Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I'd post pictures but they would probably be nauseating to most of you.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
A friend of mine in the States wants to send me a package (probably Kraft mac-n-cheese and stuff like that)* so I've been investigating the nuances of shipping into Afghanistan.
*There'd better be some peanut butter in the box- Skippy creamy only! That's all I'm sayin'
This is not as easy as it ought to be. Big surprise. First off, there's no real postal service here. Oh sure, there are Post Offices (well, one that I know of), but no one seems to work in them, and one never sees postmen out doing their rounds. Apparently, the creed of the Afghan postal service is something along the lines of: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat of day nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds; but explosions, random gunfire, armed criminal gangs, venal police checkpoints and generally shitty roads- that's a bit much for us!" Sissies.
Anyway, DHL and FedEx both ship to Afghanistan on a daily basis. Pretty admirable if you ask me, and a fine example of American capitalism at work. That said, even international shipping companies have to abide by local laws and customs, so there are certain things they will not ship. Witness the list below taken from the DHL webpage for Afghanistan.*
- Alcoholic beverages
- Cotton seed
- Dangerous goods, hazardous or combustible materials
- Drugs: non-prescription
- Gambling devices
- Postal envelopes
- Precious metals & stones
- Soil samples
*Somewhat ominously, DHL misspelled the location of their corporate headquarters in Kabul. When we're talking about a company that makes its money by delivering things on time to the proper address, that's a bad sign, right?
Now, some of the stuff on the above list is unsurprising. A-stan is a Muslim country after all, so the prohibition on alcohol is standard (although annoying), and I'm not shocked to see pornography on the list either. I'm not sure what "gambling devices" are, but I think I may have violated that already when I brought a deck of cards with me. Hazardous or combutible materials, well that's true around the world. No airline likes stuff that goes boom on their planes.* But cotton seeds? Is there a vast illicit cotten trade out there that I'm not aware of? Furs? Not a lot of animal rights activists in this part of the world. They have more important things to worry about.
*And its not like there's a shortage of stuff that goes boom in this country.
The prohibition against non-prescription drugs is particularly ironic, given that Afghanistan produces and exports approximately 90% of the worlds opium. The vaunted Afghan Customs Police are worried about a few aspirin?
"Military equipment" is not on the above list, because that's actually not prohibited. Go figure. DHL merely suggests that the shipper contact their local office to determine what additional paperwork might be required. I think we may have hit on the root cause of Afghanistan's problems. You can't have a beer, but with a little extra paperwork you can import a couple of crates of assault rifles. Somebody needs to readjust their priorities.
The kicker for me however, was the prohibition on postal envelopes. Of course! It's not that the Afghan postal service is ineffective or non-existant. It's just that no one can import envelopes, so no one writes any letters. No letters, no need for a postman. So simple.
*I didn't need the ammo, by the way. Our weapons are mostly Kalashnikovs, which use the old 7.62x39mm cartridge.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Being stuck in the city, I also didn't have a chance to witness the equestrian insanity that is Buzkashi. It's sort of a Central Asia version of polo, except that instead of a ball and mallet, you use your bare hands and a dead goat. Other than that, its identical to the polo matches I used to see in Chicago, right down to the funny hats and cucumber sandwiches. Well, maybe not the cucumber sandwiches, but there are definately funny hats.
As people around the world do on major holidays, Nowruz is also a time for large festive meals of traditional dishes. Fruits and fruit salad, locally known as Haft Mewa, form an important part of the day's feast. With that in mind, the Rug Merchant, normally a man who could squeeze two dimes and get a quarter, decreed that the company mess would serve a special meal today. To illustrate exactly how special, it's important to demonstrate what a regular days' meal would look like.
Breakfast: bread and tea
Lunch: rice, bread and tea
Dinner: rice, bread, tea and spinach
Occasionally, there are bits of meat in the rice (lamb probably, but its best not to speculate), and even more occasionally a plate of cabbage or the odd cucumber. Needless to say, I'm a little sick of rice. I also think I'm losing weight. Anyone know the early symptoms of scurvy?
Well, on this grand festival of days, due to the largesse of my employer, our holiday meals consisted of basically the same staples as above, with the addition of a banana and a couple of oranges.* Oh, and there were raisins in the rice, along with the aforementioned mystery meat.
*I got two oranges. I didn't check but I'm willing to bet that the rest of the company only got one. Not that I'm inclined to share; I'm fighting off scurvy here!
Being the diligent student of Afghan culture that I am, I had prepared myself (via Wikipedia) for the traditional Haft Mewa, which means Seven Fruits. I checked pretty thoroughly and I'm sure I only got two fruits (and that's counting the raisins - can't count the oranges twice). Needless to say, I'm not impressed. No one else seems to be complaining, at least not that I'm aware of, but it seems to me that once a year a nice plum or perhaps a cookie wouldn't be too much to ask. I won't bother to ask for a cheeseburger.
*That’s Operational Security for those of you who were wondering. Admittedly not as big a concern for me as it would be for a soldier or Marine out in the field, but better safe than sorry. I'm also doing it this way to protect the essential anonymity for professional reasons.
For those of you who think that using the actual names or pseudonyms instead of entirely fake nicknames would be easier, it might help to realize that there are six or eight very popular male names in Afghanistan, so any list of actual names would be highly redundant. Sometimes it seems that every third guy here is named Massoud. Confusingly, many Afghans go by only one name, which only adds to the difficulty.
The Rug Merchant (aka The Boss): In any other part of the world, this guy would be considered shady. In Afghanistan, he’s connected. Hyperactive to the point of mania, always carries at least three phones, one of which is usually ringing. Has not grasped the concept that talking fast and loud is not synonymous with communicating effectively.
The Godfather: One of the Western backers of this venture. A retired banker, experienced in finance and business, and a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Unfortunately only appears in Kabul every few months and only stays for a few days. Also the guy who got me this job, so my opinion of him is dependent on what kind of day I’m having.
The Doctor: An actual medical doctor and the Deputy President of The Company. Good English skills, lots of experience and very easy to work with. My time here would be a lot more trying if it wasn’t for his patience and dedication.
The General: A former Afghan army officer (probably not actually a general), in charge of overseeing the training and deployment of the guards. Not the brightest bulb in the box, and speaks not a word of English, but we get along great after I gave him some of my imported cigarettes. Now we’re blood brothers apparently. Has a staff of three NCOs who conduct the drills and instruct new recruits. Also known as “Saddam” for his eerie resemblance to the former Iraqi dictator.
Smiley: One of the General’s many assistants, apparently his responsibilities are limited to drilling the new recruits in Afghan/Soviet style marching, which is pretty comical to anyone familiar with Western methods of drill. Always cheerful and eager to talk; somewhat hampered by the fact that he only speaks four words of English, which are repeated incessantly with a broad smile.
Hazmat (short for Hazardous Materials): Personal bodyguard and batman to The Rug Merchant. Always wears a cheap three-piece suit with a bright pastel shirt, and carries a slung AK-47 with him everywhere he goes. Earned his nickname because one can see in his eyes that something is broken in his head. Has a nasty streak and is overly impressed with his own importance, but is probably capable of even worse stuff given half a chance.
Frankie Avalon: A dead-ringer for the singer (circa 1962), without the singing voice, but a competent dancer. Works as the “intelligence chief” for The Company, which is a bit of a euphemism. His job consists of sitting in a small room watching three TVs and monitoring the internet for current events. Sends out half a dozen emails a day with morbid announcements like “Two killed by IED in Helmand” or “Aid worker shot in Kunduz.” A real bundle of joy, but his English is better than most so I talk to him a lot.
Mad Max: The best driver in the company, which is an extremely valuable skill in a place like Kabul. Given the option, I always choose him to be my driver. Able to find his way around Kabul traffic with surprising alacrity and is friendly and pleasant to boot. Carries a pistol under his jacket.
Hound Dog and the Pack: Hound Dog is my personal favorite among the PSDs (Personal Security Detachment, aka bodyguards). He would probably be insulted to be called “dog” but he reminds me of an old hunting dog that has been kicked once too often. Always looks a little downtrodden, but has excellent situational awareness and takes his job very seriously. Like the aforesaid dog, there’s something about him that makes one think he’ll bite back if pressed. The Pack is my generic name for the rest of the PSD team (since I don’t know their real names). Most of them are solicitous and professional, although sometimes a little slow off the mark. Tactical initiative is not a well-developed Afghan trait.
Mutt and Jeff: Two of The Boss’s assistants, exact job description unknown. They meddle in training, admin, pricing and general business decisions. Since I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t know if they’re useful or not. Mutt speaks some English, at least enough to ask “How you this day, sir?” Jeff speaks none at all, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to talk to me. Both smoke heavily (my cigarettes if they can get them).
The Prince: So-called because his real name is the same as a prominent Gulf sheikh, Prince is the designated interpreter for The Company. Unfortunately, he never seems to be around when I need him and not all that much when I don’t.
Mr. Greensleeves: Unsure as to what he does exactly (or even generally). Most of all he seems to hang around the compound wearing bright pastel jackets (usually green- hence the name), joking with the rest of the staff. The best dancer in The Company, as proven at a traditional Afghan wedding.
The Player: Another of the admin staff of indeterminate purpose, he always wears faded designer jeans, colorful T-shirts and RayBans (full disclosure: I wear my Oakleys as often as possible, to project the necessary degree of authority and anonymity).
Eli: The finance guy who apparently is still learning how to use Excel (maybe they don’t have Dari language user guides). Good with numbers, but follows The Rug Merchant's lead to closely (i.e. anything to increase gross revenue, regardless of net profit).
Bear: So-named because of his great bulk, hirsute appearance and massive paws. Bear is euphemistically referred to as the Facilities Manager, which means he is in charge of the logistics here, including maintenance and provisions. If the current conditions in the compound are any indication, a man woefully out of his depth.
Jeeves: My recently-assigned assistant for all-things-not-covered-by-someone-else, Jeeves is the guy who makes sure I have sufficient tea and food at all hours of the day and night. Pleasant to the point of deferential, has some limited English and is happy to talk politics when we can find the right words.
There will be more later, but those are the main players for now.
Update: New personnel will be added below as they join the company.
The Lion: Doesn't actually look or act like a lion, but he's Tajik, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panshijr Valley and one of my personal heroes. (More on Massood here). The Lion joined us after several years with the ANP's elite counter-narcotics commando battalion. He's quiet and reserved, but highly competent and professional. The Lion serves as our senior instructor. I had to personally insist to The Boss that we hire him and for that he is unfailingly loyal. If I had five hundred men like him, I'd own this country.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Now, I’m generally a fan of the BBC (although their radio programming is better than TV), but like any international news show it can become staggeringly redundant, with the same headlines and stories over and over again. At those times when I don’t need to see the story about protests by French cheese makers for the fourth time, I slip into old habits and start flipping channels. This is usually not an effective use of my time, since among the thirty channels that I have access to perhaps four of them are in English (including, oddly enough, a HBO subsidiary). The rest are either terrestrial Afghan channels or cable shows from the Gulf (in Arabic) or India (in what I presume is Hindi). I won’t attempt to describe the intense loathing I have developed for Indian television. Suffice to say that nothing about it, not the acting, not the music, not the production value, not even the sound of the language causes anything more than a rapid rise in blood pressure and, after prolonged exposure, uncontrolled twitching and what my father used to call “free-floating hostility.”
No, my focus here is on the English subtitles that accompany about half of the channels, including strangely two of the English-language channels. I’ve noticed something in the last few days that struck me as odd.
In a Muslim country like Afghanistan one expects that certain elements of foreign television (Indian or Western) would be inappropriate for broadcast. An example of this is the clumsily-done blurring of certain parts of the female anatomy, parts which, it should be pointed out, wouldn’t even raise eyebrows on American after-school specials. Really racy things like…..shoulders and knees. Fair enough. You have an inordinate fear of the female form. Whatever. Get over it.
The odder thing is the text in the subtitles. As one would expect, the language is toned down and sanitized from the original dialogue. This may be undetectable to non-native speakers, but when I’m listening to dialogue in English and simultaneously reading the English subtitles, the disconnect is obvious. [Warning – language unsuitable for young eyes follows. If you’re the sensitive type, or still harboring unrealistic illusions about my own propriety, stop reading now…….Are they gone? Good. On with the show.] Words like “shit” are transformed in the subtitles to “crap.” Not sure if that’s actually an improvement, but whatever. “Asshole” becomes “moron,” and “son of a bitch” transmutes to “jerk.” All of this is to be expected, of course, in a country in which harsh language is a serious social taboo. The really interesting bit comes when someone on-screen, as overly-traditional Christians would say, takes the lord’s name in vain. “Damn” becomes “darn,” while “goddamn” magically is transcribed as “gosh darn.” There are of course no derogatory references to Allah or Islam. Those movies don’t even make it on the air.
However, the strangest bit of all is the fact that “Jesus Christ,” when used as an expletive (as in “Jesus Christ, this asshole is a goddamn piece of shit!”) is left unaltered. So the above line, in the subtitles becomes, “Jesus Christ, that jerk is a gosh darn piece of crap!” Lacks the same rhetorical impact, I think you’ll agree.
But why leave “Jesus Christ” unchanged? In the West, that particular phrase is considered by some to be worse than any other curse imaginable. Not by me admittedly, but I pride myself on inventive and entertaining use of the sludgy end of the language pool. So, is it because they don’t recognize that this is considered a swear by Western standards? Or is it because JC is considered a prophet in Islamic theology, and therefore cannot be renamed or redacted? I’m not sure (although I lean towards the latter explanation), but it can be jarring to see Jim Belushi’s words transmuted into something one might here in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, followed by a resounding “Jesus Christ!”
Monday, March 16, 2009
About nine years ago, as a young pup, I recall meeting a Programme Director from another organisation. Having just come back from years in a field office, she was gaunt from tropical diseases, and wrinkled and weathered from years of sun exposure. Her clothes looked like they were from another decade. She wore no jewellery and no make up. She spoke slowly and deliberately, using simple words and short sentences. No jargon. No sophistication. Plain speaking. Every few minutes, she would pause and check that you got her point. I recall another colleague saying derisively, "You can tell when they have been in the field too long. They lose touch".
Not that I have reached this point yet (and hopefully I never will), but I've already noticed a developing tendency to dumb-down my vocabulary and simplify my speech in order to communicate with the locals. Even those that speak English well are somewhat limited in the more complex vocabulary and sentence constructions. It's easy to forget that when the person you're talking to is nodding and saying "Yes, yes" over and over again he might not actually be understanding everything you're saying.
A few random musing and observations from my first ten days in-country. These are in no particular order, nor is there any overall theme. Just some minor items which may be a source of amusement or edification:
1) Shortly after I arrived, I was introduced to one of our people and it was later pointed out to me that he would be easy to recognize in the future since he had only one leg and walked with a crutch. It quickly became apparent that this was a silly observation since, in Kabul, one can’t go two blocks without seeing someone missing a limb (usually a leg), the legacy of the Soviet invasion and more recent conflict. In my compound alone, there are three people visibly scarred by conflict (two of them amputees). Not exactly the ideal identifying factor in Afghanistan.
2) The day I left Dubai, I checked the weather for Kabul just to see how I should prepare. Somewhat disturbingly, the Google weather service listed “smoke” as the current atmospheric conditions in Kabul. Not fog, not smog, not mist or clouds or rain, but “smoke.” No mention as to the source or severity. What kind of city lists “smoke” on its weather report? The Kabul kind of city.
3) The tea-boy (I don’t know the Dari word yet) is the guy who fetches tea whenever two or more Afghans sit in one place for more than two minutes. Great steaming pots of green tea are produced, along with precisely one cup for each person sitting (no anticipation others joining) and a bowl of sugar. The odd thing about this to me was the fact that the tea boy, who is actually a grown man approximately 25 years of age, goes barefoot all the time, regardless of weather. Unsurprisingly, his feet are filthy, which calls into question the Muslim requirements for cleanliness.
4) As a result of two packs of cigarettes a day and the ever-present Afghan dust that filters into every room, I have a head-start on the dreaded “Kabul cough.” Those who have smoked most of their lives or spend an inordinate time working with asbestos or fiberglass insulation will be familiar with the symptoms. I suspect that this sort of thing is one of the hidden causes of shorter life-spans in Afghanistan, explosions and gunfire being the more overt but less insidious causes.
There are a few more, about the packs of stray dogs and the aforementioned Afghan penchant for icy stares, but I’ll leave those for fuller treatment later.
My driver and bodyguard picked me up at my hotel at 9:00 this morning (after I chat and swap cigarettes with the hotel guards)* for a quick drive to the compound. We meet with a couple of Nepalese businesspeople in the morning to arrange for a dozen Gurkhas to take a new contract we're negotiating with a subsidiary of a major US PSC. Before lunch, two South Africans from another PSC (run by an ex-CIA special operations guy) stop by to ask for a proposal for more guards at a facility outside of Kabul. After lunch, we meet again with the Nepalese and go off to talk through the contract with the Americans (we almost don't get in to their compound because my guy refuses to surrender his weapon at the gate), then another quick meeting with the country-manager for a certain US company with a somewhat stained reputation who has a possible contract bid coming up in 45 days.*
*Cigarettes are like currency here, kind of like being in prison (so I'm told).
**Google Nisoor Square if you don’t know who I’m talking about, although I should point out that the Afghan operations of this company are highly-regarded.
Then off to the Ministry of Finance for a cup of tea with the new minister, discussing some infrastructure projects that we're working on. We're late, he's pissed. At 4:00 we drive up to Bagram airbase north of Kabul to meet with ISAF/NATO officers coordinating the PSCs in A-stan. Can't get in because the base is on lock-down after a suicide bombing at a different gate earlier in the day.* Waste precious hours. Back to the compound for a late dinner and drafting of several proposals which we (stupidly) promised by the end of the day.
*For those of you inclined to worry, I should point out that Bagram is so large that four hours after the bombing, the guards at the gate we went to didn’t even know the reason for the lockdown. We were parked not more than twenty yards from the outer perimeter gate and the most we got we indifferent stares from the locals.
Back at the hotel by 10:00, try (and fail) to get a few hours of sleep before I have to be back at the compound tomorrow morning at 8:00 to screen thirty Nepalese Gurkhas and choose twelve for the new contract. They seem to think that since the Afghanis were trained by the Russians and the Gurkhas by the Brits, my knowledge of “Western military techniques" will be helpful in the selection process. I neglect to mention to anyone that it has been twenty years since I was in the Army. Doesn't matter; the staff here, taking their lead from the president of the company, all seem to be convinced that I’m actually CIA. Why else would anyone come here?
Sunday, March 15, 2009
With a tough but not brutal hangover, I caught a taxi at 0430 for Dubai International Airport, Terminal Two. The “terminal two” is significant since, as became apparent once I arrived, the departure point for outbound flights to Kabul was not the clean, efficient, modern airport at which I arrived, but instead a desperately disorganized mess, filled with indolent staff and a throng of surly passengers.*
*At this point, I have to mention the Afghanis willfull ignorance of the concept of a queue (or as it’s called in the States, “a line”). As became rapidly apparent, an orderly progression from one customer to the next is a foreign concept in the Afghan psyche. Instead, they have developed a complex and intricate dance of pushing and shoving, some overt, some more passive-aggressive, in which two people fight for the second spot in line, three people fight for the third, and so on. This inevitably results in a formation more like a triangle than a line, with the upshot being that one cannot effectively judge the length of time one might have to wait in said queue, as it can vary widely. This, as will be seen, became important later.
After fighting my way through the crowd to the ticket desk, I managed to check my bags with an hour to spare before the flight. Of course, being that I was embarking on a six-month tour under somewhat uncertain circumstances, I had overpacked to the point of insanity and I owed 250 dirhams (about $80 USD) at the Excess Baggage counter. Simple, right? Not so much. I got into the “Afghani pyramid” with 55 minutes to spare, about seventh in “line.” Forty minutes later, after much shoving and what I can only assume were muttered complaints in Dari, I was fifth in line. No one, I’m proud to say, had gotten past me; it was just that the harried clerk behind the desk was incapable of moving at more than a glacial pace and seemed to enjoy spending more time yelling at the people in line rather than doing anything to speed the process. Finally, with the final boarding call for my flight coming over the PA system, I and another American (ecowarrior hippie type) managed to convince the lady that we needed to go NOW. Throwing some money here direction, we sprinted through security and to the gate. I was not yet in my seat when the plane started to roll.
The flight to Kabul was uneventful (food sucked-big surprise), until we began to circle for a landing. This was an event I had read about and was actually looking forward to. It seems that many of the pilots who fly into Kabul nowadays are former Russian air force with experience in the 1980s Afghan War.* In order to land safely at Kabul airport back then, and avoid all those Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the U.S. was gleefully supplying to the mujahedin, they developed a technique called the “Kabul corkscrew.” Basically, this consisted of approach the city at a sufficient altitude to avoid short-range missiles and then rapidly descending while simultaneously turning in a tight circle. This is complicated by the fact that Kabul is nearly surrounded by substantial peaks, the end of the Hindu Kush range. It’s basically a city in a big rocky bowl. Think of a rollercoaster without the reassuring presence of rails but contained in a rather narrow quarry and you’ll get the idea. Hopefully, in the end the aircraft lines up with the runway in such a way as to allow a proper landing. In my case, this actually happened but I confess I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had smacked into a mountain.
*My pilot, if his announcement was to be believed, had the last name of Federov, so he was presumably one of these.
Anyway, the unorthodox landing was only the beginning of the Dante-esque nightmare that is the Kabul International Airport.* After taxiing past rows of parked Russian attack helicopters, we arrive at what passes for a terminal.** One large building with none of the standard amenities of an airport and a surplus of the aggravations. A good rule of thumb is that the efficiency of an airport is inversely proportional to the number of uniforms present in said airport. Under that rule, KIA is probably the worst airport in the world.
*KIA (gruesomely appropriate acronym, isn’t it?) barely qualifies as “international” since most nations will not allow flights into or out of Afghanstan. Aside from the Gulf States and several Central Asian republics, only Pakistan and India fly direct to Kabul. Apparently, the rest are concerned that the security situation might somehow stow away and follow them home.
**This will mean little to many of you, but for the sake of MilTech geeks like myself, I will mention that the choppers were fully-loaded Mi-24 Hinds (a notorious Russian attack helicopter- a la Red Dawn) and a handful of Mi-17 transports (made famous to a select few in another life in a certain city in southern Poland – if you don’t know, don’t ask).
Fortunately, on the far side of security I was met by one of the Western backers of my new employer, an old Afghan hand, who had arranged transport to our compound. His presence was to prove invaluable in the next few days. Our transport was the standard Kabul method, 4x4 SUV with driver and armed guard up front, three of us crammed into the middle and another guard stuffed in the back. Three weapons for six people, and we were probably well-below the Kabul per capita average.
Finally fought our way through the traffic and arrived at the compound in time for lunch.* Spent the afternoon shaking hands with what seemed like half the male population of Kabul. Lots of salaaming and broken English, interspersed with endless cups of weak green tea. Somewhat overwhelmed, I was dropped at my hotel that evening with an hour to change for dinner with a certain prominent Afghan politician who was considering a run for the presidency in the upcoming election.
*I won’t go into the bizarre nature of Kabul traffic and Afghan driving habits here. Save that for later. Suffice to say that the most hardened American highwayman would blanch if he tried to drive two blocks in this city. Not that he’d be able to do it.
At dinner that evening, I sensed the beginnings of a motif that was to follow me for the next week began. Apparently, I had been somewhat “oversold” as an expert on all manner of things. The nature and scope of my expertise depended upon who was judging me. To the business and admin people, I was some sort of Western business expert, well-versed in contract law and negotiation. To the ex-military and security types, I was the beneficiary of Western military training and techniques which they expected me to pass on to the locals (all Soviet trained, if at all). To the politicians, I was a master of the nuances of American political thought, able to predict the reaction of the new administration in Washington with frightening clarity. In my own mind, of course, I am all of those things. In reality, perhaps a little less so. Those of you who know me well will realize that I was, to a certain degree, skating on false pretenses here.
Anyway, we had a very nice traditional dinner (I ate eggplant!) and talked politics until pretty late, lubricated by a little bootleg whiskey (shh! Don’t tell anyone, but occasionally, when no one is looking, Afghans drink too.) I think I acquitted myself fairly well, but I’m not well enough versed in local customs and mannerisms to be sure. At least I didn’t make a fool of myself, as far as I know. If this guy runs, and if he wins, I’ll be able to say that I was there at the beginning. Not that he’ll remember me. Hell of a first day.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
So, the visa issue got sorted faster than I thought, but only by leaving London on short notice and flying out to Dubai for a shot at the reportedly top-notch Afghan consulate there. A visa had been obtained (in ONE day!) by a compatriot of mine earlier in the week, and I was assured that none of the shenanigans present at the Afghan embassy in London would impair further progress. Needless to say, I was a little dubious.
However, armed with some vague directions, a plane ticket (economy class) and an envelope full of US dollars, I boarded a flight Sunday evening for the sunny exotic Persian Gulf.* The Dubai airport is surprisingly modern and efficient, with the usual array of hotel kiosks and duty free shops. The only wrinkle was that, unbeknownst to me, there is a limit of 400 cigarettes that one is allowed to import in one’s luggage. To all of you non-smokers, 400 cigarettes may seem like a lot, I’m sure. However, to me, a heavy smoker about to embark on six months in a country paradoxically known for high percentage of heavy smokers and an inherent difficulty in obtaining basic goods, two cartons just wasn’t going to cut it. So, at Heathrow I bought four cartons (that’s 800 cigarettes- they’re like currency, right?), which was twice the allowed amount. After being hustled around by customs in Dubai for half-an-hour, I was deposited in front of an unsympathetic looking young lady in a burka and a member of Dubai’s elite customs police who made his companion look positively amorous. They stared at me for a full minute, taking turns examining my passport and ticket, and then to my surprise, the lady smiled and said, “Enjoy your trip. Welcome to Dubai.” Her partner merely glared at me and said, “Don’t do it again.”
*As it turns out, Dubai is not all that exotic, more like Houston with more sand and fewer steakhouses. Nor, on the day I arrived, was it very sunny. In fact, the predominant colors appeared to be gray and tan, a motif which would reoccur at my next destination.
So, I’m off to the cab stand and a full day of driving around Dubai sorting out visas and onward tickets. As it turns out, the hyper-efficient Afghan consulate in Dubai is actually about half a dozen Pashtuns hanging around listlessly in a small, dingy flat behind the immigration office. I dropped my application and fee, chatted with a few Westerners heading the same way, and then proceeded to the hotel to drop my bags and check in. That accomplished, I headed back out to the travel agent to pick up my ticket for Kabul and then returned to the hotel for some sleep.**I never sleep on planes. Not sure why, I can (and have) slept nearly anywhere, in the main train station in downtown Warsaw, on a railroad siding somewhere in rural Slovakia, on top of a dozen crates of mortar shells in the back of 5-ton truck, even in the waiting area of the Villa Park, Illinois DMV. But never on planes.
The nap turned out to be a mistake, a victim of my misplaced faith in the efficiency of the Afghan consular officials. They had said (and it was confirmed by others present) that it would take several hours to process the application and that I should just wait. Not likely, I thought. I’ll just duck out and complete my other tasks and return this afternoon to pick it up. Easy-peasy-Japaneese, as we used to say as kids. Not so much in this case.
Upon my return at 2:50 PM, I was informed by an extremely surly Afghan that the consulate closes at 3:00, and anyway he hadn’t processed my application since I hadn’t been there when he called my name. For what exactly is unclear. Come back tomorrow and try again was his only suggestion. Knowing that I had to fly at 6:00 AM the next day, coming back tomorrow was not an option. Reason, pleading, logic, all were met with a practiced indifference. At a loss for what to do, I simply stood there and stared at him while he went about his business closing up shop. Apparently, despite having a reputation as Master Starers, 1st class, Afghans don’t care to be stared at themselves.* In less than five minutes, he relented and with much sighing and complaining**, he processed the whole thing in sixty seconds flat. Apparently, they are capable of being efficient when they choose to be.
*More on the staring thing later. It’s really quite remarkable.
**At least I think he was complaining. It was all in Dari/Farsi (probably) so I can’t say for sure.
At last, armed with plane ticket and visa, I headed back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before my 4:00 AM wake-up call. And, as anyone about to fly out to take up a new job under uncertain circumstances in a country with a well-deserved reputation for violence and dislike of foreigners would do, I got drunk.
I'm new to this blogging thing, so there are likely to be numerous mistakes of content and style in what follows. In the interest of keeping up to date, I will sometimes be posting without the benefit of a thorough review. I hope to reduce the incidence of idiocy as time goes on. I think you'll find that I tend to be somewhat less than fully in compliance with tenents of political correctness. I assure you this is entirely intentional. Get over it.
In order to avoid any future unpleasantness, allow me to clarify a few things about the nature of the private security industry in Afghanistan. First, the people who do this job are most definitely not cowboys or borderline psychotics with automatic weapons. As in any business, there are a few who probably don't belong, but the vast majority of the operators are skilled professionals who try their utmost to perform their duties to their client without unwanted friction. Even the locals exhibit a high degree of dedication and are constantly trying to improve their abilities and their skills. Secondly, although money is a motivating factor for nearly everyone in this business (in any business for that matter - would you work for free?), most of the people I know, operators and management alike, are not getting rich off of this conflict. They do what they do for the same reasons anyone does a job: they take pleasure in doing something they're good at, they enjoy the challenge of a difficult task in a tricky environment and, at the end of the day, they make a living. Not so different from most people I know. So spare me (and them) your pop psychology and ill-founded condemnations. If you want to spew uninformed venom about the "evils of the military-industrial complex," go join the herd at MoveOn.org.
A note on operational security (OpSec): Some of what is written here will be intentionally vague and occasionally cryptic. This is necessary to protect not only the well-being of my own people, but also to eliminate the possibility of inadvertently revealing proprietary information about my own company or those clients and contractors with whom we do business. The often snarky tone of my posts notwithstanding, this is a serious business in which there are inherent risks. Nothing I could post here would be worth increasing that risk to anyone.