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.


Matt said...

Hello and fantastic blog you have here. I am the author of Feral Jundi and I write about the industry. Today I was looking for other security contractor blogs and found yours by accident.
Have you heard of Tim Lynch and his blog called Free Range International? He works as a security contractor in Afghanistan as well. Either way, here is my blog link and I will be sure to link to yours. -Matt


PaladinSix said...


Thanks for the link-up. As soon as I find the time, my intention to add a blogroll for those interested in further reading. I'll definately include Feral Jundi in the list.

I am familiar with Tim Lynch's stuff and have been following his blog for over a year now. I don't know him personally, but hope to meet him in the future.

dcmarble said...

Fascinating blog. Stay safe brother. Can't forget one of the Irish' other great contributions to modern life - Guinness.