Thursday, December 24, 2009

NORAD and Santa

This has always been one of my favorite stories about the softer side of the American defense establisment (or the military-industrial complex, if you prefer).

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.


Lest you think I was kidding when I wrote one of the interliner notes on this post, here is confirmation that DBIEDs do exist.*

*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.

Merry Freakin' Christmas

So I'm sitting in a hotel room in Dubai on Christmas Eve, which, I am fairly certain, is not the ideal place to spend such a holiday occasion, even for a grumpy old pessimist like myself. Despite my general disdain for the holiday season, there is something especially depressing about a solo hotel room in a faux-Arabic country on Christmas Eve. Enough to drive one to drink.

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

Pundit Pablum 2

Yet another quick post in the new series of pundit take-downs I've been calling Pundit Pablum. Maybe the name will stick, but I'm not overly fond of it. Just can't find anything better to play off of "Pundit."

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

Pundit Pablum

I generally avoid commenting on the the various political-military debates about Afghanistan on this site. That's partly because both of my loyal readers (thanks mom and dad!) don't really care about that stuff, and partly because I would be loathe to give the impression that I'm some grizzled frontline soldier down in Paktika who's life is directly affected by the decisions made in D.C. In truth, the causal link between U.S. government policy and my job, although significant, is highly indirect. Washington sets the stage (by deploying the troops) and adjusts the conditions (by spending the money), but it's not like I have to go out on a search-and-destroy mission because word came down from the Pentagon.

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


Back in Kabul after a particularly harrowing trip out east to the Tora Bora region. I'll post some details later, but for now it's enough to say that nothing went "boom" near me while I was on the road.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Down South, The Return

Although we finished our business on the base at Spin Boldak within a day of our arrival, one can't just hop in the car and zip back to the airport. Kandahar Province in general is pretty nasty, and the stretch of road between Spin Boldak and Kandahar City is particularly dodgy. Plus, we were dependent on our hosts/client to provide the transportation. When one is hoping for a favor, it's best not to put conditions on it.

In this case, the favor was not a small one. It's technically not their responsibility to get us back and forth to the airport, and before you protest that "It's simply the nice thing to do!", remember that the trip from the airport to the base required two armored trucks, four PSDs and enough automatic weapons to keep a Latin American dictator happy.

For the reverse, we were going to require essentially the same load-out. The complications were that, this time, we had to presume that the bad guys 1) had seen us arrive at the base or were otherwise tipped off, 2) knew that we were not part of the regular rotation and therefore would probably be leaving again shortly , and 3) because of our in-and-out schedule, would assume we were VIPs (we're not).

The preferred tactic in this area is VBIEDs*, or Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, better known as carbombs.** They just nuzzle up close in heavy traffic, shout a prayer to Allah and push the button.

*Sometimes the militaries love of acronyms kind of gets out of hand. IEDs, VBIEDs, SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) and, my personal favorite, the DBIED (Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Device.) Yes, they actually have those.
**IEDs and carbombs, the Irish' contribution to modern life.

The U.S. military's solution to this devilish problem is (not surprisingly) to throw money and technology at it. They've deployed all sorts of fancy jammers, scramblers and "black-boxes" to Iraq and Afghanistan, with mixed results. The bad guys have simply reverted to bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and two wires attached to a car battery.

We, of course, have no access to the fancy Pentagon magic, but the PSDs we were riding with used an approach more psychological than technological. Quite simply, we left at 4:00 o'clock in the morning. Even the Taliban has to sleep, and in the hours before dawn the roads are clear. The only other vehicles on the road are trucks running to and from the Pakistani border and the occasional mini-bus making an all-night run between Quetta and Kandahar. The disadvantages of driving at night are outweighed by the advantage of having a considerably reduced number of potential threats to monitor. Plus, these guys know the route so well they can drive like NASCAR champions and brake just before speed bumps they can't even see. Sounds crazy, but these guys are professionals and I was willing to trust their judgement. And they were right.

The downside of leaving before dawn was that we arrived at the airport with six hours to kill before our flight. Waiting at any airport for six hours is like six years in Purgatory, but the euphemistically-named Kandahar International Terminal is worse than most.*

*Not to be confused with Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, which is the military-side of the airfield. I'm sure over there they at least had hot coffee. And chairs.

However, I once again found myself the beneficiary of traditional Afghan hospitality. While the guard at the gate couldn't let us into the airport until it officially opened at 9:00, he was kind enough to let us share his fire and fetch us some chai while we waited. Then, once we were actually in the airport proper, it took only five minutes of conversation to secure a comfortable seat on the couch in office of the Deputy Commander of airport security, where we waited out our time, sipping tea, eating biscuits and hard-boiled eggs, making small talk with various Border Police officers, and watching Hindi music videos.

I don't know if he would have done this for anybody who came in that morning (I doubt it), but it's fair to say that he didn't have to be pushed or cajoled into it. As soon as he understood our situation, his first response (like a good Pashto) was to say, "Well come to my office and have breakfast and we'll pass the time together." He even summoned the local airline rep to his office to arrange our tickets in person.*

*The Pashto code of hospitality, or Pushtunwali, has been alternately praised and excoriated (and misrepresented) in the public press, but in this case it really worked in my favor.

When the flight arrived and was ready to board, he personally escorted us to the plane, bypassing all the security checks and lines, and made sure we got seats in business-class. All in all, a stellar performance completely at odds with my notions of airports, bureaucrats and police. The only wrinkle was a slight delay in the departure while we waited for a Predator unmanned drone to land and taxi off the runway. It does somewhat shake one's faith in the safety of air travel to see a plane with no pilot land in front of you. Makes me want to get up and check the cockpit, just to make sure there is someone flying my plane. Then again, in a country with a surplus of Russian pilots and black-market vodka, maybe I'd rather not know.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Down South

Yet another trip into the shitty bits of this country last week.* This time it was a flight down to Kandahar and then a tense hour-long ride out to the Pakistani border and a decrepit little town called Spin Boldak.

*And, yes, I realize that "shitty bits" is a relative term. It's not like Kabul is a glorious thriving metropolis full of interesting sites and fun things to do. Unless of course you're a garbage-eating goat, in which case Kabul is probably pretty close to Paradise.

The base that was my destination is a slapdash modern facility built within the walls of a ruined British fort from about 1860. Typical military construction from the British colonial period in Afghanistan, mud-brick walls about three feet thick, complete with a parapet and crumbling battlements. Plywood and sheet metal guard towers added more recently to provide overwatch of the approaches. The contradictions inherent in this country really struck me on the second night there when I was out having a cigarette at about three o'clock in the morning. I'm standing there, puffing away and musing on the manpower needed to build this massive mud wall, and I hear a slight cough from twenty feet above me. One of the wall guards, nearly invisible in the blackness, is up there, scanning the surrounding terrain with night-vision googles. 21st century technology in a 19th century fort.

The purpose of the trip is to rectify a problem we've been having with the site guards at this base. Suffice it to say that we had some very disgruntled employees on a remote job site. Our guards, whom we inherited from the scumbag who had this contract before us, have been at this post since February without a break. As they are Nepalese Gurkhas rather than locals, they can't very well run into to town for a bite to eat and to catch a show. Despite what you might read in the London Times, the Nepalese are no more popular here than Westerners. In fact, in the case of security guards, even less so, since the locals assume that they're taking good jobs away from Afghans. Some truth to that, in my opinion.

Our client down south is a prominent (some might say notorious) U.S. private security company that has a contract to train the Afghan Border Police. Because of their past.....indiscretions (to put it mildly), they're not allowed to provide security at their own training facility, so they subcontract that to us. The problem is that the Gurkhas on-site were royally screwed by both their previous employer and the site management of the U.S. company. As a result, they trust no one anymore, including me. And, it should be pointed out that due to my company's total inability to manage our finances, these guys had not been paid in three months. Obviously, they're not in a happy place, literally or figuratively. So, it falls to me to bring them their back pay and try to convince them to stay on the job.*

*My hand in these negotiations is somewhat strengthened by the fact that they have no where else to go. If they stop working, they have to leave the relative security of the firebase. And since none of them have valid visas or work permits, they run the serious risk of being arrested and imprisoned by the Afghan police. If the Taliban doesn't get them first. Harsh, but true.

Two days of heated discussions, somewhat calmed by the dispensing of large amounts of cash, and we reach a tentative accord. They will go back to work at least until 15 January, and I get to head back to Kabul mission accomplished (sort of).

Now comes the tricky bit. How do I get home again?* That story in the next post.

*And yes I realize that referring to Kabul as "home" is a sign I've been here too long.

The March Up-Country

This post was supposed to go up back in November, but it's one of those that has been languishing in my Drafts folder. At the time, I thought this trip was pretty interesting, but all the traveling I've done since then makes this seem a little tame.

I realized this evening that I neglected to post the photos from my second trip a couple of weeks ago. The first one, a quick chopper flight down to Uruzgan is detailed here. The very next day, barely recovered from six hours in a somewhat dodgy Russian helicopter, I piled into a LandCruiser with three of my guys and drove up to Sheberghan.*
*For those unfamiliar with Afghanistan, Sheberghan is about an hour west of Mazar-i-Sharif, the major city in northern Afghanistan.

The drive was supposed to take about seven hours, but I knew better than to take a locals word for it. This is still a part of the world in which some people describe the length of a journey by reference to how many cigarettes you can smoke on the way. As in, "the drive to Jalalabad is a six-cigarette trip (i.e about three hours)."

Well, as I expected, we left almost two hours behind schedule and hit the morning traffic trying to get out of Kabul. As a result, we didn't get to the interesting bit of the trip until mid-morning. The interesting bit, specifically, is this:

Apologies for the crappy picture. I'm still trying to get the hang of using my new camera, and truth be told, I'll slightly reluctant to whip it out at every opportunity. Don't want the locals to take me for a tourist.

To be clear, when one drives the Salang Pass through the Hindu Kush, one doesn't really go through the mountains as much as one goes over the mountains. Sure, there are some tunnels* but basically navigating the pass consists of going up one side of the range to a ridiculous altitude and then back down the other side. All the while clinging for life to a narrow road scraped out of the side of the mountain while Afghan drivers compete to see who can be the craziest sonofabitch on the road.

*The tunnels in the Salang Pass (there are about half a dozen) are impressive feats of modern engineering. Sure, they're barely wide enough for one lane of traffic each way, they have no lights other than occasional holes blasted in the rock and they're constantly filled with a choking cloud of dust and diesel fumes, but still impressive nonetheless. Imagine a carnival-style Tunnel of Love, except with eight-ton trucks going both ways, zero visibility and no cheesy romantic music. Oh, and no women.

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.

After another five hours in the car (and about twenty more cigarettes), we finally pulled into Sheberghan around dinner-time. We had been talking about getting something to eat before we reached our ultimate destination. At one point, I mentioned that I like mantu, which is a sort of Afghan-style ravioli. This, as it turns out, was a bit of a tactical error, since the supervisor who was with us had thoughtfully phoned ahead to his family who lives in Sheberghan and asked them to prepare dinner for us and make sure that mantu was the main course.

Hospitality is very important here, and once the invitation was extended, I couldn't turn it down with causing offense. So, I soon found myself sitting on the floor (as one does here), having dinner with my guys, the entire extended family (males only) and a random collection of neighbors, strangers and a couple of shady characters. I'm pretty sure that at least two of these guys were Taliban who were in town on holiday. The mantu, however, was excellent.

After dinner, we dropped off our guys at the base where they'd be working, had some meetings with the site manager and the guards who were already there, and called it a day. Next morning, we got up and did the whole thing in reverse, without the mantu.

Wait, we have to cross that? Again?

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Many of you have noticed the lack of posts recently, and I must say I'm getting some rather snippy comments from the more civilized bits of the world. All I can say is "Keep your pants on!" I've been traveling a lot lately (with more to come) and haven't had a chance to keep this site updated. Things in Afghanistan don't work quite as smoothly as one would hope; everything takes four times as long as it should and my posting schedule is no exception.

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.