Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu

One of the stories sweeping the Western world is the recent outbreak of swine flu, apparently centered on Mexico. Doesn't really make the news here, since we have slightly more lethal things to worry about.* Also, swine flu is somewhat less prevalent in a country with no pigs.

*Hepatitis, cholera and yellow fever are the local top three for infectious diseases, but we also have HIV, malaria Oh, and a disturbingly persistent jihadist insurgency too.

Nevertheless, in my personal quest for the highest standards of personal health*, I have searched the web for advice in case swine flu should add itself to the list of local health concerns.

*Yeah, right.

The ever-wise (and only mildly snarky) Abu Muqawama* notes this WaPo story about how the swine flu affects an inordinately large number of young and otherwise healthy people. He then goes on to suggest his own personal preventive approach, which I admit has a certain amount of appeal. Abu M's suggestions:
  1. If you don't smoke, now is a good time to start.
  2. Christopher Hitchens says that martinis are like breasts: One is one too
    few, while three is one too many. Well, to hell with that rule. Have at least
    four tonight.
  3. If you got a lot of rest this weekend, bully for you. But you now need to
    stay up for the next 72 hours living off a diet of black coffee and cigarettes.
    Oh, and gin.

*Abu M is now at CNAS, the Center for a New American Security, a fact which I try not to hold against him. CNAS is also kind enough to provide his health insurance, a luxury which I have not be privileged to possess for at least fifteen years.

Although quality gin is in somewhat short supply, I am reassured to know that I have the other prescriptions covered. Cigarettes, check. Black coffee, check. Gin, well no, but I do have copious amounts of whiskey, so that's a start.

Of all the health hazards to worry about, I guess swine flu won't be a problem. So I got that going for me.

African Politics

When one spends time in a place like this, one doesn't generally have much opportunity to think about the social difficulties which confront the civilized world. In fact, many of the considerations that decide elections and ruin cocktail parties in the States are simply non-issues here. Universal health care, the stimulus package and racism are guaranteed to start a debate in the US, but they simply don't show up on the radar in Afghanistan.

*There is a a home-grown version of racism, tribalism, that is an integral and important part of life and politics here, but that is less a question of perceived racial superiority and more a manifestation of collective identity politics.**
**Which, admittedly, is what racism is, but here it has less racial and more cultural overtones.

The glaring exception to the above can be found among the South Africans, some of whom work for me. These guys are veterans of all of SA's ugly little wars in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique (and a few from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe). They have years of experience working with black Africans* across the continent.

*Don't make the mistake of referring to only blacks as Africans when you're around Safers. They are adamantly and vociferously proud of being African themselves, in some cases more than black Africans.

Most of them have put their lives in the hands of blacks multiple times in combat situations. All of them will tell you how effective they were, operating in small mixed groups of whites and blacks, with the whites providing the leadership and expertise, and the blacks providing the firepower and local knowledge. They are definitely proud of their service and their military accomplishments and praise their "kaffirs"* without reservation.

*Kaffir is generally considered a disparaging term. Use it carefully, if at all.

Having said that, the Safers are also openly and shockingly racist, at least by American standards. There are plenty of people in the US and Europe who are racists, either openly or secretly. But few would be so casual or public about it as the Safers routinely are. I'm used to redneck Americans and I've seen my share of reactionary, nationalist Europeans*, but the boldness of the Safers always surprises me.

*To me, it's never been a question as to whether the Americans or the Europeans were the more racist. Europeans like to talk about the history of slavery and the supression of civil rights and the continuing absence of blacks/hispanics/asians in the American elite. All of that is true. However, anyone who has ever heard the Dutch talk about Moroccans, the Germas rail against the Turks, the British moan about Asians or the French slander the Algerians has to wonder if America is really the home of modern racism.** Besides, we have a black President now, so shut up already.

**In addition to their local peculiarities, a substantial percentage of Europeans are still quietly, subtlely and adamantly anti-Semitic. Don't let them tell you otherwise.

Anyway, back to the Safers. Their racism is so casual, so open, so unabashed, that I'm almost tempted to......respect them for it. I know that sounds odd (and disturbing). Their feelings are (partly) informed by their experiences, which I can only guess at, but it's still stupid and primitive and ill-conceived. Often, I find myself very uncomfortable around them when they start talking about Africa or blacks in general.*

*Don't even get them started of Jacob Zuma. That takes it to a whole new level.

Still, disagreeing with them at a fundamental level, I find it hard to argue the point. In fact, I rarely try. First off, it would be pointless to argue. I'm not going to change their minds on this. Second, I would find it much more offensive if they talked like that and still claimed not to be racists. They don't. They are, they know it, and they think they're right for it. But mostly, I have to live and work with these guys, possibly in some very dodgy circumstances. They're my last line of defense if something goes wrong, and I don't want to piss them off.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Daily Quote

"Life is tough. It's even tougher if you're stupid." - John Wayne

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Wedding

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now, almost two months. It was one of the first experiences I had when I got to the –stan, and it summed up so many elements of the culture shock that were inherent in the first couple of days.

The wedding was actually my second night here in-country. The groom’s brother is not connected with The Company directly, but his brother is The Colonel, a good friend of The Boss. The Colonel has no official position with us. In fact, his rank and title derive from the fact that he is a colonel in the Afghan Border Police. However, since The Boss is a close friend of the general who runs the ABP, The Colonel has been loaned to us indefinitely as a fixer. An invaluable companion, especially when one is trying to negotiate the Byzantine security labyrinth that is Kabul International Airport.

So, The Colonel’s brother has returned from Europe to get married in a traditional Afghan wedding. I can only presume that the bride was an upstanding Afghan girl since, per Afghan tradition, the men and women’s wedding celebrations were completely separated. Same building, same time, same room even, but the female half of the equation was divided off from the male by a massive screen. Not once in seven hours did I glimpse a female form. Only the groom (and some of the wedding hall staff) is allowed to breach that barrier.

Our half of the equation was sizable enough, with over 1000 men invited to our half of the ceremony. By local standards, this was a big deal, but everyone there had been to larger weddings in recent memory. The Afghan tradition it seems, is to invite everyone one has ever met, and their entire family. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the guest list included the butcher and the baker from the groom’s ancestral village, which he hadn’t even seen in twenty years. I know they were there; I met them both.

*No word on whether the candle-stick maker was present.

Now, it should be pointed out that at this point in my journey I had learned precisely one word of Dari: salaam, which means hello, generally said with the right hand over the heart.

*Never the left, for reasons which are obscure, but I think have something to do with social prohibitions about hygiene. An unintentionally ironic twist in a country like Afghanistan.

So, here I am in a vast hall, filled to the brim with a thousand Afghan men, all of whom are splitting their time between wolfing down massive amounts of the traditional wedding feast and staring at me with a mixture of unabashed curiosity and some degree of hostility. I’ve been to wedding before where I didn’t know anybody. Painful and tedious, but not unbearable. However, when one does it at a wedding where one, a) doesn’t know anyone, b) doesn’t speak the language, and c) doesn’t yet have the vaguest clue what one is supposed to be doing in the country in the first place, it all becomes considerably more difficult.

After a couple of hours, the latent hostility began to fade, and their curiosity took over. Unfortunately, this manifested itself in an endless stream of people coming to our table to greet The Boss and interrogate me on my opinions on the food, the party, Afghan society, and why I wasn’t married. The questions were not made any easier by the fact that most of them were posed in Dari and subject to some truly questionable translation. At one point, I was asked, via a particularly unreliable interpreter, if American weddings actually involved strippers jumping out of large cakes. I think someone had seen Bachelor Party one too many times.

The main form of entertainment at an Afghan wedding, other than eating massive amounts of food very rapidly, is dancing. Obviously, the total lack of women (and the considerable difference in musical taste) made this portion of the evening unlike anything you might find at an American country club wedding. First off, about twenty of the younger men in the crowd took the floor to perform a traditional Afghan wedding dance. By my watch, this lasted upwards of thirty minutes. The closest approximation I can think of is a combination of the hokey-pokey and line dancing, with a heavy dose of “whirling dervish” style thrown in.

This first crew of dancers (some of them professionals, or at least highly-skilled regulars) was uniformly young, handsome and generally had longish hair, which they whirled about in great arcs with elaborate head gyrations. If one were to take a quick glance at the dance floor in the middle of the song, it would be hard to differentiate the dancers from women. I hesitate to point it out, but the reaction of the (entirely male) crowd was more than slightly disturbing. As most of you know, I’m a fairly conservative, traditional guy, but I consider myself at least slightly enlightened on the question of sexual orientation. Don’t really care what other people do, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t make a political issue out of it. However, the sight of 1000 Afghan men roaring approval at a coterie of young male dancers making a sincere effort to appear feminine kind of took me aback. The level of sexual frustration in the room was palpable and, to me, more than a little off-putting. There’s something unhealthy about a culture that suppresses and marginalizes their women so completely, and yet seeks substitutions in alternative forms.* I think that if a woman had stumbled into that room accidentally, she would have been ravished or murdered in a matter of minutes. I don’t mind saying I was a more than a little uncomfortable with the whole thing.

*Don’t even get me started on the Pashtun fondness for pre-pubescent boys, an accepted social construct that would strike most Westerners as immoral at best, and illegal at worst.

Afterwards, it was explained to me by The Doctor that not all Afghan weddings observe this traditional separation. The rule was rationalized by saying that the women actually prefer it that way, since they are not normally allowed to dance or do any of the other things that Western women would consider feminine. The enforced separation at a wedding allows them to engage in behavior that would otherwise result in severe social stigma, or even violence. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, since I couldn’t get past the divider between the two parties (not that I tried). But I admit that I was intrigued by the possibilities of what was happening on the other side of that wall.

All in all, an evidently good time was had by all (at least on the male side of the divider, and with the obvious exception of myself). Afghans, without the social outlets available in the West (i.e. bars, parties, clubs, etc.) really do live for these weddings. They’re the highlight of the social calendar, anticipated and enjoyed to a degree all out of proportion to their entertainment, at least from my perspective.

I, for one, will not be waiting impatiently for the next invitation.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I've been getting some complaints (you know who you are) about the amount of acronyms* that I use on this blog. Sometimes it reads like a ISAF intel briefing**, rather than a proper story.

*Technically, they're not acronyms, they're mostly initialisms. See here for clarification.
**See? There I go again!

Anyway, here's a quick list of the most common. I'll add to it later as more pop up.

  • NATO- North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Pretty obvious really, but I put here for the sake of completeness. NATO (or OTAN, if you're French) is the international organization in charge of most of the foreign military forces in Afghanistan.
  • ISAF: International Security Assistance Force: The operational arm of NATO, with about 60,000 troops, US and allies, managing security and counterinsurgency operations in about three-quarters of the country.
  • ANA- Afghan National Army: Roughly 80,000 strong and growing, although of highly-variable quality and reliability. Some battalions are capable of independent, agressive operations, but many prefer to remain in their fortified bases and smoke massive amounts of hash.
  • ANP- Afghan National Police: Probably the single-most reviled institution in Afghanistan, the police are really more of a paramilitary security force than an investigation and apprehension force. Not a bad thing really, since there are few courts and fewer jails to actually try, convict and imprison any common criminals. Noted for their penchant for demanding bribes. Also worth pointing out however, that the ANP lost more people in combat last year than the army.
  • ABP- Afghan Border Police: A separate division of the ANP, the Border Police are responsible for monitoring the country's borders (a hopeless task), guarding the airport and much of the counter-narcotics work (another hopeless task). Surprisingly professional, despite the fact that they are trained under a program run by Blackwater.
  • NDS- National Directorate of Security: A combination of FBI and CIA, the NDS are mostly former spies and counter-intelligence agents for the Soviet-backed government. Some flickers of professionalism, but vastly underfunded and not respected by the local population. They have a well-deserved reputation for brutality. Their independently operated detainment centers make Guantanamo Bay look like a health spa.
  • HeI- Hezb-e Islami: The personal army and jihadist political party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader and warlord. Some portion of the anti-government violence here is perpetrated by HeI.
  • AQA- Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: A regional variation on AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq). It's hard to deny that AQ once had a presence here, and they probably still do. Foreign jihadists, mostly Pakistani and Arabic, are sometimes caught or killed by ISAF forces, but the actual number of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is impossible to determine.
  • ACE- Army Corps of Engineers: Not really part of the US Army anymore, these are the guys responsible for planning and building many of the large military infrastructure projects around the country.
  • AFCEE- Air Force Center for Engineering and Environment: The other large agency responsible for planning and executing big building projects around Afghanistan, mostly military bases and airfields.
  • CJTF-101- Combined Joint Task Force, 101st Airborne Division: The main US combatant command for all US troops not under ISAF control.
  • CSTC-A- Combined Security and Transition Command, Afghanistan: The US Army command responsible for training and mentoring the ANA and ANP. These guys are spread out all over eastern and southern Afghanistan, embedded in small groups with local forces, working every day to make the locals better soldiers and citizens. A very tough job (and I ought to know).
  • RCE- Regional Command East: One of four regional subcomponents of ISAF, RCE runs the American forces that do not fall under ISAF command. Operates, as the name implies, in the difficult and violent east of the country.
  • USAID- United States Agency for International Development: The third of three big funders of construction projects. Mostly deals with economic infrastructure like roads, bridges, dams and irrigation.
  • Taliban: Not actually an acronym (duh!), but also included here for the sake of completeness. The Talibs (pashto for student) are the chief badguys here in the -stan. Fundamentalist, Wahhabist Muslims (think revivalist preachers, but with more guns).

That's all I've got for now. There are dozens more, but as I read over what I've written already I realize that I might actually only be confusing people even more.

A Day Out, Part Two

When we touched down at our destination, I was reminded again of one of the hidden strengths of having lots of locals on the payroll.* The advance party, who had driven down two days before, had arranged a proper reception for the clients.

*There are a few benefits to working with an Afghan company. These benefits are vastly outweighed by the negative aspects of what passes for local business practices. I'll leave those for another post.

The airfield, which sits inside the perimeter of an ANA base, was ringed by ANP troops for security and there was a delegation of senior officers of both the ANA and ANP to meet us. Overall, an impressive display of local clout, a nice show put together through reliance with the personal connections and tribal relationships which are the grease of social interaction here. Few other companies, local or international, could have pulled this off. And we did it with just a few phone calls.* The advance party even stayed in the ANP commander's house for two nights!

*And a bottle of bootleg whiskey for the local commander.

So, after a quick meeting with the local bigwigs, lots of salaams and handshakes, and half a pack of cigarettes given away to the locals, we set off on a tour of the base perimeter. Before we got fifty meters, one of the local ANA commanders said (through an terp*), "Would you like to meet the Americans?"

*Terp is short for interpreter, or translator. I've been told that terp is a mildly derogatory term in Iraq (where I have never been), but I can find no negative connotations in it. It's like calling an umpire ump.

We knew that there was an American facility within the ANA base, sort of a mini-camp. Turned out that they referred to themselves as a FOB, or Forward Operating Base. This was mildly inaccurate, since the total US Army force level was about sixty guys, and a standard FOB is company (200+) or battalion (800+) strength. Nevertheless, crammed into one corner of the vast ANA territory was a little sandbagged outpost, surrounded by double-thick and double-high layers of HESCO barriers.*

*HESCO barriers are basically large metal mesh cages lined with canvas and filled with sand and gravel. Think sandbags on steriods, but with the structural stability required to actually build walls out of them.

We wandered inside, past the ECP, with only a few bewildered stares from some soldiers in PT gear.* Not exactly rigorous security protocols, but then we were inside an ANA perimeter, for whatever that's worth.

*There I go with the acronyms again. ECP=Entry Control Point (i.e. the gate); PT=Physical Training (i.e. shorts and t-shirts); ANA=Afghan National Army.

Despite my best efforts, we hadn't been able to make contact with the US Army before we arrived, so I was expecting to get bounced out in a matter of minutes. Instead, we had a quick conference with the base commander, his deputy and the company first sergeant. These three guys, a full colonel, a major and a senior NCO (that's non-commissioned officer), all gave us the royal treatment, including going over the future plans for construction with the clients and taking us on a walking tour of the entire perimeter so that we could see the site from the guard towers. I was pleasantly surprised with both their professionalism (which I expected) and their openess (which I did not). They even pointed out the dead dog, a victim of a recent hunt,* so that we could stay well upwind.

*Yes, they hunt dogs. Not for sport, and certainly not for food. It's purely a security measure. Dogs here tend to run in packs and are almost always nearly feral. The week before a US soldier had been attacked right outside the gate and badly bitten. So, they do periodic culls of the local packs to keep the numbers in their favor. Besides, it's probably good target practice.

After half a day of tramping around in the Afghan dust (most of the land inside the perimeter was unoccupied and undeveloped; hence the reason for the clients, a bunch of construction contractors, to visit) we stopped for a quick photo op, climbed back into the chopper and headed home. All in all, a lot of work and organizational effort, and not a small amount of stress, for what was really a pretty simple look over a construction site. As they say, TIA: This Is Afghanistan. Nothing here is easy.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Day Out, Part One

Things have been more-than-usually nutty around here lately (more on that later), so I haven't been posting like I should. To catch up, here's the first of two posts about the trip south into Indian Country:

After a 24 hour delay due to weather, we returned to the "auxiliary airfield" and caught a flight south for the site recon. The second time through I noticed that several of the aircraft parked on the flight line didn't have any markings. No logos, no tail numbers, nothing. Professionally maintained and flight-ready aircraft (fixed wing and rotary) with no visible IDs at a separate, secure airfield. Wonder who might be using those......?

Surprisingly close to on-time, we boarded an ancient Mi-17 for the flight. Like the helicopter, the crew was Russian, although thankfully younger than the bird.*

*The fact that the crew was young was actually a good thing, because the older Russians who fly a lot of the aircraft out of Kabul are veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. It's a commonly-accepted axiom that these older pilots prefer to consume a half a liter of vodka before they fly, a legacy of the war when every flight was likely to be your last.

I'd be willing to be that the helicopter was older than I am. Proof of that was the fact that, once on board and strapped in, it took another twenty minutes of fiddling and swearing (in Russian) to get the thing to start. Best I can tell, the pilot and flight engineer were performing some sort of avionics trial-and-error with the switches in the cockpit, accompanied by various unreassuring electric whines and the click of solenoids from the engine. Lots of muttering and arguing (also in Russian) and the occasional banging on the instrument panel. At one point, somebody hit a switch and the clamshell doors at the back of the chopper started to open. I was beginning to wonder if we wouldn't be better off with chimpanzees banging randomly on the controls when the engine finally caught. Of course, it took another five minutes of revving up and down to burn off the avgas and oil that had accumulated in the nacells. Only thirty minutes behind schedule, we were airborne.

The odd thing about the flight was the complete change that came over most of the passengers as soon as we were airborne. The clients, men who have lived and worked in very rough parts of the world, building bases and facilities in Iraq, North Africa, West Africa, and Central Asia, immediately transformed into a bunch of giggling Japanese schoolgirls. Out come the mobile phones and digital cameras, everyone snapping pictures and taking video, of the terrain, the city, each other. Maybe it was just the release of tension after our nearly-aborted takeoff, but I was very surprised that adult professionals would behave that way. Not even my guys were immune, except for the lone expat operator and my local team leader. Both of them had spent more time on helicopters than all the rest of us combined. They were coolly unimpressed and professional. Myself, I was somewhere in between, probably closer to "Japanese schoolgirl," not that I would show it. It has been fifteen years since I was on a chopper.

Once airborne, one gets a very different view of this country than is usual from the ground. The mud, dust, grime, sewage and rubble that are the overriding theme of ground-level life in Afghanistan dissappear, replaced by an intriguing, almost inviting, patchwork maze of angled streets and alleys, walled compounds and the occasional industrial or military facility. The predominant color is still brownish tan, but from a helicopter the differences are more pronounced. Fields actually appear green(ish), and some of the hills are golden or red. The mountains, always visibile in this part of Afghanistan, are black and gray with near-permanent snowcaps. If I hadn't loaned my camera to the advance party, I would have snapped a couple of photos.

But here's the thing. From altitude, its easy to forget what it looks like on the ground. The colors are more pronounced, the landscape is dramatic, the fields seem verdant and bountiful, even the compounds look like pleasant rural homesteads. But I know that up close, on the ground, those colors all fade into the standard brown/tan (with highlights of grey), the hills are treacherous and rocky, the fields are actually little-more than subsistence dirt farming. And those charming compounds? Like little mud-walled forts, surrounded by packs of semi-wild dogs, visibly-diseased children and steely-eyed bandidos.

With the exception of the occasional strking vista (morning sun on the Hindu Kush, etc.), this country is really quite ugly up close. I don't mean that it lacks the rural charm of Switzerland or the calm pleasantness of England or the vibrant energy of Vienna. I mean it's ugly. Just plain unappealing to the eye. There are (allegedly) parts of A-stan that are quite nice (Badakshan province up north, Bamiyan in the center), but from what I've seen so far, this place is a nearly uninterrupted display of monotonous colors layered over filth and decay.

But from a helicopter, it looks rather pleasant. One wonders if that's why the various aid agencies who populate this place seem so naively optimistic. Perhaps its because they spend too much time looking down from 10,000 feet.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Trip Delayed

So, the weather here in Kabul was crap this morning (not uncommon this time of year), and by the time it cleared up, the crap had simply moved south to cover our destination in low-hanging clouds.

In a country composed largely of mountains, flying in bad weather is not an appetizing option. We don't have access to the fancy terrain-following radar and other goodies that NATO/ISAF forces use, so we were grounded for today. Try again tomorrow.

In the meantime, our party had four hours of sitting around the auxiliary airfield* in Kabul, waiting for the weather to clear. As happens when a group of people are forced to spend several hours together with nothing to do but spread bullshit, the stories and recollections came one on top of another. Most of these guys are not security contractors, but all had experiences in the interesting bits of the world to relate. A couple were veteran operators, with experience in Iraq, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as Afghanistan.

*The "auxiliary airfield" is part of the massive Kabul International Airport, but separate from the civilian areas and the NATO/ISAF base at Camp KAIA. I don't know if it has an official name, but one of the guys I was with referred to it as the "CIA field." After seeing the SUVs festooned with antenna and full of NATO special forces going in and out of the gate, I'm inclined to think he's right.

When one spends time around people like this, one hears many things which don't generally make it into casual conversation in most parts of the world. Twice this morning, I heard stories that started with the phrase, "The first time I was shot....." Odd world when people have to differentiate their stories by whether it was the first, second, or in one case, the third time they were shot. Fortunately for me (and my blood-pressure), none of those injuries had occured in Afghanistan.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Day Out

I'm off to one of the southern provinces* tomorrow. My first trip out of Kabul, unless one counts two aborted attempts to get into Bagram airbase.

*No, I'm not going to tell which one. OpSec, remember?

If they were aware of it, both The Boss and The Godfather would probably object for security reasons, but there's really no great risk in going. The A-1, or ring-road as its more popularly known, is dodgy under the best of circumstances, and with the Taliban gearing up for their annual summer offensive, its particularly so now. However we're avoiding that difficulty by flying south. Why walk when you can drive, and why drive when you can fly?

The bird is a chartered Mi-17, the standard air transport here for anyone who doesn't have access to US Army aircraft. Old but reliable, and well maintained by an expat crew. This will be my first flight in a Russian helicopter, and my first flight in any helicopter since 1992. I'll have to make sure not to have a big breakfast on Saturday. Last time I was in a helicopter (a Chinook out at Fort Lewis, Washington), our TacOfficer had indulged in a large breakfast of pancakes and sausage. The rest of the company got the remains of yesterdays MRE, but he apparently felt that a trip to battalion mess was part of his privileges of rank.

On that day I was an involuntary witness to the secondary usage of a ballistic Kevlar helmet. The air assault infantry didn't call them "puke pots" for nothing. I still smile when I remember that hapless captain getting chewed out by the battalion commander for blowing chunks in front of the rest of the company. The worst part is that he did it ten minutes into the flight, and then had to hold the helmet on his lap for the next half-an-hour. Fortunately for him the crew chief didn't insist on all personnel wearing their protective gear for the duration of the flight. That would have been a mess.

Back to the point: this trip should be a quick in-and-out mission. I'm taking four of my guys* with me, but they're mostly for show. We've got excellent contacts with the local ANP and ANA and should have a very nice reception of local dignitaries and troops.

*Come to think of it, I should probably tell them not to have a big breakfast either.

We'll be in close proximity to an ANA base the whole time, and the ANP have promised us an escort.* If we needed it (which we won't), there's even an ISAF base about three klicks away, staffed by several companies of light infantry from one of NATO's newer members.**

*ANA=Afghan National Army; ANP=Afghan National Police; ISAF=International Securty Assistance Force (i.e. NATO). I should really do a post that explains all these acronyms.

**No, I'm not going to say which NATO member. That would make it too easy to figure out the destination. But it's worth pointing out that this particular NATO member has a well-deserved reputation for getting into the fight and mixing it up. Not like those lazy Germans, who are up north anyway.

The plan is to be back mid-afternoon, so we'll spend almost as much time in the aircraft as on the ground, which is fine by me. I'd rather be flying than standing around some dusty compound in southern Afghanistan. Still, the change of scenery should be nice.

General Order No. 1

The infamous General Order No. 1 is the DoD rule that prohibits US personnel serving in Afghanistan from indulging in certain vices which are both endemic to military personnel and haram under Islamic law. Chief among these are alcohol, pornography and gambling.

Needless to say, the ban on alcohol is not popular, and not all countries in ISAF enforce it. Some European nations have their own version of the rule, which is equally unpopular. The Norwegians in particular have instituted a ban on alcohol among their troops, and importantly on any troops serving under Norwegian command. The fragmented nature of the ISAF command structure means that lots of troops from smaller countries serve under the regional command of the larger contributors.

Hence the problem. The Finns have a small detachment up north under Norwegian command who are now subject to the alcohol ban. Anyone who know Finns knows that denying them their daily ration of booze is a sure-fire way to stimulate dissent.* No different in this case. The Finns are very attached to their time-honored "Two Can Rule." The story is here (if you read Finnish, which I don't).

*Full disclosure: my mother's family are Finns, so I'm passingly familiar with the native fondness for alcohol. Some might even say that the Finnish side of my heritage is overrepresented in my personal behaviour.

Personally, my experience is that the Finns are a lot more likely to fight if you give them a little booze. Otherwise they just lapse into their natural depressive state.

h/t to Jari.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


My company is entirely a local operation. I'm the only expat in the entire outfit. As I'm fond of saying, it's "1800 Afghans and me."*

*The reaction that gets from other expats at the fancy parties in their comfy villas is priceless. One would think that I just told them that I lived in a cave with wolves, which is admittedly perhaps not too far off the truth.

Recently however, I have priviliged to spend a fair amount of time around South Africans*, with whom we are working on a couple of projects. Their experience and skills are immensely valuable to me for operation planning, and to my guys for tactical training. They also have one other key advantage, often overlooked but extremely useful in this environment: their language.

*Alternately known as Safers, or Safirs or Boers (pronounced "boor").

Afrikaans is an odd language, sort of a creole version of Dutch, with some elements of German, Zulu and English sprinkled throughout. Absolutely incomprehensible to most people, although those who speak Dutch or German* have some chance of understanding it.

*I speak a small amount of German, enough to find my way around Vienna and order food in a restaurant. Just enough to catch the occasional word in Afrikaans, but not enough to actually understand anything.

The fact that almost no one else speaks or understands Afrikaans allows the Safers to communicate with each privately and securely even in a room full of people. They often will drop into their native tongue right in the middle of a conversation, leaving the rest of us to wonder what they're talking about and slightly resentful at the possibility of private collusion. This is especially uncomfortable when they exchange a few quick words in Afrikaans, break out in riotous laughter, and then turn back to the group as if nothing has happened. Can't tell if they're talking about me, or just remembering a funny bit from the pub last night.

Still, as uncomfortable as it can be, the ability to switch back and forth from Afrikaans provides a mode of personal communication invulnerable to penetration. Better than the DoD's best radio encryption. I confess, I'm a little jealous.

All of this occurs to me because I'm almost constantly aware of linguistics differences, a result of communicating by hand signals, broken Dari, and simplified English. Such is my life nowadays.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Opening Day!

As many of you are no doubt aware from my private emails (as if you weren't aware without notification from me), today is the Opening Day. Once again, the Cubbies will don their fresh uniforms and take the field in a spirited attempt to capture the National League Central Division title.*

*Note that years of devoted fandom prevent me from raising the sights any higher than the Division title. Fans of a less perennially disappointing team begin the season dreaming of the League Championship series or even, dare we say it, the World Series. Cubs fans just think it would be nice not to suck this year. Or at least not suck until August.

I, of course, am stuck in a country without baseball. I don't mean that they don't have professional baseball teams here (they don't); nor do I mean that they don't play baseball here in school (not that either). I mean that no one, and I mean NO ONE, has even the slightest clue what baseball is. If you describe it as "American cricket" you might get a flicker of recognition from somebody who once had access to Pakistani cable television. Beyond the expats (whom I don't see much), there is simply no realization of the very existence of a game called baseball, much less the presence of an entire league of professional baseball players.*

*Note that I say "league" as opposed to "leagues." Anyone who knows me well will immediately be aware that there is only one true baseball league in America and that is the National League. That's not to say that there aren't immensely talented baseball players in the American League, just that at the end of the day they're not actually playing baseball.**

**People always challenge me on this (and by "people" I mean those mouth-breathing troglodytes laughingly referred to as White Sox fans), so I will explain in very simple terms so that even those whose brains are damaged by a season of high-altitude oxygen deprivation in the nose-bleed seats of Cellular Field can understand.

In baseball, as everyone knows, there are nine players on a team. This is understood. It is a given. It is a truth whose clarity is on par with the laws of physics and the constants of celestial motion. It quite simply just is. When an manager hands in his line-up card to the umps at the beginning of a game, there are nine names on the list. It has always been so. It always will be so. When the manager of the Chicago White Sox however, hands in his line-up card, how many names are on the list? That's right, there's ten names written there. Ten names is not baseball. Ten names is softball. You might as well add a fourth outfielder or another shortstop between first and second base. If I want to watch beer-league softball, I'll go to Lincoln Park where the beer is fresh and the seats are free.

OK, so perhaps that wasn't as simple as I intended, but who cares? White Sox fans generally can't read anyway, so they're probably sitting at their desks staring blankly at the glowing magic box in front of them and randomly punching keys with fingers made thick by a life-time of kielbasa and beer.

Right, where was I? Oh yes, Opening Day in Kabul. So, baseball fans (and softball fans for that matter) are pretty thin on the ground here. I won't be inviting a bunch of the neighbors over for a barbeque on the patio (not that I would anyway). I won't be rushing home from work after a hastily-arranged half-day (OK, so I just left for lunch and never went back) to flop down on the couch with a bag of peanuts and watch Soriano go 0-for-4. I won't be able to go out in my backyard at the seventh inning stretch with my trusty bat and beat a defenseless shrub into pulp after the bullpen walks three straight to load the bases. And I certainly won't be staggeringly drunk on the corner at 1060 West Addison screaming curses at the baseball gods four hours after the last out is recorded. I will do none of these things. Instead, I will suffer agonizing hours trying to maintain a wonky internet connection in hopes of the occasional score update.

This country keeps finding new ways to suck. Kind of like the Cubs.

The Boys are Back in Town

Apologies for using a Thin Lizzy song-title at the top of a post, but it neatly summarizes events here in Kabul. My boys got back safely late this afternoon, after deciding to cut short their trip south. They accomplished 90% of what we needed on the first day, so there was no need to stay overnight and risk a second day.

The only tense moments (for them) came towards the end, when there was some question as to whether or not they would get back into Kabul before dark. The roads outside of town are considerably less safe once the sun goes down. I, of course, was tense the whole time. Methinks I am going to have to get used to this if I'm going to last in this job.

Anyway, as hoped for, no contact, no trouble. And no donkey-related close calls either.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Indian Country

Since long before I got here, this company has had personnel spread out over most of Afghanistan. We currently operate in 31 of the 34 provinces here, which is a lot of people over a lot of ground.

Anyway, most of them are in relatively secure static sites, guarding infrastructure or telecommunications gear. Not without risks, but fairly easy as far as security work goes. In any event, I didn't send any of them to those jobs. I inherited the guys and the contracts.

Well, tomorrow morning at 0800 I have to send a three man team down south into Indian Country. OpSec prevents me from saying exactly where, but suffice it to say that its not the fun bits. Not as bad (or as far) as Kandahar or Helmand, but still pretty active. There have been several recent instances in the province of the Taliban getting frisky, and a not insignificant loss of life.

Needless to say, I'm not entirely comfortable with this. The idea of sending my guys down there is bad enough; its made considerably worse when several of them file into the office and I have to choose ones who go and the ones who get to stay.* To their credit, not one of them has even flinched at the possibility. Several even volunteered.

*I don't generally think of myself as all that old (although I am considerably older than I care to admit). It's times like these, looking at a trio of my guys, one of them as young as 23, that I suddenly feel very old indeed.

On the upside, I'm sending them in the company of one of our contacts from that area, a local who knows the whole province and all the movers and shakers. He should be able to keep them out of trouble. In addition, one of my expats is going, a South African veteran of most of the ugly bush wars of Africa in the 80s and 90s and more recently of Iraq. He is a top-notch operator, and I have total faith in his abilities and judgement.

On the downside, this is a recon mission to scout out a possible work-site and deliver a situation report to a client. This means they go in low-profile and try to blend with the locals. It also means that they won't be carrying weapons.*

*At least they're not supposed to. If the expat decides to carry, he isn't going to tell me, because for admin and legal reasons I'd have to tell him to leave it at home. He won't tell, and I won't ask.

So, at the end of the day, its my call. I get to be the one to pick the guys, and I'm the one responsible for giving them whatever support and backup I can. Routes are checked, contacts have been made, precautions taken. The QRF (Quick Reaction Force, with another South African) is prepped and ready to follow if the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan. Still, I'm sitting here sipping my newly-acquired Scotch and trying to think of the things we forgot.

Probably will end up being an in-and-out milk-run, no contact, no trouble. These things usually are. Thirty-six hours and they're back here joking and laughing about some near-miss with a stray donkey that wandered onto the road. Probably.

Friday, April 3, 2009


The Godfather arrived today from the UK (see here if you don't know who that is). As one would expect from a proper gentleman such as himself, he came bearing gifts. A fresh supply of reading material (always appreciated) and a choice selection of goodies.

My stock of essentials has been doubled by the new arrivals.

Two sets of beautiful healthy twins. What more could one wish for? And speaking of children, I also received this from my 3-year old nephew in London:

I'm not entirely positive, because I haven't spoken to the artist, but I believe that it is his rendition of the glorious sunrise over the Hindu Kush reflected in the greasy effluent of indeterminate origin that collects in every gutter.*

*Actually, I'm kidding. The green-gray slime in the gutters (and the streets and every low spot in this town) is not of indeterminate origin. It has a very specific and nasty point of origin which I won't go into here. Suffice it to say the Kabuli plumbing leaves something to be desired.


I'm sitting in my office, which is right next door to my bathroom, which is in turn right next door to my bedroom. This three-room suite (to be overly generous in its description) forms the backdrop of roughly 90% of my life.

Anyway, here's the thing. When you don't have much, one tends to cling to the little that one does have. For me, this usually manifests itself as jealously guarding my small bit of Afghanistan from unwanted intruders. Tougher than you might think in a nation in which every decision, large or small, is taken by committee consisting of whomever happens to be handy.

The point of all this is that today (Friday) is the Muslim holy day. Not generally an issue for me, more of a quiet holiday while everyone else is off at mosque. But today, The General has the duty at the compound, and surprisingly since I know his personal habits, he did something which I hadn't seem him do before. First, he walked right past me and into the bathroom, shutting the door. This was followed by the sounds of washing up, to which my reaction was admittedly somewhat uncharitable. However, I said nothing.

Then he comes out and marches right past me again into the office. Once there, he proceeds to unroll a piece of carpet that's been leaning in the corner for the past month. I thought it was scrap. Not so as it turns out, for this ratty old piece of carpet is actually (apparently) a prayer rug. This he immediately unrolls on my office floor, kneels down and begins his prayers.*

*I couldn't help but notice that his facing something closer to south, rather than the southwest that would have been towards Mecca. I neglected to point this out to The General.

Now, I'm not a big fan of religion in general.* But I make it a point not to confront the locals about Koranic or religious issues. They're not going to be convinced and the friction could be fatal to my job prospects.

*OK, I'm actually a committed and combative aetheist. Yeah, I know, poor choice of geography given my personal beliefs (or lack thereof).

I did however think it was kind of presumptuous for him to use by bathroom for his ritual ablutions, then my office for his weekly observances. Especially given that I was trying to watch Obama's speech in Strasbourg live on the BBC World.*

*He did very well, by the way, with some minor hiccups probably caused by a faulty teleprompter. French sabotage, perhaps? During the Q&A, he really came into his own, joking and talking casually with the crowd.

After about ten minutes of wailing away in Arabic (which he doesn't understand, only rote repetition), The General finished up and departed. At least he offered to fetch some more tea before he left.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Essentials

Well, I made another run over to Spinneys this evening (on my way out for dinner and drinks with a Brit businessman) and procured the fourth and last of the items which are essential for long-term survival in a high stress environment. First, of course, is cigarettes. I came with plenty of those (they serve a dual purpose as ice-breakers and personal stress-relief devices.)*

*I arrived with 800 cigarettes less than a month ago, and bought 400 more last week. I have approximately 100 remaining. That's roughly 1100 smokes in thirty days. Even accounting for the fact that the locals have bummed perhaps 200 off of me in that time, I still smoked a pack and a half a day for the last month. Yeah, I know, not good for me. Why don't you come here and tell me that.

Second is booze. I've had very little luck procuring alcohol, and I only brought a very small amount with me. While my cigarette intake has increased exponentially, my alcohol consumption has dropped through the floor (admittedly from an exceptionally high level previously). On the up side, I no longer wake up feeling like I'm going to die. On the down side, I no longer sleep. Steps are being taken on my behalf to rectify the deficiency of potable beverages.

Third is this lovely product of Austria. Right after excellent coffee, wonderful pastry and the occasional mass internment of Jewry, this is one of Austria's most well-known achievements:


Fourth, is the single greatest product of American ingenuity and cuisine, an homage to all that is simultaneously wonderful and decadent about America. I speak of course, not of the cheeseburger, the martini, the pizza or Cheez Whiz (all outstanding examples in their own right), but of the paragon of the American dietary pyramid:

Now I should be set for at least the next five days, at least until the peanut butter and Red Bull run out. After that, I won't be responsible for my actions. For those of you wondering if there aren't of survival that one might acquire here, rest assured that I have one of those as well, but I promised not to post pictures because it would make certain people nervous. Besides, that sort of thing is only for those times when one goes "outside the wire" and I would look pretty silly wandering around Logar Province with just a jar of Jiff Creamy and my winning personality.*

*And I will brook no argument about the brand or consistency of my choice of peanut spreads. It's got to be Jiff (with extra sugar!) and NEVER crunchy. It is, after all, peanut BUTTER. Who wants crunchy butter? Sugar and oil are the primary ingredients; peanuts are optional.

I apologize for the crappy quality of the pictures. Truth be told, those are the first digital pictures I've ever taken on my own camera. No shit. Welcome to the 21st century. I actually saw a good portion of Western Europe (not to mention lovely trips to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon) and took not a single picture of my own. I hope my memory is better than my judgement.

Language Skills

This is another repost* although I can't remember where I found the original quote. I have a sinking suspiscion that I'll be speaking like this by September.

*Yes, I'm being lazy today! Get over it. If you had the kind of day I had, you wouldn't feel like doing this either.
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".
I can already feel my own verbal abilities atrophying, since I'm often reduced to simple words, wild gesticulation, and a bizarre game of charades. How does one communicate "suicide vest" entirely with hand gestures?

He Shoots Because He Cares

This is a repost of something from the always-informative and usually entertaining Afghanistan Shrugged, the diary of a US Army trainer embedded with local forces (ANA) in eastern Afghanistan. His full blog can be found here.

I can't identify with the sentiment of the whole piece, since I'm in a much easier environment than him (Kabul ain't Kapisa!),* but I am impressed by the wit and determination with which he goes about the most difficult job in a counterinsurgency campaign. Working with, living with and training the locals is extremely challenging even under the best of circumstances, and this place ain't the "best of circumstances."

*Not sure if he's actually in Kapisa Province, but it sounds better than "Kabul ain't Badakshan."

I Shoot You Because I Care!

Dear Mr Taliban (ACM, AAF, Booger Eater, EOP, Bad Guy or whatever),
Over time I’ve received emails and comments on this blog that I’m insensitive to your culture. Evidently, I should endeavor to be more tolerant and politically correct in my quest to kill you with every means at my disposal.
After much self reflection I’ve seen the error in my ways and thought I’d write you a brief note to apologize for my actions and those of my compatriots in Team Vampire. I now see how my attempts to incinerate, ventilate and generally cause mayhem could possible hurt your feelings and offend your sensibilities. For that I apologize.
First, let me complement you on the bunker complex that we saw the other day. It seemed very nice and looked like you’d chosen wisely on the size. It appears to me that you didn’t overextend yourself financially building it. That’s great! I also hope that you didn’t use a subprime lender or an adjustable rate mortgage. This should alleviate any issues in the future about defaulting; having to walk away from the bunker complex.
The downside is that you selected this outstanding piece of real estate to launch rockets at American and Afghan soldiers. Thus, I had to destroy it. Maybe we should have served you with a notice to vacate but that didn’t seem prudent at the time. Really if you want to blame someone it should be the Air Force as they’re the ones that actually dropped the bombs. But, seeing as I’m a personal accountability guy I’ll take the blame for it. Sorry.
I also, thought that your headquarters were nice. Blowing it up on Christmas Eve may have seemed arbitrary and unfair. I can see how you’d think that. Really, let’s try to be honest with each other. Is there really a good day to have your building blown up? I don’t think there is. I also now realize that you don’t celebrate Christmas so the holiday season had minimal impact on you.
It did for me as I have a family at home who I’d rather be with; instead hunting you through the mountains. However, I’m here so it seemed like a good thing to do for the holidays. I may not see you on the 4th of July so I thought it best to have fireworks for Christmas. I empathize with you now that it may have been inconvenient for you. Once again sorry.
These people have pointed out for me that my culture is different from yours and that just because it’s different it’s not bad. I guess there may be some upside to throwing acid in little girl’s faces when they try to go to school, I just don’t see it though. I think I’d prefer to build schools for them and protect them as they learn to read and write. This probably offends you and my new life course shows me that I need to see the positives in everyone. If you’d like to explain this to me, I’d like to hear it.
It also may be confusing to you when I broke down your door in the middle of the night and arrested you for killing your fellow countrymen. This probably disrupts your sleep and thus you’re tired once you reach detention. In the future I’ll try to schedule these at times better suited to your rest cycle.
As far as the Geneva Convention goes, I have to follow it. This is nonnegotiable. Your actions though lead me to believe that you’d prefer to have your head cut off on the internet. This is what you do to anyone you capture, combatant or non combatant. I can’t accommodate this desire. I apologize for the fact that you’ll be given medical treatment and treated with dignity. Again I apologize profusely.
I’d also like to clear up some reasons why I’m here. There may be some confusion about this from all the claims swirling around in the news. Let me take you back about eight years when you were letting Osama chill out here.
“We should crash some planes into the World Trade Center” Osama suggested tentatively
“Gee Osama, won’t that piss off the Americans”? You must have asked.
“Yes” Osama stated with glee.
“They’ll probably come here and jack us up” you replied.
“No way bro, they’ll never come here and do anything to us” Osama claimed confidentially.
“Um; I don’t think that’s right, they’ll probably come here and be pretty pissed off” attempting to dissuade him.
“Don’t worry about it they’ll never do anything, you’re a nervous nelly” OBL replied dismissively
I hate to tell you this but you were right. It did piss us off and now Osama lives in some cave, can’t use a cell phone or email and craps his pants every time he hears an airplane. I know the nervous tick crapping is annoying but it’ll clear up once we kill him.
You should have gone with your gut and said no. Once we got here we decided it’s not that great that you kill and subjugate people and thus you’ve got me in your backyard. I really can’t take responsibility for your poor judgment on this one. But, I understand it was a persuasive discussion. Thought this might assist in a little self discovery. I’m a giver after all.
I won’t even go into the way you treat women. You’re just lucky it’s not my wife here because if you think I’m determined; she would lay waste to your ass and never stop. So, I did you a favor on that one. See, I can be nice.
Well, I just wanted to touch base with you on a couple of perceived issues and apologize for my poor behavior. In the future I’ll try to be more understanding as I hunt you to the ends of the earth and destroy you any chance I get. It will be with kindness and understanding.
If you’d like to discuss and resolve any of these issues just send me a grid to your location and I’ll be happy to meet you; or I could arrange for a delivery from the US Air Force it you’d prefer that. I can accommodate most requests.
So, have a great day. But don’t sleep too soundly because that noise you hear in the night may just be me. Oh yeah, if you ever get tired of picking on little girls or civilians you can come find us, but that might not be culturally sensitive.
Bottom line, I just want to say I’m sorry. Next time I shoot at you; it’s with love!

Quote of the Day

"None are so busy as the fool and the knave." -John Dryden

Which am I, I wonder? The knave for doing this job, or the fool for taking it? Or both? Or neither?

A better question is: what about The Boss?