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.

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