Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Finally catching up with the story that has been the talk of the town around here for 24 hours, the BBC reports that "forty-one US-trained Afghan guards" have been arrested after a shootout with Afghan National Police in Kandahar.

Apparently, these guys went to the district police headquarters to demand the release of a comrade (some reports say a relative) who had been detained for driving an unregistered vehicle. The police, who have claimed that the man was counterfeiter and a smuggler, were naturally reluctant to surrender their suspect. Angry words were exchanged and, in traditional Afghan fashion, the dispute was appealed to the highest available authority, namely automatic weapons. At least eight police dead, including the ANP's provincial commander and the local head of CID.

All of this would be bad enough, except that the reporting on this incident has been sporadic in the Western media and, to put it charitably, passionately eclectic in Afghanistan. Early reports said the gunmen were US Special Forces, which operate their own little snatch-and-grab squads in Kandahar. When that turned out to be untrue, it was reported that the gunmen were "US-trained private security guards."

That may or may not be true, but it was enough to get Hamid Karzai to go on Afghan TV and condemn all "private security companies" operating in the country. He didn't bother to mention that the facts were still to be determined, nor did he point out that the individuals in question were not from any of the 39 companies licensed to operate in Afghanistan. Instead, playing to ignorance and petty rivalries of the electorate during this campaign season, he dumbed it down to PSCs in general.

Thanks for that, you weasel-faced scumbag. Twenty thousand people, the vast majority of the Afghans, are employed by properly licensed and heavily monitored companies trying to do the gritty but necessary work of guarding the people putting this place back together. Because your government forces us to wear uniforms and therefore allows the public to equate us the the ANA and ANP, we're already targets for the bad guys. Now you've gone and got the regular locals pissed at us too, by erroneously identifying all of us with some trigger-happy cowboys who can't keep it in their pants.

Mark my words, people will get killed over this. Somebody, somewhere in Afghanistan, is now going to be angry enough and ill-informed enought to take a shot at some hapless private security guard who will probably never see it coming. Thanks for that. Prick.

Incidentally, why is it necessary to point out that any military or paramilitary force here is "US trained?" I mean, with the exception of the Taliban, they're pretty much all US trained, including the police and the army. Using the fact of US training as a perjorative attribute is probably not wise when your own army and police fall into that category as well.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

First Fatality

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Lost one of my guys last night, not to Taliban activity or criminal elements, but to a stupid accident on the Bagram-Kabul road. Mr. Wali Mohammad, son of Haji Malang, was riding his motorcycle home after his shift when he was struck and killed by a US Army Stryker ICV.

A guy on a motorcycle doesn't stand much of a chance when run over by a 22-ton armored vehicle, and Wali Mohammad died early this morning in the hospital.

There are myriad ways to get killed in this country, gunfire, rockets, mortars, IEDs, not to mention cholera, typhus and other assorted ailments. A traffic accident seems somehow too prosaic.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Airport Buddies

Everyone is familiar with the concept of “airport buddies.”* Not only the fellow sojourners one converses with on the plane, but also those people one meets for the briefest of moments in airport waiting rooms, gates and international terminal coffee-shops. A quick, surprisingly-sincere conversation, and then never seen again. The proverbial “ships passing in the night” without the sexual connotations, of course.

*These used to be referred to as “bus buddies” back in the days when people still traveled by bus. Perhaps in some parts of the world they still do, but not anywhere I’d want to go. Greyhound is bad enough; I can only imagine what the buses in a places like Guatemala are like.

Traveling in the West has become a streamlined, sanitized affair of Starbucks lattes, automated people movers and cushy, insulated executive lounges. In places like Afghanistan and the Middle East however, airport travel, even at the high-end airports like Dubai Terminal One,* is still a difficult and Byzantine process.

*As distinct from Dubai Terminal Two, which is a Chekovian nightmare of arbitrary mismanagement and inefficiency.

This results in being thrown together with fellow travelers in bizarre and unpredictable circumstances. Now I’m no “people person” and I take no joy or comfort from interacting with my fellow man, especially when that fellow man speaks only Arabic and smells like a fishmonger with full-body halitosis.

However, as a heavy smoker (heavier since I got here), there is one element of air travel in the Middle East that appeals to me, and it’s something one can’t get in the supposedly more civilized airports of the Western world. I speak here of that vanishing institution, the airport smoking lounge.

As everyone knows, Arabs and other Middle Easterners are the last of the unreformed smokers.* Rare is the Afghan who has never smoked a cigarette. Many smoke as much or more than I do, and that’s a lot.

*Yes, I know, Afghans are not Arabs, but I’m speaking broadly of the entire Middle East, from Islamabad to Casablanca.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of sampling airport smoking lounges in four different cities on my last trip: Kabul, Dubai (Terminals One and Two), Amman and Beirut. This cursory sociological survey has revealed to me two basic truths:

1. Middle Easterners, perhaps because of the volume of their habit, do not consider airport smoking lounges as places to meet fellow travelers. There’s none of the camaraderie of those oppressed by the neo-fascist system that one finds outside pubs in London or restaurants in the States.
2. Westerners who travel through these airports, if they are smokers, can’t get enough of the smoking lounge, and indulge their habit copiously with wicked little smiles the whole time, as if they’re remembering their first guilty cigarette at the bike racks behind their grade school.*
*No, my first cigarette was not at the bike racks behind my grade school. It was under a pine tree in someone’s backyard on Ruby Street. I was ten.

In total, I can conclusively state that smoking lounges in airports make travel much more enjoyable, not only for me and my fellow puffers, but also for those who have to travel with us. Next time you pass the crowd of smokers outside of Heathrow or O’Hare and later bump into surly, hostile travelers with nicotine-stained fingers, remember how much more pleasant the whole experience would be if they could just have a smoke before they board the plane.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I've just been informed by one of faithful readers* that this blog cannot be accessed in China.

*Reader number five out of eight total, if Google Analytics is reasonably accurate.

While I don't recall writing anything disrespectful of the ChiComs (yet), I'm not surprised that they decided to pre-emptively censor my stuff. No telling when I might veer off course and start bringing up things like this. Probably a smart move on their part, trying to slow the inexorable advance of my quest for world domination.

Women of Afghanistan, Part One

My recent trip to Beirut, a relatively Westernized place by Middle East standards, has thrown into sharp relief the fundamental differences between Islamic culture and the West. This is the first of a series of posts about some of those differences. Most of the distinctions will seem obvious to even a casual observer. Sort of a Duh! kind of reaction is to be expected, but the important element is not the differences themselves, which everyone is aware of, but the effect they have on living and working in Afghanistan.*

*Much of what follows in this post and others in this series is likely to offend the more politically correct among you. To this, I can only say, get over yourselves. Stop reading if you want to. You’ve been warned.

Women. The feminine element. The other half of the species. A social component nearly totally invisible in Islamic society. Of course, they’re around and occasionally one actually sees a few, but they have few roles outside the traditional familial duties. They’re simply not allowed to participate in public society in any meaningful way. Sure, there are some seats in Parliament legally mandated for women, and those lucky few are on TV constantly talking about women’s rights and female educational opportunities.*

*At least, that’s what I think they’re talking about. It’s all in Dari, so they could be debating counter-insurgency tactics or offering recipes for brownies for all I know.

But most women, the vast majority, live sheltered, confined lives, focused on home and family. This is especially true out in the provinces, where traditional cultural/religious rules apply most strictly. In Kabul, one does see a slightly higher level of female participation and engagement, but nothing near the levels of Western society.

Now, it’s obvious (to me, at least) that marginalizing half of the population is not a recipe for success in difficult situations. Forget about the benefits of a “feminine approach” or the supposed value of gender differences in problem solving. Those probably exist, but I’m not enough of a sociologist to determine how much.

I can, however, do basic math, and if there is a problem that requires a solution, and X number of possible solutions are offered by the male half of the population, wouldn’t it be better to include the other half of the population and have 2X possible solutions. In any situation, doubling the brain power in play is going to decrease the time necessary to solve the problem.

This is especially true in a place like Afghanistan, where the problems are myriad and defy easy solution. One might also consider that Afghan men have been trying to “fix” this place for several hundred years and, with the exception of a few good years in the early-mid 20th century, Afghanistan has been a seething sewer of assbackwardness the whole time. Make no mistake, this place was screwed up long before we got here.*

*And it will probably be screwed up long after we leave, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Now I’m not generally a friend to the multitude of NGOs that are engaged in social engineering in Afghanistan.* Generally speaking, they’re trying to change minds and influence public opinion without any of the traditional Afghan implements of persuasion (i.e. automatic weapons, gasoline and rope), so it’s probably a lost cause. However, they do have a point when they attempt to convince the locals that Afghanistan is underutilizing its collective brain power.

*Unless of course they’re paying me a fat monthly fee for PSDs and armored vehicles, in which case we’re buddies.

A quick glance at some statistics on economic well-being, public health and other similar factors demonstrates that those countries that marginalize their women are generally piss-poor, decrepit shitholes. And a disproportionate number of those countries are predominantly Muslim. Think there’s a connection? You bet your ass there is. Culture matters.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Back to the Suck

Yes, I've been lax about posting lately. Stop your complaining. I'll get around to it. I have a couple of posts nearly finished that should go up in the next couple of days.

On the plus side, I'm just back from a lovely few days in sunny Beirut. Only when one lives in Afghanistan does Beirut seem like a suitable vacation desitination.