the morning. I'm standing there, puffing away and musing on the manpower needed to build this massive mud wall, and I hear a slight cough from twenty feet above me. One of the wall guards, nearly invisible in the blackness, is up there, scanning the surrounding terrain with night-vision googles. 21st century technology in a 19th century fort.

The purpose of the trip is to rectify a problem we've been having with the site guards at this base. Suffice it to say that we had some very disgruntled employees on a remote job site. Our guards, whom we inherited from the scumbag who had this contract before us, have been at this post since February without a break. As they are Nepalese Gurkhas rather than locals, they can't very well run into to town for a bite to eat and to catch a show. Despite what you might read in the London Times, the Nepalese are no more popular here than Westerners. In fact, in the case of security guards, even less so, since the locals assume that they're taking good jobs away from Afghans. Some truth to that, in my opinion.

Our client down south is a prominent (some might say notorious) U.S. private security company that has a contract to train the Afghan Border Police. Because of their past.....indiscretions (to put it mildly), they're not allowed to provide security at their own training facility, so they subcontract that to us. The problem is that the Gurkhas on-site were royally screwed by both their previous employer and the site management of the U.S. company. As a result, they trust no one anymore, including me. And, it should be pointed out that due to my company's total inability to manage our finances, these guys had not been paid in three months. Obviously, they're not in a happy place, literally or figuratively. So, it falls to me to bring them their back pay and try to convince them to stay on the job.*

*My hand in these negotiations is somewhat strengthened by the fact that they have no where else to go. If they stop working, they have to leave the relative security of the firebase. And since none of them have valid visas or work permits, they run the serious risk of being arrested and imprisoned by the Afghan police. If the Taliban doesn't get them first. Harsh, but true.

Two days of heated discussions, somewhat calmed by the dispensing of large amounts of cash, and we reach a tentative accord. They will go back to work at least until 15 January, and I get to head back to Kabul mission accomplished (sort of).

Now comes the tricky bit. How do I get home again?* That story in the next post.

*And yes I realize that referring to Kabul as "home" is a sign I've been here too long.

The March Up-Country

This post was supposed to go up back in November, but it's one of those that has been languishing in my Drafts folder. At the time, I thought this trip was pretty interesting, but all the traveling I've done since then makes this seem a little tame.

I realized this evening that I neglected to post the photos from my second trip a couple of weeks ago. The first one, a quick chopper flight down to Uruzgan is detailed here. The very next day, barely recovered from six hours in a somewhat dodgy Russian helicopter, I piled into a LandCruiser with three of my guys and drove up to Sheberghan.*
*For those unfamiliar with Afghanistan, Sheberghan is about an hour west of Mazar-i-Sharif, the major city in northern Afghanistan.

The drive was supposed to take about seven hours, but I knew better than to take a locals word for it. This is still a part of the world in which some people describe the length of a journey by reference to how many cigarettes you can smoke on the way. As in, "the drive to Jalalabad is a six-cigarette trip (i.e about three hours)."

Well, as I expected, we left almost two hours behind schedule and hit the morning traffic trying to get out of Kabul. As a result, we didn't get to the interesting bit of the trip until mid-morning. The interesting bit, specifically, is this:

Apologies for the crappy picture. I'm still trying to get the hang of using my new camera, and truth be told, I'll slightly reluctant to whip it out at every opportunity. Don't want the locals to take me for a tourist.

To be clear, when one drives the Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush, one doesn't really go through the mountains as much as one goes over the mountains. Sure, there are some tunnels* but basically navigating the pass consists of going up one side of the range to a ridiculous altitude and then back down the other side. All the while clinging for life to a narrow road scraped out of the side of the mountain while Afghan drivers compete to see who can be the craziest sonofabitch on the road.

*The tunnels in the Salang Pass (there are about half a dozen) are impressive feats of modern engineering. Sure, they're barely wide enough for one lane of traffic each way, they have no lights other than occasional holes blasted in the rock and they're constantly filled with a choking cloud of dust and diesel fumes, but still impressive nonetheless. Imagine a carnival-style Tunnel of Love, except with eight-ton trucks going both ways, zero visibility and no cheesy romantic music. Oh, and no women.

On the far side of the pass and after losing count of the number of times I cursed myself for not having an updated will, we stopped for lunch at a roadside chaikhana. The looks one gets as a Westerner walking into a place like that, especially with a Kalashnikov under one arm, can be disturbing. A mixture of hospitality, awe, fear and loathing, often in rapid succession on the same face. Fortunately, when you travel with armed guards and a pocketful of US greenbacks, there are few negative emotions that can't be overcome.

I'm pretty sure the kid behind me is trying to convince the kid over my left shoulder to make a grab for my wallet, but he's trying to figure how likely I am to use that Kalashnikov. My PSD insisted on snapping this picture while we waited for the driver to refuel the Land Cruiser. The somewhat pained expression on my face is a result of 1) my general dislike for having my picture taken, and 2) a mind whirling with serious doubts about the provenance of the lunch I just ate. Meat yes, goat probably, age indeterminate but certainly past the prime of his life.

Speaking of PSDs, mine for this trip was Suleiman, one of my best guys. He's a Panjshiri, which means he's a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, a people with a well-deserved reputation for kicking the crap out of anyone who messes with them. The Panjshiris humiliated the Soviets for ten years, and then slapped the Taliban around for another ten. Not popular with most of the Pashtun Afghans, but utterly reliable fighters and their loyalty, once earned, is undying.*

*In Afghanistan, the concept of permanent loyalty is mostly nonexistent. As the saying goes, "you can never buy an Afghan's loyalty, but you can always rent it." This does not apply to Panjshiris.

This is Suleiman and myself on the far side of the Salang Pass, near a place called Saripul. He's actually a very nice guy and not nearly as mean as he looks in this picture. We stopped for gas, and as you do at an Afghan gas station, took the opportunity to have a cigarette.

After another five hours in the car (and about twenty more cigarettes), we finally pulled into Sheberghan around dinner-time. We had been talking about getting something to eat before we reached our ultimate destination. At one point, I mentioned that I like mantu, which is a sort of Afghan-style ravioli. This, as it turns out, was a bit of a tactical error, since the supervisor who was with us had thoughtfully phoned ahead to his family who lives in Sheberghan and asked them to prepare dinner for us and make sure that mantu was the main course.

Hospitality is very important here, and once the invitation was extended, I couldn't turn it down with causing offense. So, I soon found myself sitting on the floor (as one does here), having dinner with my guys, the entire extended family (males only) and a random collection of neighbors, strangers and a couple of shady characters. I'm pretty sure that at least two of these guys were Taliban who were in town on holiday. The mantu, however, was excellent.

After dinner, we dropped off our guys at the base where they'd be working, had some meetings with the site manager and the guards who were already there, and called it a day. Next morning, we got up and did the whole thing in reverse, without the mantu.

Wait, we have to cross that? Again?

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Many of you have noticed the lack of posts recently, and I must say I'm getting some rather snippy comments from the more civilized bits of the world. All I can say is "Keep your pants on!" I've been traveling a lot lately (with more to come) and haven't had a chance to keep this site updated. Things in Afghanistan don't work quite as smoothly as one would hope; everything takes four times as long as it should and my posting schedule is no exception.

That said, I have several new posts going up in the next 48-72 hours. I'm going to stagger them for the benefit of the Luddites out there who still don't use Google reader or some other feed system. If you're one of those people who has to manually come and check the site every day to see if there's anything new, then do so with greater frequency in the next few days or you're likely to miss something.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

OK Corral

In response to my earlier post about the fighting down the street, one of my oldest friends wrote me the following email:

Sounds like the old west, shoot first ask questions later. When you
decide to shoot some of them the next time take a few things into
  1. I have seen how long it takes you to fully wake up in the morning. I doubt you could hit a building, let alone a person.
  2. Since no one will know who you are, they are all likely to start firing back at you.
  3. Obviously your house is not bullet proof.
  4. They are happy to die for their cause. Your cause is to get paid, and if you die you fail at doing that.
  5. There are many of them, and only one of you.
I offer the following point-by-point response:
  1. While it is true that I have a well-deserved reputation for not being at my best before noon (and three cups of coffee and half a dozen cigarettes), I have discovered that even my advanced state of morning lethargy is rapidly and comprehensively dispelled by the sound of gunfire and/or explosions. Even through the haze of a barely-receeding pre-dawn hangover, the proximity of combat tends to focus one's attention. And, to be clear, although I had my weapon with me, I most assuredly did not engage any of the bad guys (see point two, below). And yes, I can, if called upon, shoot well enough to hit a building. Maybe even a small building.
  2. True, and that is in fact what happened, except that as noted above, I did not fire at them. I merely stuck my head out to survey the situation and they decided to fire at me. Fortunately, the bad guys generally can't shoot for shit, and the ANP, for all their bravery, are not much better.
  3. Actually, whether by accident or by design, most Afghan houses are bulletproof. Not much is done properly here, architecture-wise, but the walls of this place are approximately eight inches thick. It would take a lot more than a 7.62mm AK round to pierce that. Of course, that doesn't help when one is on the balcony.
  4. Granted, but isn't that sort of stating the obvious? I mean, I'm not here to oversee an agricultural project or school construction. A certain amount of risk is unavoidable in this place. Plus, although I dislike the word "cause", I like to think that I'm doing something more than just getting paid.
  5. Also true, there is only one of me. And I think I can reliably speak for most of the people who know me that one of me is more than enough. Also true that there are many of them. However, it is worth pointing out that, in that particular moment, there were three of the bad guys and about a hundred cops, and me. 101-3, I'll take those odds any day.

Friday, November 13, 2009


A reader/commenter of yesterday's post asked about Nightwatch, an internet source I referenced. So, here goes.

There are literally thousands of blogs, websites, agencies, NGOs, pundits, talking heads, etc. on the web that will, if you let them, fill your head with assinine reporting, dubious "facts" and lame analysis. If you are an SME*, you might be able to parse these various sources and ferret out some usable information. If you are like the vast majority of the Western public, it can be impossible to figure out who to trust.

*Subject Matter Expert, another class of suspect individuals who are usually to be assiduously avoided. There are dozens of SMEs on Afghanistan working in the US Government, think-tanks and various news organizations, many of whom have never been to Afghanistan and most of whom have never been outside of Kabul. In general, stay away from any self-proclaimed "experts."

My Google Reader is daily jammed with updates and posts from various sources on Afghanistan and Central Asia*, some of them good, some of them not-so-good and a few of them entertaining only for their sheer ignorance. But there are a handful of old standbys, proven providers of verifiable facts and cogent analysis. Nightwatch is one of those.

*As well as some lighter fare, such as Joe Posnanski and Ben Casnocha.

The format is simple, text-based and to the point. No agenda to filter out, no bullshit to wade through, only a daily recap of significant political/military events culled from a wide variety of open sources, usually with a bit of commentary or analysis attached. Recent example here. It's usually the first thing I check in the morning to get an idea of what I missed while I was sleeping off my hangover.

The parent organization to Nightwatch (here) is a non-profit professional organization "serving the military, government, industry, and academia as an ethical forum for advancing professional knowledge and relationships in the fields of communications, IT, intelligence, and global security." I'm not sure what that means exactly, but their output is always reliable and professional.

So, if you're one of those weird people (like me) who just has to know what's going on in the rest of the world, even if it has an almost-zero chance of affecting your life, then start your day with a quick glance at Nightwatch. If not, then stick with The View and FoxNews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All You Need to Know

Via Nightwatch's daily intel report:

An Afghan Taliban spokesman described follow-on activities in Kamdesh District, Konar Province, after NATO and Coalition forces abandoned their operating bases and retreated. The area is currently under the control of Taliban, who walk freely in the district, according to al Jazeera.

“We finished forming our administrative units and the officials have been appointed. We also established the judiciary department and the commission for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice section. We are working on providing people's basic needs.”

Note the order of priorities for the scumbags once they take over an area.

1) Appoint "administrative" officials (i.e. tax collectors)
2) Appoint judges to mete out summary punishment
3) Establish the "commission for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice*" to seek out and identify the evildoers, like girls who like to read and men who got a haircut in the last ten years,

and then, finally, when all the important stuff is done,
4) work on providing the people's basic needs (like, I don't know, food?)

Pretty much tells you all you need to know about the Taliban and their fitness for government.

*By the way, the "commission for promotion of virture and the prevention of vice" has got to be the single longest bureaucratic name for a quasi-governmental institution in the world. Wouldn't "assholes-with-a-pointy-stick-gang" be easier?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Very Bold

I wasn't in the area at the time, but yesterday the bad guys hit another fuel convoy out on the Jalalabad road. Blogger Tim Lynch gives a good recap (with pictures) here.*

*Tim always has excellent and timely pictures of any significant events in the area around Jalalabad. Makes me wonder how he has time for his day job.

One of the things Tim highlights is the fact that this was a larger action than is typical for that stretch of road. In the past, the standard method of attacking the fuel trucks is for three or four insurgents to fire a few rounds and the occasional RPG in an attempt to detonate one of the tankers. After running out of ammo, or getting lucky, they generally boogie back over the mountains from whence they came.

In this instance, however, the bad guys seemed to have been more deliberate. They came with a larger force than usual, and stayed long enough to light up at least four of the tankers. As Tim points out, that perhaps wasn't really wise, since they lingered long enough to be engaged by three different elements, the tankers' own PSC convoy escorts, the ANP (better late than never) and a pair of Kiowa scout choppers out of JAF. End result, four burned tankers and a very bad day for an undetermined number of bad guys.

Perhaps an isolated incident, or maybe a harbinger of things to come. Tim acknowledges that these limited attacks don't really stand a chance of closing the main east-west artery between Kabul and Pakistan, but maybe the scumbags are getting closer to their goal. They're certainly getting bolder in their tactics and the location of the attack (very close to Jalalabad) possibly indicates that they unconcerned about a response. Plus, it's worth remembering that the guys who died yesterday almost certainly weren't individuals acting alone. Someone sent them there, presumably someone with enough saavy to realize that they weren't coming back. Sounds to me like their probing the route security and are willing to sacrifice a few hotheads to do it.

Incidentally, I have no idea who the outfit is that Tim refers to as Blue Compass. They may be a local, unlicensed PSC operating in a limited area, or he may simply be trying to shield the identities of the operators who have that duty. "Blue Compass" sounds suspiciously like an amalgam of the names of two prominent PSCs, so I suspect it's the latter.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Flight to Nowhere

I've been fortunate enough to do a fair amount of traveling in the last week or so. It's always good to get out of Kabul (especially after the events of two weeks ago make the city seem considerably less safe), and I enjoy seeing different parts of the country, even if the scenery doesn't really change all that much.

The first trip was a quick, three hour helicopter ride down to Uruzgan Province.* Uruzgan is usually described as part of "southern" Afghanistan, like Helmand or Kandahar, but to my mind it's really part of central Afghanistan. Uruzgan is more mountainous than Helmand or Kandahar**, and it's also more sparsely populated. It's also the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, so that tells you all you need to know about the attitude of the locals.

*At least this time the crew was largely sober. As usual, they were Russian pilots with a mixed Eastern European ground crew, but this group was considerably more professional than last time. Plus, the chopper started on the first try without anyone having to get on top and bang on the engine with a wrench.
**Not that one should make the mistake of thinking that Uruzgan's mountains are lush valleys of pine forests and clear mountain streams. It's basically high desert. Broadly speaking, in most of Afghanistan, there are two types of terrain. There's the desert (rocks on flat ground) and the mountains (rocks on sloped ground). Either way, it's rocks. And dust.

This is what Uruzgan looks like from the air:

And this is what it looks like on the ground:

I think you'll agree, not exactly inspiring scenery.

Two hours at the KAIA waiting for the bird, three hours flight time down and another three hours back, all for about forty-five minutes on the ground while the construction guys take soil samples and measure the depth of gullys. My job in all this (besides providing cigarettes to those expats who failed to bring their own) is to manage my guys while the pull security on the chopper and keep an eye out for locals.

Of course, as one would expect for a remote valley like the one we went to, the only locals around were the shepherds tending their herds of goats. Down in Uruzgan, just about everyone goes armed, even the shepherds. As long as they keep their distance and don't show too much interest, we don't mess with them. After all, before too long we might need to hire their cousins or sons to work on the project we're in Uruzgan to scout. Fortunately, they seem to take the same attitude. As long as we don't mess with their goats, they don't try to approach closer than about 300 meters. Any closer than that and things get real tense real fast.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wake-Up Call II

After last week, I guess I have to reclassify Kabul as "Indian Country." At least that's the opinion of the majority of the international media and the so-called "area experts." I'm not fully convinced that the security situation in Kabul has really shifted quite as much as they think it has, but nevertheless the attack on the UN does compel one to rexamine one's assumptions.

Kabul has always had an element of risk to it, but nothing approaching the threat level in the southern and eastern provinces. For Westerners specifically, the threat was two-dimensional. First is the possibility of criminal kidnap. This is actually a much greater problem for Afghans (a fact which goes unreported in the Western media), but it is still a concern. Fortunately, it's a threat that is fairly easy to counter. Kidnappers are (generally) in it for the money. They don't want a gunfight, because a dead target is worth nothing to them. So, taking certain basic precautions can reduce the level of risk to acceptably low levels. For instance, the presence of even one armed guard can deter all but the most determined kidnappers, and simply reinforcing the doors and access points to a residence will often cause them to look elsewhere for easier targets (hence the greater number of kidnappings of Afghan businessmen.)

The second threat in Kabul is the possibility of random violence, such as a car bomb or suicide attacker. If one is in the vicinity, there's little you can do, but the trick is to simply avoid those places and times when such attacks are likely. Never make appointments at any embassy or government building before mid-morning; stay well clear of ISAF/NATO convoys; keep away from public demonstrations and political rallies. Not that hard to do with a little advanced planning and keeps one out of the line of fire.

Then comes the attacks of last Wednesday, which forces everybody to reassess their prior assumptions and begin questioning their security procedures.*

*To be honest, people questioning their security procedures is actually good for business, since they usually decide that they need increased protection. One would prefer of course that it didn't take an event like this latest attack to convince people that maybe they should take this stuff seriously.

As the BBC article rather uncharitably points out:

The fact remains that the Afghan interior ministry clearly failed to stop that attack. Afghan guards should have been outside the guesthouse, protecting the UN staff inside. Were they? Did they attempt to do their job? If not, why not? All pressing questions for the UN.
I can state as a fact that Afghan guards (ANP) were outside during the attack, guarding the gate as they are supposed to. I saw those guards everyday when I left my residence and they were as vigilant and as capable as anyone can expect.

I can also state that both of them are now dead, victims of a well-planned and effectively executed attack. The Taliban, if that's who the attackers were, wore ANP uniforms themselves, undoubtedly stolen or purchased from some corrupt district commander. Some of my guys, who witnessed the attack, tell me that the Taliban conducted a thorough recon of the area first, disguised as police, and then simply walked up and shot those two guards at point blank range.

They then blew the door down and were inside the compound in a matter of seconds. Very intelligently, they left one of their number on the street, behind the recently-vacated sandbag barrier at the entrance. So, when the real ANP rolled up,* they had to contend with a lone Taliban, fortified and well-stocked with ammunition. He was eventually taken down, but that bought enough time for the two inside to do a considerable amount of damage. It's actually surprising that there weren't more fatalities.

*Reaction time is something that always impresses me about the ANP in Kabul. As soon as anything happens, there's ten cops there in five minutes or less, and another fifty ten minutes after that. Within half an hour of the first shots being fired, there were at least a hundred ANP on the streets below me, suplemented by a platoon of Afghan Army Special Forces. Afghans, contrary to what you might hear, will come running to the sound of gunfire.

I have never been inside the Bakhtar Guesthouse, but if it's like most of the others here in Kabul the problem was not with the Afghan guards at the gate. More likely, it was the lack of a simple counter-measure on the ECP* that cost those UN workers their lives.

*ECP=Entry Control Point, i.e. a gate for people in the normal part of the world.

A single door may slow down the attackers, especially if it's reinforced steel. Explosives, of which there are plenty floating around, will knock down just about any door one can put up. However, the presence of a second door, also reinforced, inside the first and with a small, walled dead space in between, can make all the difference in the world. The concept of a simple, robust double-gate has been around since at least the time of the Roman republic. Force the attackers to breach not one but two doors at the ECP, and you at least double the reaction time for those inside. Not to mention that while the attackers are dealing with the second door, they are highly vulnerable to one well-placed defender overlooking that dead space. They didn't use to call them "murder-holes" for nothing.

Ironically, although the BBC asks whether the guards outside were doing their jobs, it was the lack of a guard inside that made the difference. External guards serve little purpose other than to deter petty crime and draw attention to the importance of the building. It's the internal guards, and the structures in place to support them, that will prove decisive in an attack like this one. A lesson the UN would do well to incorporate into the security assessments they will conducting over and over again in the coming months.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wake-Up Call

Just last week I was musing on the ramifications of my new quarters and the security measures therein, and I pointed out that Kabul is actually safer than most people think it is. There is always at least a minimum level of risk, but I'm not trudging through the valleys of Paktika or hiking the deserts of Helmand.

Why, oh why do I open my big mouth?

By now, anyone who follows even the headlines of media coverage about Afghanistan will be aware of the events of last Wednesday. (Coverage here if you've missed the nightly news lately.) It was a pretty shocking event, even by A-stan standards. There are occasional rockets or mortars fired into Kabul, most of which fall on the outskirts of the city and cause little damage and limited casualties. Even more rarely, a Taliban gunman will open fire on a police checkpoint and quickly get shot down. Overall, the ANP keeps a pretty tight lid on Kabul, with numerous checkpoints, guard posts and vehicular searches. Inconvenient sure, but necessary and up until Wednesday reasonably effective.

Well, apparently some of the bad guys slipped through the net. For reasons surpassing understanding, the BBC failed to report the most important aspect of Wednesday events, namely that the whole thing happened about 30 meters from my front door. Makes for a pretty exciting morning, I can assure you.

Below are a couple of videos, the first shot during the attack (although for obvious reasons it doesn't show the actual fighting), the second shot later on in the day. I apologize for the quality of the video; I wasn't fully in the right frame of mind for memorializing the event. Guess I wouldn't make much of a combat photojournalist.

Later on, some thoughts on the BBC reporting and the implications of this attack for life in Kabul.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


One of the benefits of my new lodgings is that I'm off by myself, rather than stuck in a dodgy hotel with the dregs of Kabul's transient population. It's nice and quiet, especially in the evenings when I'm pretty much on my own. There are half a dozen of my guys quartered on the ground floor (I'm on the third), but they're assigned to a static security site down the street and tend to be fast asleep when not on duty.

So, for my own peace of mind, I decided that it's best to rely on only myself for personal protection in the middle of the night. Although Kabul is safer than most people think, criminal kidnap is an ever-present threat. The targets of the kidnap gangs are almost always local businessmen, rather than expats, but it never hurts to be prepared.

Hence, my new toy:

That is an Automat Kalashnikov, Model 19(47), better known as an AK-47, the preferred weapon of guerillas, insurgents, thugs and various assorted bad guys around the world. Oh, and private security contractors in Afghanistan.

Now I have one of my very own. I'm still undecided if that's a good thing, or a bad sign.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Poor Response

I was sitting in my new office this morning (not much better than the old office, but at least it's private) and I got a call from one of our project managers. As usual when they call me, it's to complain about something. In this instance, the complaint was about some salaries that, due to an accounting screw-up, had gone unpaid.

Not get paid is a serious deterrent to effective performance, so I sympathize with the PM and his guys. However, he was all bent out of shape and ranting (mostly in Urdu, which I do not speak), so I began to get frustrated. Eventually, I had to fall back on my time-honored response to this sort of debate, which is to say, "Hey, it's just business. Nobody dies, right?"

Except that.....ummmm.....yeah, people do actually die in this business.* I have a disturbing tendency to be a little too flippant for a place like Afghanistan.

*Just last week one of our competitors lost an entire team of convoy escorts when they ran out of ammo during an ambush down in Khost. That's just poor planning.

So, I guess I'm going to have to find a new catch-phrase response for when things aren't going right. The long, cold silence on the other end of the phone confirmed that for me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Welcome Home

Well, I've been traveling a lot lately, taking a much-needed mental health break. Details on that to follow in subsequent posts (including some thoughts on the relative merits of strip clubs in Arlington vs. Washington D.C.).

Now I'm back in Kabul, and it's nice to see things haven't changed that much. The Taliban welcomed me back by waking me this morning with a large car-bomb about eight blocks from my new quarters. It was somewhere near the Ministry of Interior, to judge by the smoke cloud, and large enough to rattle the windows and knock some books off the shelf here. No reports on casualties yet, but I did appreciate the pre-coffee wake-up call.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I generally refrain from citing other posts and articles here, since I figure my loyal readers (all three of you) don't actually come here for political commentary and strategic/tactical analysis. However, I do read a lot of that stuff, mostly online or downloaded academic papers and articles.

The stuff generated by the various professional COIN-theorists (and their antithesis, the anti-COIN crowd) is often unreadable, but occasionally contains a few nuggets of truth, or at least of useful analysis.* While I disagree with some of what the military types have to say (especially if they have no operational experience here), it's usually worth listening to their perspective.

*Apparently, a career spent in any modern Western military does not endow one with the ability to read or write effectively. Methinks it has something to do with the dominance of PowerPoint as an information-sharing technique.

By contrast, much of what is available out there in the popular press is pretty weak on Afghanistan, demonstrating a total lack of understanding of either local conditions or the peculiar tactical problems of this campaign. There are a few reporters, mostly for the NYTimes, who make an honest effort to get the story right, and often go above and beyond what most reporters would endure. But overall, newspaper reporters simply don't get this place, probably because it's hard to understand the complex problems facing Afghanistan if one spends all their time in the garden bar at The Gandamack Lounge.*

*Not that I dislike the Gandamack. It's a venerable Kabul institution. The food is even halfway decent, although they do water down the whiskey. As if I wouldn't know.

And with apologies to anyone with a fondness for the UK papers, a quick review of the last twelve months will conclusively demonstrate that none of them rise even to the level of the Miami Herald when covering Afghanistan. They're too busy trying to score political points for their respective parties to actually worry about getting the story. Fortunately, the BBC at least partially makes up for their utter failings.

But by far the worst transgressors in the realm of public commentary are the various pundits, talking heads and think-tank types who populate the OpEd pages of the major newspapers.* These largely self-appointed experts feel compelled to spout off about anything that remotely enters into their supposed sphere of knowledge. And given the depth of their hubris, there's not much that falls outside that sphere.

*You thought I was going to say "bloggers" didn't you? Well, some of them do suck, for a variety of reasons. I'll get to them later.

And by far the worst of these are the political science/international relations/international security academics who have spent their entire careers writing voluminously about security and defense issues without ever having gained first-hand experience on the topic. Some of you may know the type. The publish articles, in various prestigous journals, with titles like "Tribalism, Marxism and Feminism: Three Social Movements in Contemporary Insurgencies" and "Comparative Social Dynamics of the Role of Non-State Actors in Civil Strife." I usually can't even decipher the titles, much less the text of the articles.

So, all of that, by way of introduction, brings us to the point of this post, which is to highlight one of the more recent efforts by our distinguished ivory-tower dwellers, specifically this piece published yesterday on the New York Times OpEd page.

The author, one Dr. Kimberly Martin of Columbia University, discusses the nascent plans to fund and equip a "tribal militia" in Afghanistan. The purpose of this militia* is to provide local defense against Taliban reprisals, while at the same time providing some jobs in every community. The hope is that the combinaton of economic development, employment and some limited defensive capabilities will allow remote rural villages to begin to develop economically and socially.

*Militia is not really the right word here, since it generally has connotations of minutemen and brave American revolutionaries. The concept is really more akin to the CIDGs, or Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, that were created in South Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Dr. Martin apparently takes exception to this approach, and there are several reasons to be sceptical of the whole idea. However, either for reasons of space or simply general ignorance, Dr. Martin rolls out all the old tropes rather than discuss the actual pros and cons of the program.

For instance, she opens with the indispensible comparison to British colonial practice in Central Asia:
Almost point for point, this plan repeats the terrible mistake that the British colonial army made in the Pashtun tribal areas in what would become Pakistan, in the late 19th century.

Bravo Doctor! In only the second paragraph, you've managed to connect the whole scheme not only to a failed program from a previous campaign, but also imply that the whole concept is "colonial" in nature. Hmm, let me guess. Your favorite courses in undergrad poli sci were on Marxist theory?

The problem here is that this is not the 19th century, Afghanistan is not Pakistan, and the U.S. Army is slightly better at this whole counter-insurgency thing than some heavy-handed redcoats 150 years ago. At the very least, we have a lot more money to spread around this time.

But the real problem with the article is that the elements of the plan which she says failed so badly are actually the exact same elements that we need more of in Afghanistan today. She condemns the previous effort in part by writing, "British intelligence officers created charts of which sub-tribes and leaders (or maliks) had the most influence...." Yeah? And? That's a good thing. Detailed, accurate information about who the local power-brokers are is one of the key elements that is most lacking in our current efforts in Afghanistan. Any plan that creates a greater awareness of the intricacies of the tribal structure can only help in the long-run.

Or where she writes, "This system violated the tribal code of equality among all Pashtun men, but the official maliks accepted it with enthusiasm." Well of course they accepted it with enthusiasm. I haven't met an Afghan yet who wouldn't pledge his undying loyalty in exchange for $50 bucks. Even the vaunted fanatics of the Taliban fight and die for $10 a day. Cash is king, especially in A-stan.

And what's the bit about the "tribal code of equality" among Pashtun men? Notice how she limits that statement to the male half of the population. No need to dirty up a nice pretty argument with the ugly reality of female suppression. Besides, despite whatever Western-trained sociologists will tell you, there is no equality in Afghan culture, male or otherwise. This is a traditional (i.e. primitive) tribal structure, with deference to chief or clan-head (or whoever happens to be in charge), enforced by violence and backed up by familial ties. Equality in the Western sense of the word is a foreign concept.

If Dr. Martin's fear is that the tribal militia program will somehow undermine the traditional power structures here, well then I'm all for it. What she fails to understand is that it is exactly those traditional social constructs that are directly responsible for the shit-hole that this country has become. Afghans like to blame everyone for their problems, the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Arabs, the Iranians and the West. Fact is, this place is a mess because the Afghans have made it that way.

As so often happens after reading an article like that, I'm left wondering. Dr. Martin, have you even been to Afghanistan?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Time Off

Ten days. I know it's been ten days since I posted anything here. I can only say in my own defense that occasionally real life intrudes on one's leisure (or semi-leisure) activities. This seems to be especially true in A-stan.

For instance, last night I sat down to watch a tape-delay baseball game, a rare treat here where most of the televised sports are either football (soccer), rugby or Afghan marital arts.*

*Wierd, I know. I was surprised when I discovered the Afghan passion for full-contact martial arts. That is, until I realized that it makes perfect sense. I mean, if there's a sport which Afghans are genetically predisposed to be good at, it would of course be martial arts, right? As one of my Afghan co-workers said to me, "We may suck at football, but we excell at kicking the crap out of each other."

Anyway, didn't even get through the first inning before there's a distant rumbling and the lights flicker. Then the cable goes out. Outstanding. Somebody blew something up. So up on the roof I go with some night-vision gear to see if I can figure out what's going on. No sign of fires or secondary explosions, so I'm not sure what got hit or how badly. Turns out (I discovered this morning) that the Talibs fired three 122mm rockets into Kabul last night. Perhaps indicative of the level of violence required to spark interest in this town, the event didn't even make the morning news, so I have no idea if there were any casualties.

To get around to the point of this post, after six months here with no real break, I've finally arranged to take some time off. Back to civilization in a week or so, after a quick overnight stop in Dubai. Specifically, London first and then the States, and if I'm lucky a short side-trip to Europe somewhere. Not sure how much time I'll have, but there's no point in leaving here for less than a couple of weeks. I have to be gone long enough to begin to forget what it's like or else I won't be willing to come back.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Range Day, Again

We took another batch of our new guys to the range the other day for familiarization training with the AK-47. As I've mentioned before, contrary to popular opinion most Afghans can't shoot at all. Even the Taliban tend to be, for all their experience, very poor shots. Unfortunately for the company, my guys aren't much better.

It doesn't help that for most of them the only training they receive is a couple of days instruction on how to operate a Kalashnikov and then a day at the range where they get to fire a total of ten rounds. If they hit the target at all, they're judged a success. If they score 50%, they're considered an expert. Far cry from US Army standards.

This time, we went to the range with about twenty ANP recruits. The Lion (a former ANP commando) had agreed to train them, and in exchange the ANP gave us enough ammunition to run our guys through. I was simultaneously pleased and disheartened to discover that the ANP can't shoot either. Doesn't say much for the security forces in this town, but hey, at least we're not the only ones.

We finished the day by holding a little competition between all the senior staff on the range. The operations manager, two of our supervisors and myself all loaded up ten rounds and tried to knock down some empty water bottles at fifty meters. As I hoped, the rest of the trainees were sitting in the shade and observing while I schooled our senior staff on how to shoot. Knocked down all five with only eight rounds (with an unzeroed weapon too), while the Ops Manager could only get two. My stock with the rank-and-file went up considerably.

Not that there's any tangible reward for good shooting. All I got was a sunburn.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Lots of talk lately about the recent offensive in the Helmand River Valley down south. This has been tried before (twice) with at best mixed results. The problem seems to be that although the ISAF forces can defeat or drive away the Taliban,* there are too few reliable Afghan security forces and too little reconstruction capability to complete the “hold” and “build” portions of the classic “clear, hold and build” strategy.

*Not without casualties, as the British public is discovering to their dismay.

Indeed, according to some reports, the Afghan security forces, notably the Afghan National Police (ANP), are a big part of the problem. Local reports say that the ANP is corrupt (no surprise there), ineffective (again, not really surprising) and brutal. Of particular significance to the Western media have been the accusations from villagers in Helmand that the officers of the ANP are prone to kidnapping young boys and holding them for a month or two to use as sexual slaves.

Predictably, this gets people at the BBC and CNN all fired up. They present it as conclusive proof that the current government of Afghanistan and its Western-trained security forces are nothing more than brutal bandits, abusing the locals with perverse acts. Foreign Policy blogger Tom Ricks seems to go along with that theme, without examining the wider issue.

While possibly true, that story doesn’t quite hold up to a full examination. Even if we assume that the reports are true (and I for one believe they probably are), the story conceals a fact of larger significance.

To put it simply, and without going into too much disturbing detail, the ANP are not stepping outside the bounds of traditional Afghan culture here. It is common practice among some Afghan tribes, especially the Pashtun down in the more conservative south, for adult men to take pre-pubescent boys as, for lack of a better word, concubines. In Pashto, the practice is called bachabazi. Bacha roughly translates to “boy” and bazi is something like “play.”* The practice was less widespread during the Taliban years, but is actually an ancient custom.

*Although I doubt the boys in question consider this particular form of “play” to be very much fun.

The locals in Helmand, like the police, are almost entirely Pashtun. So, it’s possible that the locals are pissed not because the ANP are taking the boys per se, but because they’re taking the more attractive, highly-sought after specimens. Sort of like a horse-thief complaining that some other thief got there before them and took the best horses.*

*Incidentally, bachabazi in and of itself is not a crime under Afghan law, although the kidnapping bit would be. Stealing of horses, on the other hand, is punishable by execution. Go figure.

These are the people that NATO troops are trying to save from themselves. At some point, one has to ask if they’re really worth saving.

P.S. For anyone who thinks this might be an isolated circumstance, limited to the backward southern provinces, I would point out that less than a month after I arrived I had to fire one of my supervisors for this very thing. The disturbing bit was that several members of the staff came vigorously to his defense and tried to point out that this was simply part of Pashtun culture. I had to fight to get him fired, and could only manage to do so by pointing out that he was supposed to be on duty at the time, not off buggering little boys.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Morning Tea

Despite getting approximately four hours of sleep a night, I try to get up early enough to have a quick breakfast and some tea in the garden before I go to work. Usually it's the best part of the day, except for the anticipation of the crises, annoyances and petty distractions that confront me when I get to the office.

It's also a chance to get a little reading done. Currently the book of choice is Hedley Bull's The Anarchical Society. Yes, I know, I'm an IR geek, but the title seemed appropriate given the surroundings. Besides, it is one of the seminal works of international relations from the 20th century (or any century, for that matter).

So, I'm sitting in the shade trying to absorb the distinction between a "system of states" and "the international system" when I hear the Whump! of a large bomb going off. My first thought was a hand grenade in the street outside, but the sound was much larger and more distant than that. In true Afghan fashion, the scattering of people having breakfast around me look up, smile nervously at each other and then go back to eating. Takes a lot to get people to react in this town.

This is why one doesn't make appointments in the morning in Kabul. Give the bad guys a few hours to get it out of their system before you venture into the high-threat areas. Probably a lot more of this sort of thing to come in the days leading up to the election. Fortunately, I live in the quiet part of town, far away from the embassies, military bases and government buildings. So I get to enjoy my morning tea in (relative) peace.

Update: Nine hours after the fact, I get this in my email from the U.S. Embassy-Kabul:

Warden Message
U.S. Embassy Kabul
August 15, 2009
At approximately 0835 this morning, a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) detonated near the ISAF headquarters vehicle entrance not far from the U.S. Embassy. Reports indicate as many as seven people were killed and 91 injured. This attack illustrates the significant threat that American citizens face throughout Afghanistan. American citizens are advised to be alert to the continued possibility of terrorist attacks. There is a continuing threat from terrorism throughout Afghanistan and the upcoming elections provide terrorist groups an opportunity or pretext to stage an attack. American citizens are reminded to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.

Well, duh! Thanks for the timely tip guys. Got anything I can't get off the BBC?

Friday, August 14, 2009

That Day

I apologize in advance for any incoherence or rambling in the following post. I’m a third of the way through a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and not slowing down yet.

If the definition of a “good day” in Afghanistan is a day that you don’t get shot at, then Thursday was, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a good day.

I’ll let that line sink in a little. It’s OK. Go back and reread it.

Yep, that’s what I’m sayin’. Today, for the first time since I’ve been here (almost six months now) I got shot at. And not in a minor way either. More on that later.

The plan for the day, in the works for about a week under conditions of extreme secrecy, was to move about thirty TCNs out to a new project in eastern Afghanistan.*

*TCNs’, by the way, is Third Country Nationals, meaning anyone not from Afghanistan and not from one of the countries currently engaged with NATO/ISAF in Afghanistan.** In this business, it usually means Nepalese or Indians, and occasionally Filipinos, Columbians, Samoans, etc. For our purposes here today, TCNs meant a platoon of ex-Indian or ex-Nepali army Gurkhas.
**Those guys are called expats, although that’s more often a shorthand way of describing anyone working here who is Western, regardless of which Western country they’re from.

Now, Gurkhas, for those of you not familiar with the term, come from select regiments of the British, Indian and Nepalese Armies. The original Gurkhas earned a well-deserved and fearsome reputation in World War Two as masters of close-combat, especially with curved knives known as kukris. Obviously, by this point, there are no serving Gurkhas with battle experience in WWII, nor are there many left with actual experience in the British Army Gurkha regiment. However, there are quite a few from the Indian and Nepalese Armies, highly prized for their discipline, ferocity and dedication. Because of their temperament and skills, they flock to places like Afghanistan where their background and training are properly compensated.

So, we recruited about thirty of these guys and this morning put them on a bus to go out past Jalalabad and report to work on a firebase. I won’t say who the client was, or which firebase it was, but I will tell you that the client has been in the papers a lot with some legal difficulties, and that the name of the firebase is the same as the nickname of one of the larger states in the U.S. That should be enough for some of you to figure who and where I’m talking about.

This particular outpost is in a region of Afghanistan called Tora Bora, a mountainous area made famous back in 2001 as the place where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly holed-up before he bailed across the border to Pakistan. Judging from the looks we received as we passed through the district, good ol’ Osama is still a favorite son among the locals.

It’s about a three hour drive from Kabul to Jalalabad, and then another hour up into the hills to the firebase. The first part of the journey was expected to be uneventful. The road to Jalalabad is the same road that eventually reaches Torkham Gate and the fabled Khyber Pass into Pakistan. It’s heavily traveled, especially now that USAID money has widened and paved it. Still, it’s pretty dicey, strictly from a motoring perspective, as it passes through several high passes and an uncountable number of switch-backs. Much of it runs along a precipice that is a sheer drop off to the river below. A single mistake, or a brake/steering/transmission failure could very likely be fatal. So I was looking at the first leg of the trip as fairly routine, but still potentially dangerous, especially given the traditional Afghan love affair with speed and passing trucks on blind corners.

It was the second leg, from Jalalabad to the work-site that had me concerned. We were traveling through a district with known sympathies for the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami.* The client, who is permanently based at this outpost, warned me that they regularly take fire when traveling through that area. Of course, they do it shiny new Land Cruisers with blacked-out windows, so everybody knows their Westerners. We were going in a bus, and not a nice one at that.

*Collectively and colloquially known as “booger-eaters.”

The thing that had me worried was the fact that our party was mostly Nepali and Indian. The locals are not that fond of these guys, since they feel (with some justification) that the Gurkhas are taking jobs that could go to Afghans. Never mind the fact that you won’t catch a Gurkha sleeping in a guard tower or smoking hash while on duty. Afghans believe themselves to be consummate warriors (not!), so they are jealous that security jobs often go to imported TCNs. Add into that the fact that I (a pretty obvious Westerner) was traveling with them and we had a recipe for trouble.

We were supposed to pick up weapons in Jalalabad, not a full load but enough to arm about a third of the guys, which would have been more than sufficient to scare off anyone who aggressive. Unfortunately, as we were pulling out, The Rug Merchant tells me that his contact has failed to come through, so we’ll have to make the trip without weapons. Or more precisely with one weapon, the pistol I carry with me when I leave Kabul. Not exactly an impressive show of force.

There were some tense moments when we got lost on the way to the site (map reading is an unknown skill here, but getting lost was still mostly my fault), but we eventually managed to pitch up at the right place and get our guys deployed. It’s a good post, well built and secure, with some very nice amenities. Every room has air-conditioning, which seems like an unthinkable luxury to me.

By the time we managed to do the obligatory meet-and-greet with the staff and get back on the road, it was getting towards late afternoon. Leaving the thirty Gurkhas behind, myself and five Afghans set off back for Jalalabad and the main road to Kabul. I confess we were all pretty tense on the way out. Bad district, bad roads, bad light, and only my pistol for protection. At one point, we ran over a rock which bounced up into the undercarriage and rattled around for a few seconds. It sounded, to our over-stressed brains, like an IED going off right under us. I’m pretty sure a couple of the Afghans pissed themselves, and if I’d had a round in the chamber, I probably would’ve blown my foot off. Nevertheless, without incident, we made it back to the blacktop road that runs between Jalalabad and Kabul. Normally, I would have elected to stay in Jalalabad for the night, but its Thursday, which means tomorrow is an off-day. I really didn’t want to spend half of my only day off driving in a shitty bus through the mountains.

The way we figured it, we could make the far side of the Surobi pass before it got dark, and then it was only a nice coasting ride down into Kabul. It’s important to remember that, at this point, we had negotiated the difficult mountain passes out to Jalalabad, managed to locate this remote firebase despite poor directions and worse map-reading, and drive into and back out of a very unfriendly district, all without serious incident or violence. We were, to put it simply, home-free and convinced of our invincibility. Funny how the sound of a heavy machinegun can shatter that illusion.

Roughly half-way between Jalalabad and Surobi, we’re cruising along in typical Afghan traffic, being passed by Toyota Corollas and in turn passing the various sizes of “jingle trucks” that constantly navigate this road.*

*Jingle trucks are so called because they are festooned with hundreds of trinkets and decorations and talismans, all of which jingle like a string of keys as the truck moves. They’re also usually brightly painted in a psychedelic rainbow of colors that look like something done by an interior decorator on a very bad acid trip.

I had finally relaxed and sat back to have a smoke, about my thirtieth of the day, but the first of which was actually relaxing. On our right was a short drop down to the river and a high mountain ridge on the far side. A pretty scenic view, by Afghan standards. All is good, I figured. That’s when the Taliban decided to ruin our day. The first indication was the popping sound of gunfire from up ahead. Hard to tell where it was coming from at first, but it was definitely AK-47s.* It seems that the Taliban had come over the mountains and taken up a position to our right, on the slope across the river. There was a green ANP Ford Ranger parked across the road about two hundred meters ahead of us, with a couple of guys ineffectually popping off rounds into the mountains.**

*”The preferred weapon of your enemy. It makes a distinctive sound.” – Gunny Highway
**ANP=Afghan National Police, for those of you who weren’t paying attention earlier.

The first reaction to that situation is to turn around and vacate the area. The bad guys aren’t after us, per se, they’re just looking to light up somebody on the road. Better not to be in the line of fire. So the driver wheels the bus around in a three-point turn (no mean feat given the constraints of the road-bed) and we start back toward Jalalabad as fast as the rickety old bus will take us. Then we hear the deeper thumping of a heavy machinegun (probably a DShK, but I can’t be sure) coming from the mountain across the river.

It’s at that point that we see the primary target of the attack, a couple of tanker trucks about one hundred meters behind us (now in front of us, since we’ve turned around). The “booger-eaters” love to pop over the mountains a fire off some rounds at the tanker trucks full of fuel destined for Kabul, in the hopes of getting lucky.*

*It’s not that hard to get lucky when you’re firing a heavy machinegun at a truck full of 10,000 liters of gasoline.

Apparently, the Taliban have set it up so that the first group opened fire on the ANP and the random vehicles on the road (including us), knowing full well that the traffic would back up behind us and the valuable tanker trucks would be forced to come to a dead stop. Much easier target when they’re not moving. So now we’re trapped between the first group, firing on the ANP, and what must be a second group of Taliban, trying to detonate a tanker truck with tracer rounds.

Here’s where it gets bad. The first truck, the driver probably in a panic, decides to retreat and promptly jackknifes his truck into the riverbed. The second driver, with nowhere else to go, decides to drive through the ambush. This is generally not a bad idea, if one is not driving a truck full of explosive liquids and if the road ahead is clear. Unfortunately, in this case, the road is not clear, and the tanker truck reaches no further than the traffic backup before it comes to a dead stop. Right next to our crappy bus.

So, now I’m stuck between the Taliban ahead of us, still lighting up the ANP from across the river, the jack-knifed tanker truck behind us being hit with tracer rounds in an effort to detonate the cargo, and another tanker truck right next to us, with a driver who has apparently lost his fucking mind. Not, overall, a pleasant situation.

With the exception of one, my Afghans collectively lose their fucking minds as well. The driver can’t decide if he wants to go forwards or back, regardless of the fact that he can't really do either. Two of my supervisors alternate between jumping off the bus to try and sort out the traffic jam, and screaming at the rest of us to jump back on.* The third simply wanders around with an idiot grin on his face, as if this is all some entertaining game. I'm pretty sure he's retarded. Needless to say, I and the last Afghan take shelter in the rocks on the far side of the road. I'm exremely pleased that I remembered to take my cigarettes with me.

* I’d rather not be in the bus (certainly not next to a tanker truck) when it takes a RPG through the windshield.

Eventually, we all clamber back on the bus as it’s turning around, and move back down the road about fifty meters. Not very far, but at least we’ve put some distance between us and the two primary targets of the attack. That’s when the first RPG comes in. I’m pretty sure they were shooting at the truck, but with a few exceptions, Afghans are not particularly good with RPGs. In this case, he was either really bad or just having trouble picking his targets properly. The first rocket landed about forty meters from us, on the far side of the river. Close enough to rattle the windows on the bus, and force us to promptly vacate the vehicle in favor of the rocks. Things were getting distinctly dodgy. Sitting there by the side of the road with my only weapon a pistol, I confess that I felt distinctly helpless. Unless the Talibs decided to come down off the mountain, cross the river and climb the slope to the road, there wasn’t much that a pistol could do for us.

The second rocket was a little better, both from my perspective and the Talibs. He missed the ANP, not by much, but it was a couple of hundred meters from me, so that was cool. By this point, the rest of the locals are either hiding in the rocks or madly reversing and turning their vehicles in an effort to clear the traffic jam. Needless to say, it didn’t work. We were stuck where we were for the foreseeable future.

The third RPG round was definitely an attempt at the tanker truck which had jackknifed into the riverbed. Would have been a glorious shot, but the scumbag misjudged the range it just plopped into the water. Some fisherman will probably drag that up years from now and lose an arm or worse.

The ANP at the front of the traffic jam had disappeared. Their truck was still there, half blocking the road, but the cops were gone, probably taking cover in the rocks like the rest of us. Incoming RPG rounds will do that. That heavy machinegun was still thumping away at something, but I’m not sure who they were firing. From the sound of the ricochets off the rocks, they probably knew where the cops were hiding and were just trying to keep their heads down. The reason for that became clear when we spotted the RPG teams displacing from their position in a small valley across the river. They must have fired all their rockets, because they were boogieing back up the slope, trying to escape over the mountain.

The driver, who doesn’t work for us, figured this was as good a time as any to get moving again. With the police gone, the road was partly open and a few brave vehicles were winding past the abandoned Ford Ranger and tearing up the highway. Without waiting for us, or even bothering to tell us the plan, the bus driver decides to try it himself.* As he pulls away, thereby depriving us of our cover, we all scramble to get onboard, running alongside as the bus picks up speed.

*I don’t think we’ll be hiring this guys services again.

Anyway, we all manage to climb back into the bus as it pulls away, and drive out of the killzone at max speed. Probably did more damage to the transmission in those two hundred meters than we did on the entire rest of the trip. Once past the Ford Ranger, we just hauled ass, waving away other vehicles headed the other way which were unwittingly driving into an ambush. Behind us, that DsHK continued to hammer away at something, but we weren’t sticking around to find out what.

About ten minutes and five kilometers later, we saw a column of Afghan National Army troops headed towards the ambush site. Suffice it to say that they were quite obviously not in a hurry to get there. Can’t say I blame them. Next time we drive that road, we go heavy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Logar Road

Back before I went to Dubai for the board meeting, I took a quick day-trip down to Logar Province. The purpose of the trip was a site visit to a US Army FOB* which is contracting out their perimeter security to locals.

*There I go again with the acronyms. FOB= Forward Operating Base; the massive fortresses of concertina wire, Hesco barriers and steel blast gates that are the home-away-from-home of most of the American troops in A-stan. Usually comes complete with a chopper pad, a MASH unit, satellite communication links and about a battalion’s worth of troops. Some even have coffee shops and PXs.

Logar is the province immediately south of Kabul, but the destination was about two hours drive, well outside the security blanket that exists in the capital. We did pass a couple of forlorn looking ANP checkpoints, and actually got stopped and searched once, but other than that there wasn’t much evidence of local security forces. That is, until we got close to our destination and got trapped behind a US Army convoy.

Much to the disgust of the locals, US Army protocol dictates that convoys travel with approximately a 200 meter security buffer. That means that no vehicles are supposed to approach closer than a couple of football fields. The nature of Afghan roads (narrow, twisty and in generally poor repair), and the fact that the convoys travel at about thirty miles an hour, means that when an Army (or ISAF) convoy is on the road, traffic stacks up behind it for miles. A massive queue beat-up Corollas, mini-vans and 4x4s, all pressing and fighting to get to the front of the line, only to find that they can’t go any further.

You see, although that 200 meter exclusion zone is often reduced to 100 meters or less by manic Afghan drivers, approaching any closer than that would be suicidal. ISAF troops in general, and American troops in particular, have a well-deserved and very nasty reputation for opening up with everything they’ve got if they sense even the slightest threat. Since these convoys move with an up-armored Humvee in the lead and another in the tail, both mounting either a M2HB .50 cal machinegun or a Mk19 automatic grenade launcher*, a nervous 19-year old from Goat Lick, Arkansas can really ruin your day.

*For the uninitiated, one round from a .50 caliber machinegun can blow apart an engine block and still have enough kinetic energy to cut the driver in half. The Mk19 is even more nasty, spitting out 40mm grenades in a veritable storm of death.

Not that I fault the troops in those convoys. They come under attack regularly out in the provinces, and a single Toyota Corolla loaded with old Soviet mortar shells can annihilate several vehicles at once. Their nightmare scenario is a car full of Afghan women who get to close, and a young soldier who hesitates to pull the trigger because he doesn’t like the idea of shooting women. Car goes boom, and the Department of Defense has a lot of letters to write. So, the Army policy is 1) point the big guns at anyone who gets too close, 2) shoot the car if they don’t stop, and 3) then shoot the driver (and anyone else who happens to be inside). The rules of engagement are well documented and easily understood, but it still comes down to a 19-year old kid under stress in a foreign land with less than three seconds to make a decision. Sometimes, they get it wrong.

Anyway, being stuck behind the convoy cost us a hour on the drive down and we missed the meeting and the site visit.*

*Not to mention the stress of driving through rural Afghanistan for three hours staring down the barrel of a grenade launcher.

On the way back, my local guide couldn’t resist stopping and showing me the recently patched crater in the road surrounded by scorched brush and blackened gravel. About ten days before, the Taliban had tipped over a truck full of lumber. Knowing full well that wood is more valuable than food in this country, they had placed a massive IED in the bed of the truck and, when the locals came running to gather free firewood, blew them all to Paradise. Total of twenty-four killed, including twelve local schoolboys who must have thought this was the luckiest day of their lives. Right up until the bomb went off.

This is what the area looked like shortly after the blast.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Praise and Criticism

A basic rule of command, which I vaguely recall from long ago when I was (briefly and largely unsuccessfully in the Army) is, Praise in Public, Criticize in Private.

The purpose of this was not to spare a subordinate’s feelings. Indeed, the verbal ass-whipping delivered privately is often more candid and brutal than any public display of dissatisfaction.* Nor was the public praise designed to make a subordinate look better than his peers, or set him above everyone else.

*Having been the subject of several of these private dressing-downs, I can assure that even now, over fifteen years later, they stick with you. Even with my gap-prone memory, I can still recall the exact words used by my superiors when I dropped the ball, usually offered quietly and definitively, without hysterics or shouting. Believe me, they were no less effective despite their understated delivery.

The rational is simple: public praise provides a benchmark on which others can gauge their performance. If everyone knows what is expected, and those who meet the standard are publically recognized for it, that provides a powerful incentive for the rest to increase their performance. This is especially true in a hierarchical organization like the military or a large company.

Conversely, private criticism serves to reinforce the message by making it one of personal, rather than collective, responsibility. In addition, it prevents the public humiliation which can be so corrosive to job satisfaction, and hence job performance. Shouting at a subordinate who has failed in his duty may work in Marine Boot Camp, but beyond that is usually damaging and counter-productive.*

*Personally, I’m of the opinion the Marine Boot Camp (and to a lesser extent any service’s basic training) is probably not a suitable way to produce effective soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines. Sure, it creates a crop of young men, hardened and eager, but it also deprives them of much of their initiative and problem-solving skills. I suspect that those who go on to be exemplary soldiers were rarely the top-performers in basic training.

The Rug Merchant (aka The Boss) has somehow managed to misconstrue this time-honored convention and turn it on its head. No mistake is too trivial, no oversight too minor, to avoid a loud, public and near-hysterical screaming rebuke. These tirades, which always remind me a five-year old who has consumed too much sugar, serve little purpose other than to cow the recipient and smother any nascent efforts at improvement. Everyone here spends most of their time calculating how not to get yelled at, which makes them overly-cautious, slow to act and congenitally unable to shoulder any personal responsibility.

The rare instance of praise for his subordinates is…….well, actually, I can’t recall him ever praising one of the staff. I suppose it might have happened at one point, but if it did, I never heard of it. It’s as if, deep down, he believes that any demonstration that the rest of us are not a pack of useless morons might threaten his primacy.* Implicitly, if no one is worthy of praise, then no one is potentially as valuable as he is.

*It is certainly true that we have our fair share (and then some) of morons on our staff. However, it’s worth pointing out that all of them were personally hired and approved by The Rug Merchant. Most of them are friends of the family, or second cousins, or something like that.

As I write this, I’m in my office listening to The Rug Merchant scream incoherently at the assembled supervisors in a strained voice that makes it sound like he’s about to have a heart attack.*

*I should be so lucky.

He’s been going full-tilt now for about thirty minutes. My Farsi isn’t good enough to catch the nuances, but basically he’s claiming that none of the supervisors know their jobs (probably true), they’re all lazy and useless (partly true) and that only he has the ability to manage this operation (demonstrably false).

At some point, one would think that he would ask himself if perhaps, just perhaps, if there are systemic problems in the company, and one has insisted on retaining all decision-making authority, couldn’t the problem lie higher up the organizational ladder?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Saigon, UAE

A few people refused to allow my recent birthday to pass by unnoticed, as is my long-standing preference.* I received a string of well-wishes via email and Skype while I was in Dubai, which ably served to remind me that after nearly four decades on this planet, I have managed to accomplish precisely zero of the aspirations that I once had.

*To those of you did manage to resist the urge to point out how old I am, thanks.**
**To those of you who simply neglected to mention it, or were entirely unaware of it in the first place, or were completely aware and consciously choose not to bring it up, thank you too.

Birthdays are one of those elements of life that suffers severely from the law of diminishing returns. The first three or four are great fun for the parents and assorted relatives, the next fifteen or so are a personal cause for celebration, and then they become progressively less enjoyable as time goes by. Around the middle of fourth decade, the floor drops out and the enjoyment quotient diminishes rapidly.*

*I’m not sure, but I suspect the trajectory of the birthday Laffer curve is heavily influenced by one’s personal circumstances at the time of said event. Nevertheless, there is a distinct downward trendline after the early thirties.

On this particular birthday, I elected to remain for an extra day in Dubai at the luxury hotel where we had just concluded our latest board meeting. If I have to endure another birthday, I might as well do it in decent surroundings.

As any experienced traveler knows, even the nicest hotels (and this was one of them) can lose much of their value when one is alone and without entertainment or activities. Cable TV (especially the Dubai version) and air conditioning are nice, but only suffice to distract one from the fact that there’s nothing else to do.

So, I found myself in the hotel bar at midnight, sipping whiskey and watching the odd crowd that congregates in hotel bars late at night.*

*I am a HUGE fan of hotel bars, by the way. The nice ones are REALLY nice, with top-notch service, professional barmen and a pleasant, relaxed ambiance. The dodgy ones are unrivaled places for mixing with the down-and-out and the generally disreputable. The ones in the middle, at the true businessman’s hotels, are usually the best, combining elements of the high-end places (good service, good drinks) and the dives (interesting people, weird conversations).

As usual in Dubai hotel-bars, there was imported entertainment. I can now conclusively state that one hasn’t lived until one has witness a trio of attractive expatriate Filipino ladies, clad in purple sequined cocktail dresses and thigh-high white vinyl boots, belting out an off-key rendition of the Nancy Sinatra classic “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” to an international crowd who couldn’t appear more indifferent if they were dead. If the drinks were cheaper, I would have thought it was Saigon in ’68.