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.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?"

-Bruce Springsteen, The River

Seems applicable to my current situation, and yes, I have discovered the answer to that question.