Thursday, December 24, 2009
Allegedly, the whole thing got started in 1955 when a department store in Colorado Springs set-up a phone number which local children could call and talk to Santa. They misprinted the number, and the calls were routed to the new NORAD Ops Center at Cheyenne Mountain. A quick-thinking USAF sergeant on desk duty that night, realizing the child on the other end of the line was not a Soviet spy, gave the kid a radar fix on Santa's location and assured him that the USAF was tracking St. Nick and that presents were on the way. Word got around, and the calls started to come in droves. With no official guidance or instruction, the night watch staff at Cheyenne Mountain simply continued to give rather vague updates of Santa's current position, thus reassuring an entire generation of local schoolkids. Hence, a tradition was born.
The problem with that story is that NORAD wasn't founded until 1958 and Cheyenne Mountain didn't go operational until 1966, eleven years after the supposed first phone call from Colorado Springs.
Still, I like the story better than the reality.
*The NY Times story calls this a "horse drawn cart" but I suspect that is simply a manifestation of the journalists of the "Grey Lady" being unable to determine the difference between a horse and a donkey. Even in Kandahar, donkeys pull the carts.
The disturbing bit is that when I was down in Kandahar a couple of weeks ago, I considered staying at the Continental for the night. My ISAF contacts told me it was "perfectly safe." That's why I rely on the locals to tell me what's safe and what's not.
Fortunately, I was able to procure a bottle of my old standby at the airport, so the night's not a total waste.
Depending on how much I consume, this site may become extremely active or go oddly dark for a few days. There's a very fine line between inspiration and intoxication, and I usually tend to trample all over it. Besides, Dubai One is showing Gone With the Wind tonight*, and I'm a sucker for old movies.
*Yes, I know, not exactly It's a Wonderful Life, but then any true Jimmy Stewart fan would agree that It's a Wonderful Life is easily his worst movie ever.
Friday, December 18, 2009
This time the victim is Dov Zakheim, who usually writes good stuff for Foreign Policy. His recent piece talks about the contrast (as he sees it) between life in Afghanistan and life on the homefront. To Zakheim, there is a serious disconnect between what Americans do at home and what is going on here. He argues that American cannot continue to "pretend to be a nation at peace."
He may be right (in fact, I think he probably is), but his opening paragraph bears all the hallmarks of a journalist who is overstating the reality in order to persuade his audience of the overall point.
Kabul is a city at war. There are green zones and red zones, and roadblocks everywhere. The city is awash with a host of uniforms -- those of NATO states, as well as others, from Australia to Mongolia. Americans in uniform walk the streets fully equipped and armed. American government civilians wear body armor, as I did when making the short twenty minute walk from Camp Eggars to the U.S. Embassy.Here Dov reveals his ignorance (or hubris) by trying to paint an inaccurate picture of Kabul. I have no doubt that the short walk between Camp Eggers and the U.S. Embassy is "awash with a host of uniforms," but that's hardly true of the rest of Kabul. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen ISAF soldiers in Kabul outside of the main thoroughfares and the military district around Eggers,* and I've been here nearly ten months. They certainly don't "walk the streets fully equipped and armed." Quite simply, they're not allowed to go out. Personally, I think they should get out more, leave the body armor and tricked-out M4 carbines behind and just go shopping and meet locals, but the risk-averse U.S. military won't let them.
*Oh, and not to be nitpicky, but he misspells Eggers as well. What, Dov, didn't read the letterhead on the fancy stationary they let you take home?
While it's true that Kabul is not entirely safe (after all, I do travel with a PSD or a weapon, or both), to describe the entire city as an armed camp is simply not accurate, at least as far as ISAF is concerned. There are plenty of ANP and ANA on the streets, and lots of checkpoints, and a large number of private security guards, but the ISAF military presence is limited to an extremely small area and most Afghans go about their daily lives as best they can. If you're going to provide a travelogue on Kabul, you should at least get out to see the city.
And there are no "zones," green, red or otherwise, except perhaps on some staff officer's map in Eggers.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
However, occasionally I read stuff that just begs for a comment,* and I can't resist. So, I'm inaugurating a new class of posts which will address some of the more interesting, compelling, egregrious and just-plain-stupid stuff that comes from the various so-called experts. I'll try to keep these short so as not to annoy those of you who would rather hear about my close-encounters with Afghan culture.
*OK, so it's more than "occasionally."
And no, I don't have a snappy name for this new class of posts. I tried to come up with one but it's late and I'm tired. Maybe later.
For today's opening sample, I direct your attention to a brief piece that David Rothkopf wrote in advance of President Obama's recent speech on Afghanistan. His point was that the cost of the "surge" in Afghanistan ($30 billion by his calculation) was money better spent at home creating jobs and revitalizing the U.S. economy. I'm not enough of an economist to know if that's true (Keynsian multipliers being such tricky things to pin down), but this paragraph struck me as particularly ill-thought:
That's the choice Obama would be making with this troop commitment. In a nation ... or any enterprise ... with limited resources, everything is about asset allocation. And there is absolutely no credible argument that can be made that could conclude that spending $30 billion in Afghanistan is better for America ... or enhances our national security more ... than spending it in the United States.
Really? Is "everything about asset-allocation?" I mean, we're not running an investment club here. Aren't there other important factors to consider beyond simple economic math? No one argues that we're in Afghanistan to make money, and yet lots of people argue that we ought to stay. Surely they have something in mind other than return on investment.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
In this case, the favor was not a small one. It's technically not their responsibility to get us back and forth to the airport, and before you protest that "It's simply the nice thing to do!", remember that the trip from the airport to the base required two armored trucks, four PSDs and enough automatic weapons to keep a Latin American dictator happy.
For the reverse, we were going to require essentially the same load-out. The complications were that, this time, we had to presume that the bad guys 1) had seen us arrive at the base or were otherwise tipped off, 2) knew that we were not part of the regular rotation and therefore would probably be leaving again shortly , and 3) because of our in-and-out schedule, would assume we were VIPs (we're not).
The preferred tactic in this area is VBIEDs*, or Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, better known as carbombs.** They just nuzzle up close in heavy traffic, shout a prayer to Allah and push the button.
*Sometimes the militaries love of acronyms kind of gets out of hand. IEDs, VBIEDs, SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) and, my personal favorite, the DBIED (Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Device.) Yes, they actually have those.
**IEDs and carbombs, the Irish' contribution to modern life.
The U.S. military's solution to this devilish problem is (not surprisingly) to throw money and technology at it. They've deployed all sorts of fancy jammers, scramblers and "black-boxes" to Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed results. The bad guys have simply reverted to bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and two wires attached to a car battery.
We, of course, have no access to the fancy Pentagon magic, but the PSDs we were riding with used an approach more psychological than technological. Quite simply, we left at 4:00 o'clock in the morning. Even the Taliban has to sleep, and in the hours before dawn the roads are clear. The only other vehicles on the road are trucks running to and from the Pakistani border and the occasional mini-bus making an all-night run between Quetta and Kandahar. The disadvantages of driving at night are outweighed by the advantage of having a considerably reduced number of potential threats to monitor. Plus, these guys know the route so well they can drive like NASCAR champions and brake just before speed bumps they can't even see. Sounds crazy, but these guys are professionals and I was willing to trust their judgement. And they were right.
The downside of leaving before dawn was that we arrived at the airport with six hours to kill before our flight. Waiting at any airport for six hours is like six years in Purgatory, but the euphemistically-named Kandahar International Terminal is worse than most.*
*Not to be confused with Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, which is the military-side of the airfield. I'm sure over there they at least had hot coffee. And chairs.
However, I once again found myself the beneficiary of traditional Afghan hospitality. While the guard at the gate couldn't let us into the airport until it officially opened at 9:00, he was kind enough to let us share his fire and fetch us some chai while we waited. Then, once we were actually in the airport proper, it took only five minutes of conversation to secure a comfortable seat on the couch in office of the Deputy Commander of airport security, where we waited out our time, sipping tea, eating biscuits and hard-boiled eggs, making small talk with various Border Police officers, and watching Hindi music videos.
I don't know if he would have done this for anybody who came in that morning (I doubt it), but it's fair to say that he didn't have to be pushed or cajoled into it. As soon as he understood our situation, his first response (like a good Pashto) was to say, "Well come to my office and have breakfast and we'll pass the time together." He even summoned the local airline rep to his office to arrange our tickets in person.*
*The Pashto code of hospitality, or Pushtunwali, has been alternately praised and excoriated (and misrepresented) in the public press, but in this case it really worked in my favor.
When the flight arrived and was ready to board, he personally escorted us to the plane, bypassing all the security checks and lines, and made sure we got seats in business-class. All in all, a stellar performance completely at odds with my notions of airports, bureaucrats and police. The only wrinkle was a slight delay in the departure while we waited for a Predator unmanned drone to land and taxi off the runway. It does somewhat shake one's faith in the safety of air travel to see a plane with no pilot land in front of you. Makes me want to get up and check the cockpit, just to make sure there is someone flying my plane. Then again, in a country with a surplus of Russian pilots and black-market vodka, maybe I'd rather not know.
Monday, December 14, 2009
*And, yes, I realize that "shitty bits" is a relative term. It's not like Kabul is a glorious thriving metropolis full of interesting sites and fun things to do. Unless of course you're a garbage-eating goat, in which case Kabul is probably pretty close to Paradise.
The base that was my destination is a slapdash modern facility built within the walls of a ruined British fort from about 1860. Typical military construction from the British colonial period in Afghanistan, mud-brick walls about three feet thick, complete with a parapet and crumbling battlements. Plywood and sheet metal guard towers added more recently to provide overwatch of the approaches. The contradictions inherent in this country really struck me on the second night there when I was out having a cigarette at about three o'clock in the morning. I'm standing there, puffing away and musing on the manpower needed to build this massive mud wall, and I hear a slight cough from twenty feet above me. One of the wall guards, nearly invisible in the blackness, is up there, scanning the surrounding terrain with night-vision googles. 21st century technology in a 19th century fort.
The purpose of the trip is to rectify a problem we've been having with the site guards at this base. Suffice it to say that we had some very disgruntled employees on a remote job site. Our guards, whom we inherited from the scumbag who had this contract before us, have been at this post since February without a break. As they are Nepalese Gurkhas rather than locals, they can't very well run into to town for a bite to eat and to catch a show. Despite what you might read in the London Times, the Nepalese are no more popular here than Westerners. In fact, in the case of security guards, even less so, since the locals assume that they're taking good jobs away from Afghans. Some truth to that, in my opinion.
Our client down south is a prominent (some might say notorious) U.S. private security company that has a contract to train the Afghan Border Police. Because of their past.....indiscretions (to put it mildly), they're not allowed to provide security at their own training facility, so they subcontract that to us. The problem is that the Gurkhas on-site were royally screwed by both their previous employer and the site management of the U.S. company. As a result, they trust no one anymore, including me. And, it should be pointed out that due to my company's total inability to manage our finances, these guys had not been paid in three months. Obviously, they're not in a happy place, literally or figuratively. So, it falls to me to bring them their back pay and try to convince them to stay on the job.*
*My hand in these negotiations is somewhat strengthened by the fact that they have no where else to go. If they stop working, they have to leave the relative security of the firebase. And since none of them have valid visas or work permits, they run the serious risk of being arrested and imprisoned by the Afghan police. If the Taliban doesn't get them first. Harsh, but true.
Two days of heated discussions, somewhat calmed by the dispensing of large amounts of cash, and we reach a tentative accord. They will go back to work at least until 15 January, and I get to head back to Kabul mission accomplished (sort of).
Now comes the tricky bit. How do I get home again?* That story in the next post.
*And yes I realize that referring to Kabul as "home" is a sign I've been here too long.
On the far side of the pass and after losing count of the number of times I cursed myself for not having an updated will, we stopped for lunch at a roadside chaikhana. The looks one gets as a Westerner walking into a place like that, especially with a Kalashnikov under one arm, can be disturbing. A mixture of hospitality, awe, fear and loathing, often in rapid succession on the same face. Fortunately, when you travel with armed guards and a pocketful of US greenbacks, there are few negative emotions that can't be overcome.
I'm pretty sure the kid behind me is trying to convince the kid over my left shoulder to make a grab for my wallet, but he's trying to figure how likely I am to use that Kalashnikov. My PSD insisted on snapping this picture while we waited for the driver to refuel the Land Cruiser. The somewhat pained expression on my face is a result of 1) my general dislike for having my picture taken, and 2) a mind whirling with serious doubts about the provenance of the lunch I just ate. Meat yes, goat probably, age indeterminate but certainly past the prime of his life.
Speaking of PSDs, mine for this trip was Suleiman, one of my best guys. He's a Panjshiri, which means he's a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, a people with a well-deserved reputation for kicking the crap out of anyone who messes with them. The Panjshiris humiliated the Soviets for ten years, and then slapped the Taliban around for another ten. Not popular with most of the Pashtun Afghans, but utterly reliable fighters and their loyalty, once earned, is undying.*
*In Afghanistan, the concept of permanent loyalty is mostly nonexistent. As the saying goes, "you can never buy an Afghan's loyalty, but you can always rent it." This does not apply to Panjshiris.
This is Suleiman and myself on the far side of the Salang Pass, near a place called Saripul. He's actually a very nice guy and not nearly as mean as he looks in this picture. We stopped for gas, and as you do at an Afghan gas station, took the opportunity to have a cigarette.
Wait, we have to cross that? Again?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
That said, I have several new posts going up in the next 48-72 hours. I'm going to stagger them for the benefit of the Luddites out there who still don't use Google reader or some other feed system. If you're one of those people who has to manually come and check the site every day to see if there's anything new, then do so with greater frequency in the next few days or you're likely to miss something.