Sunday, May 17, 2009

Out of Office?

In the last several days, I've been sending out a bunch of emails to various people, mostly those with whom I have not been sufficiently diligent in maintaining contact.*

*Note the minor self-flagellation there. However, let me point out that this is a two-way street. What, did most of you forget how to type? Is there some sort of massive US-wide internet failure that I'm not aware of? I get a better response time from the people I know in Beirut and Singapore (you know who you are).

Anyway, here's the thing: four times in the last 24 hours, I have received automated replies stating that the recipient is "out of the office until....." some particular date. Must be nice. I expect this sort of irregular work schedule from Europe, but not from the U.S. Aren't we supposed to be the hard-working ones?

With all this downtime, if anyone has some uncommitted vacation time, I'm hoping to be in Beirut around the end of the month, or perhaps early in June. Perhaps someone would care to join me? I know, Beirut is not exactly a prime tourist destination, but it's supposed to be better than most people think.

I hear the Lebanese have got this rebuilding thing down. Every few years, the Israelis blow it up, and then the Lebanese rebuild it better than before. Then the Israelis come back and it starts all over again. Nice symbiotic relationship they've developed.

So, any takers?

Afghan TV, Part 2

I share my office at the company compound with the deputy president of the company. Between the two of us, we pretty much manage the entire operation. In addition, the office has three couches in it, so it does double-duty as a sort of ersatz conference room. This makes for a near constant stream of people coming in and out.

Part of the reason my office is so popular is that it has satellite TV. Admittedly, we only get one channel on the primary dish and that's BBC World. However, when the Boss is away, we've been known to switch to the secondary dish which allows us access to the full range of wondrous televisual excellence of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, UAE and occasionally Tajikistan.*

*If you haven't yet had the opportunity to watch a couple of hours of Tajik music videos, let me recommend that you avoid the experience.

This cornucopia of broadcast options means that much of the staff stops in at least once a day, just to check on what we're watching. This can lead to some rather interesting occurences.

For instance, our staff runs the theological gamut from secular nationalists to devout until-recently-Taliban fundamentalists. When one of the fundamentalists has the misfortune to wander in during a Tajik music video marathon, the reaction can be priceless. Sometimes, they simply refuse to watch scantily-dressed Tajik girls performing non-traditional dances, even going so far as to face the wall rather than leave and admit Koranic defeat. More often however, they will sit enraptured by images that, although tame by the standards of MTV, are light-years beyond what they're used to seeing.

*They usually act guilty for the next three days after this. I suspect they're doing whatever it is Muslims do as pennance for sins.

Or, sometimes they'll catch a report on the BBC or Al Jazeera about the latest American pronouncement or ISAF policy change. This inevitably triggers a discussion about what the news really means, a discussion that rapidly descends into farcical conspiracy theories. Afghans are great lovers of conspiracy theories, especially when they involve American plans for world domination, Afghan politicians in league with "foreign" interests or Pakistani spies influencing events in the highest circles. Eventually, every news story is explained by reference to one of these elements.

*I recently was witness to a long-winded, vocal debate about the building of schools by ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Teams. It took over half an hour, but eventually the conclusion was reached that the schools were 1) secret training facilities for Pakistani infiltrators 2) aiming to co-opt Afghan politicians so that 3) America could take over Afghanistan and steal their oil.** An Afghan conspiracy trifecta!
**This is another long-running conspiracy theory that is popular here, that Afghanistan has oil and the sole purpose of NATO and ISAF is to secure the wells and suck the country dry. Never mind the fact that Afghanistan has NEVER had significant oil reserves, and that the last geological survey was carried out by the Soviets in 1976, and even that failed to find anything worth stealing.

However, quite simply the oddest thing I've seen here in relation to Afghan TV happened the other day. I returned from a meeting at the Ministry of Interior to find four of our senior staff* sitting on the couches, mesmerized by TV. Not a word was being spoken by any of them, nor a single movement made. Even the cigarettes were being left to burn themselves out in the ashtrays.

*I should point out that this group included a former ANA general, two former colonels and a recently-retired district police commander. Even given how freely they pass out titles in this country, this was a pretty high-powered group.

And what, you might ask, would command this level of attention? What program could have positively riveted to the screen? It was nothing other than.......Bob the Builder. Complete with Dari-language voice-overs.

Now, I don't have any kids myself, but I've spent enough time with the children of friends and my nephew to be familiar with Bob the Builder. I'm pretty sure I'd even seen that episode before. As kids shows go, it's not bad viewing, mildly educational and just colorful enough to absorb their attention. I'll even admit to drifting into a inanity-induced coma the few times I've been required to sit through it. But I never would have guessed that friendly, handy Bob would mesmerize these guys like it had. They had the same slack-jawed, wide-eyed fascination that your average American three-year old would have.

But wait, it gets better. Bob the Builder ends and, without missing a beat, the next show starts and it's..........Thomas the Tank Engine. I shit you not. Once again, no one moves, no one speaks, except for myself sitting quietly behind my desk and chuckling.

I wonder if ISAF could use this type of programming in some sort of psychological warfare? Threaten to cut off broadcasts of American kids shows unless they stop blowing stuff up, or maybe provide free TVs and satellite dishes to all insurgents in an effort to pacify the countryside. Worth a try, since what we're doing now obviously isn't working.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Range Day

So I took some of my new guys out to an ANA firing range the other day for familiarization training with an AK-47. Mostly I went just for fun and as chance to get out of the office. The language barrier prevents me from being an effective trainer* to Afghans. I've picked up a few words and phrases and can usually make myself understood in Dari, but that's a long way from what's needed for proper firearms training.

*That and the fact that I've only had familiarization training on the AK-47 myself, and that was fifteen years ago.

Not a big problem, since we have a former ANP commando on staff as the senior instructor. The General went along as well, mostly for his connections with the ANA staff, but it's The Lion* who provides the bulk of the instruction to the new guys. So while he ran half a dozen new recruits through the nuances of a Kalashnikov and The General sat back and smoked (my cigarettes, as usual), I observed and offered what few pointers I could remember from my own familiarization training way back in the day.

*The Lion (I've added his profile here) is the single best addition I've made to this company since I got here. He's a former member of the highly-regarded ANP counter-narcotics commando battalion and has fast-roped into most of Afghanistan's hotspots. Like most professionals, he's quietly confident and a top-notch instructor.

In general, Afghans have a fearsome reputation for marksmanship. Stories abound of mujaheddin snipers picking off Russian colonels at ranges in excess of 800 meters. Even more impressive when one considers that the typical sniper rifle of the mujaheddin was a rebuilt, bolt-action .303 Lee-Enfield that probably belonged to their grandfather.

Well, there may be some talented snipers out in the provinces, but the guys we recruit from in and around Kabul are, to put it mildly, less than excellent shots. That's not because of any lack of talent or appitude. It's just that to be a truly great marksman requires years of disciplined training and experience. The city-folk here simply don't have that. For most of them, familiarization training is the first time they've ever fired a weapon and it shows. The most difficult (and most important) thing on Range Day is making sure they don't suddenly turn around with a loaded weapon. More than once a new recruit has hit the target and spun around in triumph, only to send the instructors and other recruits diving for cover.

On this day, the level of skill ran the gamut from "natural shot" to "more dangerous to himself than to the target." The weak ones will get better with practice,* the strong ones will send out to Kandahar or Paktika to be PSDs. The reward for competence in Afghanistan is to be sent out to the worst parts of the country and given the most difficult job.

*Did I mention that The Lion is a superb instructor?

We were using a man-sized silhouette at 100 meters as a target. Not really an effective choice, since few engagements in the private security industry take place at that kind of range. Static guards generally don't have that kind of sight line, and PSDs would be lucky to detect a threat at more than 50 meters. A distance of 100 meters (about the length of a football field) is simply beyond most peoples frame of reference. They don't pay attention to things that far away, unless they're standing in a guard tower with a clear field of fire.

Anyway, 100 meters was the chosen range and if you can hit a target that far away, you can usually hit something closer. The high score was 9 out of 10* while the worst of the bunch hit nothing but rocks and sand.

*One of those "natural marksmen" that is so annoying to the rest of us who actually have to try.

When we were just about finished up, The Lion turns to me with a magazine loaded with 10 rounds of 7.62mm and gets this shit-eating grin on his face. I fail to realize what's about to happen until The General puts out his (my) cigarette and calls over the entire group. Then it dawns on me. These guys expect me to shoot, and from the expectant grin on all their faces I can tell that they expect me to miss a lot.

They've apparently been waiting for an opportunity to test me to determine if I'm worthy of the deference that they've shown for the past two months. Even The General, normally an amiable chap, has a slightly predatory look about him, as if he's about to confirm his worst suspicions. Only The Lion looks guileless; I think he actually believes that I will blow away the target without even looking. Bless him for his loyalty.

In a situation like this, with my credibility and thus my authority on the line, I can't really appear to hesitate despite the fact that I have limited confidence in my ability to actually make a good show it. So, muttering something about how I'd prefer an M-4 or an M-16, I lock and load and get into the firing position.

At this point, I'm desperately trying to remember everything the instructor said oh so long ago, but the only thing running through my head is the breath-exhale-hold-fire mantra that was drilled into me at Fort Knox and Fort Lewis back in the early 1990s. Something about taking an accurate sight picture was there as well, but I couldn't quite remember how to do that exactly. Mostly I was just trying to keep my breathing under control and wishing I didn't smoke so many cigarettes.

Well, whatever I did, it must have worked because I shot 8 of 10 with my first magazine. I don't mind saying that I was pretty chuffed about it, although I tried to act all casual as if I do this every day before breakfast. At 100 meters, a man-sized silhouette looks about the size of a post-it note, so I was happy to hit it at all.

I think everyone was suitably impressed, not that I managed to hit 8 of 10, but that I managed to hit the target at all without shooting myself in the foot. Confirmation of that came when we got back to the compound. Within a few hours word got around the American may actually have some idea of what he's talking about and maybe, just maybe, is not some overpaid sissy whose sole job is to talk on the phone.

See? Like I been sayin', I got skills.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grenade Fishing

Well, there are occasionally signs of progress in Afghanistan. Recently, President Karzai made a stunning legislative move with far-reaching social implications. No, I'm not talking about the proposed new law that, among other things, allows Shia men (mostly Hazara) to rape their wives without penalty.

The stunning new law I'm referring to is the one that once and for all bans grenade-fishing in Afghanistan. For those of you not familiar with grenade-fishing, it's a favorite method for gathering cheap eats without all the effort of actually casting a line or throwing a net. Basically, you find a pond or a lake with a decent amount of fish, and throw in some hand grenades or whatever other explosives you have handy. The concussion kills the fish en masse and the float to the surface, ready for easy scooping and frying. Very cost-effective, assuming one has access to sufficient explosives.

Well according to President Karzai, grenade fishing has been banned "to help protect wildlife and the environment." No word on whether hunting goats with RPGs will also be banned.

Thieves and Morons

As everyone knows, Afghanistan has gone through a tough few decades. From a moderately low starting point in the 1970s, this country has had:
  • military coup by an allegedly democratic usurper
  • a counter-coup by the communists
  • a counter-revolution by monarchists and tribesmen
  • an invasion by the Red Army to support the government
  • a nasty civil war
  • the collapse and defeat of both the communist government
  • the ignominious retreat of the Red Army
  • another nasty civil war
  • the rise of the Taliban
  • a third civil war, just for fun
  • a lightning invasion by foreigners
  • a prolonged occupation by said foreigners
  • and, just to top it all off, a nasty (and worsening) insurgency against the new government and their international backers

No wonder this country is accurately described as the 12th century.....with cellphones.

Anyone who survived all that (much less prospered during it) is probably a consumate chameleon, adjusting their personal politics and preferences to match whomever happens to be running the show at the moment. You don't adjust, somebody with a Kalashnikov comes after you. This ability to shift allegiances and loyalties as fast as you or I would change our socks in the single most frustrating thing for NATO/ISAF forces to deal with, raised as they were in a culture of unbending devotion to the state and the army.

But all that is not the point of this post. The point is actually that this history of violence, collaboration and survival has created two types of Afghans that thrive in the upper levels of government and society: thieves and morons.

The corruption and thievery in this country is well-documented. By Western standards, it is shockingly bold and completely pervasive.*

*And this is coming from a guy who has years of experience dealing with the Cook County Recorder's Office, the penultimate expression of Chicago-style greed and bribery. More than once I have enclosed $20 in an application for a tax-sale register, just to speed the process. Twenty bucks will buy you a bodyguard for a day here, but it doesn't even register on the scale of typical government corruption.

These thieves permeate all levels of society here. They range from the 8-year old kid who will swipe your mobile phone faster than you can blink, to the cabinet minister who expects a villa in Abu Dhabi in exchange for a government contract. In between are all of the petty police officials or crooked construction workers, not to mention the minor bureaucrats and village chiefs who will sell their loyalty to the last bidder.*

*Note that it's the "last" bidder, which is not the same thing as the "highest" bidder. To a typical Afghan, $100 today is much more persuasive than $200 tomorrow. Whomever shows up with cash in hand is the winner, regardless of what promises or commitments are made for the future.

Certainly, thievery and corruption are endemic here, for a variety of reasons, but an equally large number of people have survived through sheer incompetence. These we call the morons. Now this fact is slightly counterintuitive, so let me explain. In a high-risk atmosphere like Afghanistan, competence can actually be a negative. Think of it this way: if you're a highly-effective district administrator (and loyal to the monarchy) when the communists come to power, they'll see you as a threat. You're out, and maybe buried in a ditch somewhere. If, on the other hand, you're a barely competent adminstrator, knowing just enough to keep your head out of the line of fire, you probably keep your job, regardless of prior loyalties. Now imagine that the Soviets withdraw and the mujaheddin come to power. Anyone of any skill in the previous government is immediately associated with reactionary elements and targeted for dismissal.*

*"Dismissal" in the Afghan sense usually means a bullet to the back of the head and an unmarked grave out on the Shomali plain. No severance packages here. If you're lucky, they let your extended family flee to a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Conversely, the morons simply keep on doing what they've been doing, which is largely nothing, attracting no attention and making no enemies. As a result of this process, over four or five iterations of Afghan society since the 1970s, the morons and their progeny have come to dominate the ranks of government, the military and business. As they say, the cream rises to the top. Except that in Afghanistan, the cream is then rounded up and taken out and shot, leaving whatever is left (milk? butter?)* to run the show.

*What exactly is left after the cream rises to the top? The top of what? Some sort of barrel I guess, but I'm a little unclear on the primitive agricultural basis for the analogy.

Unfortunately, these two classes are not mutually exclusive. Many of the thieves are surprisingly moronic (hence the "$100 is better today than $200 tomorrow" mentality), and a high percentage of the morons are on the take. Nevertheless, it is rare to find any Afghan in a senior position who does not exhibit some of the characteristics of one or both of these groups.

Or maybe I'm just bitter and judgmental. Nah.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Best Cities, 2009

Somewhat off topic, but I'll bring it back home at the end of the post. Promise.

Mercer's Quality of Life index for 2009 was released yesterday. The top city to live in is ...........Vienna, Austria. I have not sampled all (or even most) of the cities on the list, but having lived in Vienna for a short while in 2008, I can confirm that it is one of the world's top metropolitan areas.

I was pleased to note that Geneva (another place I lived briefly) was third, and Amsterdam made the top 50.*

*Personally, I think there are several towns within an easy commute of Amsterdam that offer much higher quality of life, without the deluge of drunken British tourists and casual drug use. Leiden anyone? However, Amsterdam is still a great place to be.

Slightly troubling is the fact that the survey is based on New York as a "control city" with a pre-assigned score of 100. This means that what is really being measured is how a city stacks up against The Big Apple*, rather than some objective urban ideal.

*With the exception of being stuck at LaGuardia Airport for half a day once, I've never been to New York. With a little luck, I'll be able to maintain that record for another forty years.**
**Yeah, like I'm going to live another forty years!

My hometown of Chicago, by the way, came in 44th with a score of 100.3, just surpassing New York. That illustrates how subjective these rankings are, since few who live in Chicago would prefer to live in New York, and I suspect that few that live in New York would care to move to Chicago. That's just the way urban allegiance works.

The worst city in the world (c'mon, you know you were wondering)? Baghdad, with a stunningly pathetic score of 14.4, earning 215th out of 215 cities.

Note however that my current hometown, beautiful, sunny Kabul was not ranked at all. Apparently, there was some difficulty gathering data, probably because they couldn't find any researchers dumb enough to come here. Without having sampled the joys of Baghdad, I am still confident that Kabul would easily displace it as the worst city on the planet. Sure, they both have ethnic militias, car bombs and high crime rates, but Kabul's unique method* of waste-water disposal has to put it over the top.

*The unique method being basically dump it in the gutter and hope that it doesn't rain too hard the next day. Unfortunately, it usually does.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Rogue are preferable to imbeciles because they sometimes take a rest."

-Alexandre Dumas

The wisdom of French literature as applied to Afghanistan.


Last week I was sitting in a meeting with one of our major clients (who incidentally is one of those clients who is never happy with performance) and they raised the issue of our guards being unaware of some of their basic responsibilities.

First of all, I would vigorously contest that characterization. Our guards, while not exactly elite Special Forces-types, are well-trained by local standards and are more than capable of executing the routine tasks assigned to them. However, they are not blessed with initiative and free-ranging thought*, so there are some limitations on what one can expect of them.

*This lack of initiative and personal responsibility (from a Western standpoint) is not limited to the uneducated from the provinces. It's a cultural thing, and it pervades even the highest levels of business and government.

Secondly, even assuming that the guards were not performing up to the requirements of the contract, the solution proposed by this client bordered on the assinine. "Why don't you just post a list of rules at each site, so that the guards can check it and be always aware of any changes to their responsibilities?"

Sounds reasonable, right? And in most countries it would be, a simple fix to a simple problem. But, as they say, TIA: This Is Afghanistan. Nothing is simple. Here's the thing: the educational value of a posted list of rules and regulations is considerably degraded when the vast majority of the guards are functionally illiterate. Instead of a list, it becomes something more like a talisman, held out in front of the body with reverence to ward off irate supervisors and frustrated clients, much like a exorcist would present a crucifix.

This is not a knock on my guys, or on Afghans in general, simply a fact of life here in A-stan. According to the UN and the CIA, Afghanistan has a 28% adult literacy rate, which puts them at the roughly the same rank as Niger.* And that number includes the far higher percentage of (allegedly) educated Afghans who live within the major cities.

*Sure, you beat out Chad and Burkina Faso, but it can't be a good sign when you get bitch-slapped on the UN's development index by places like Sierra Leone and Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, the urban elite is not the segment of the population from which your average security guard is recruited. Most guards come from the provinces and have little to no exposure to education in any form.*

*Perhaps that's the reason that some of the rural Afghans feel compelled to prevent little girls from going to school, sometimes by throwing acid in their faces. There is a serious inferiority complex at work here, something about which I intend to post a bit later.

So suggesting that the guards simply read the posted rules is somewhat akin to suggesting that Americans obey traffic signs written in ancient Greek. Just not going to happen.

And the kicker is that this suggestion came from an Afghan, who works for an Afghan company. One would think that he, of all people, would know better. Needless to say, we all nodded sagely at his advice and then laughed our asses off on the way back to camp.

Quote of the Day

This somehow seems appropriate:

"All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind." -Aristotle