Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Worst Job in Afghanistan

No, not mine, although it sometimes seems like it.

And not the ANP either, although I'm sure they think so every time they hit an IED or an ambush. I'm talking about these guys:

I have no idea what they're called in Dari/Farsi, but I refer to them as "ditch men." They're the guys who, for roughly $80 USD a month, get the charming job of scooping, scraping and sucking the stuff out of the drainage ditchs that line most major streets in Kabul.

In theory, the ditches are designed as a kind of stormwater drainage system to channel away rain water and keep the city from flooding. This, I suppose, they accomplish to a limited degree. Apparently, no one told the city engineers that in order for the ditches to function properly, the water has to first get into the ditch, which is unlikely when the streets are generally composed of hardpacked dirt. The fact that the concrete lip of the ditch is usually higher than the rutted track of the street doesn't help either. The swill they have to dredge out of these channels* is not only water and dirt. These things also serve as the preferred repository for any and all sorts of trash that Kabulis might wish to dispose of rapidly.

*With shovels and scoops, I might add.

In addition, and this is the really charming part, the primitive nature of Kabul's sewage treatment facilities and domestic plumbing arrangements mean that the mix is fortified by waste that should otherwise be chemically treated and buried somewhere.* Thus the traditional Kabul cocktail.

*Yeah, you know what I'm talking about here, right? No need for further details, I hope.

I've even seen dead dogs floating in these channels. And not freshly dead either. I suppose the dead cats just sink to the bottom.

The whole putrid mess mostly just sits there, alternating between slowly draining away and bubbling in the sun. Every once in a while, the ditch men come by and invest heroic efforts in trying to keep the channels clear. This they do, if it wasn't clear already, by hand. With a scoop.

And then they shovel the stuff into nylon bags (which are not leak-resistant) and load it into trucks to take somewhere I hope I never see.

No fancy equipment for these guys. They load those leaky bags of foul muck with their own two hands.

Yeah, you win. Your job is worse than mine.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Not a dove, but......

Word from the BBC that a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society has discovered a breeding ground for the rare species of warbler (it's a bird, I think) in a "remote corner of Afghanistan."* Probably Nimroz Province in the southwest part of the country, but they don't say for sure.

*Somewhat ironic to describe any part of this country as "remote." Is there a part that isn't remote? The whole damn place is disconnected from the rest of the world in all sorts of ways. To qualify as "remote" here, you really have to be out there in the boonies. Not for nothing do people refer to Afghanistan as "the 12th century, with cellphones."

By far the best part of the article is the conclusion:

While the scientists are excited by the discovery, they are concerned about the long-term survival of these birds.
Ironically the ongoing war and the remoteness of their location have helped their survival - but according to Mr Timmins, this might change.
"We don't wish a war-like situation on anybody. But once peace comes and development starts, you really do have to think about
what will happen to the natural environment," he said.

Yeah, like "peace" and "development" are coming here anytime soon. I think your precious birds are safe for a while longer.

Besides, if the price for some decent jobs and a functioning economy is that geeks from the WCS can no longer find birds that they thought were extinct, then that's a price I'm willing to pay.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


First the Finns, and now the Germans.

Finland announced that it's sending an additional 50 soldiers to bolster their already-impressive contingent of 120 troops on the ground.

Not to be outdone by the last country to give the Russians a right good kicking, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany announced that they were sending an additional 500 troops to increase their total in Afghanistan to somewhere around 4800.

Guess we'll need to open some new supply lines to the north to move all that extra beer. Won't need to move any ammunition, since the Germans and the Finns aren't allowed to shoot anybody anyway.

Things That Go "Boom!"

Another car bomb today in Kabul, this time on the Jalalabad Road out near Camp Phoenix. At least half a dozen wounded, but no word yet on how many killed. Apparently, it was a minivan packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer.*

*This is the stuff recently banned by the Afghan government, as it is way more useful for making IEDs than it is for actual farming. The same stuff used in the Oklahoma City bombings. New slogan for agribusiness companies: "Ammonium Nitrate! The preferred fertilizer of redneck assholes around the world!" Most farmers here don't use it anyway, preferring more traditional methods. Nevertheless, thousands of tons of the stuff is imported from Pakistan every year. Guess we know where most of it is going.

Two of our clients were in the area, returning to their residential compound after a meeting. Rolled up to the gate a few minutes after it went off (nice timing), and they said the Gurkhas on the ECP were spooked. Must have been a big one if even the Nepalese are spooked. Then again, it's their job to search the cars, so a boom like that would tend to remind one of the occupational hazards.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Generally speaking, I don't eat breakfast in Afghanistan.* I might scarf down a piece of fruit, or perhaps some yogurt (don't get me started on what passes for Afghan yogurt), but that's about it. Very occasionally (preferably when I don't have anything to do before noon), I'll have some oatmeal.

*Truth be told, I've never been much of a breakfast person. Probably has something to do with an excess of alcohol the night before, and the ability of cigarettes to curtail one's appetite.

However, once or twice a week, I ask my chai-bacha to bring some bulani in the morning.

*Chai-bacha is a Dari word that I basically made up. A combination of "chai" (tea) and "bacha" (boy). Doesn't actually exist in Dari, although it does seem to be catching on. Literally translated, it's "tea boy" meaning the guy who makes tea. But Jamshid, my chai-bacha, is actually way more useful than that. He's the cleaner, the gopher, the all-around assistant for anything that might come up. A more accurate English translation would be the Wodehousian "gentleman's gentleman."

Bulani is a simple, yet marvelous version of the potatoe pancake. Essentially, it's mashed potatoes fried in a pan with oil, and it looks something like this:

Heavy on the starch and the cholesterol, and somewhat burdensome first thing in the morning, but nevertheless a proper breakfast on a cold morning. The key, of course, is the recourse to the Tabasco Sauce and Chili Garlic sauce, which adds a bit of spice to the morning and clears the sinuses. Honey works too.
Next, the crazy, nauseating, absolutely wonderful mix that is an Afghan "burger."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random Afghan TV Fact of the Day

Having spent a fair amount of time in the UK, I'm familiar with the breadth and depth of British humor. Some of it appeals to me (i.e. Monty Python, Coupling, Yes, Minister); much of it (Fawlty Towers, Blackadder) leaves me unimpressed, and some of it (Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances) is downright awful.

That said, I've always been baffled by the international appeal of this guy. He's quite the institution in the UK, wildly popular in France and hardly unknown in the US. Now I can confirm that, although he's not a household name here, he certainly has the ability to make a roomful of Afghans giggle like schoolgirls. And I'm talking adult male Afghans, men of serious demeanor and professional bearing. A former General and a serving Colonel in the bunch, and they were all about to piss themselves at the antics of the funnyman and his little yellow car. Perhaps it's the nonverbal style, perhaps it's the funny faces, I don't know.

I confess that although I don't generally find him funny, he's a lot funnier when everyone around you is laughing too. Guess I'll have to add Mr. Bean to the list along with Bob the Builder as TV personalities that Afghans can't get enough of.

Monday, January 18, 2010

BlogRoll Pt. III

Final additions to the blogroll, divided into two groups.

The first group are blogs that deal with military affairs, especially counter-insurgency operations, and with defense policy more generally. As I said before, if you just come here to make sure I'm still breathing and read about the most recent bit of Afghan lunacy, then these blogs are probably not for you. Fair enough. However, if you have any interest in current defense policy, I can assure you that these are some of the best sources of analysis out there.

The second group is a diverse collection of foreign policy, international relations and political blogs, with a couple of completely unrelated ones that I included just because I like them. Note that I have not included many of the major, more established blogs here, mostly because I don't read them. I did include several that are written by former colleagues or classmates of mine. Perhaps that will provide them the incentive they need to start posting on a more regular basis.

You know who you are. Get to work.

Life in the Big City

By now, most of you have probably heard/read about the fighting in Kabul this morning. If not, a decent BBC summary is here.

Short version is that around 0930, approximately twenty Taliban stormed several buildings in downtown Kabul near the Ministries of Finance and Justice. At least one of the buildings was a popular shopping center. The apparent intent was to disrupt the swearing in ceremony for the new members of Karzai's cabinet, which was taking place at the Presidential Palace down the street.

So I got to start the day standing on my balcony with a cup of coffee, being serenaded by the sound of not-so-distant automatic weapons fire and the occasional explosion of a rocket. This time, they really came to play for keeps. Kalashnikovs, PK machineguns, RPGs, they brought the works with them today. And at least one car bomb, perhaps two. More significantly, some of my guys who were in the area report that at least some of the attackers were wearing body armor. That is highly unusual for the Taliban. Given their tactics and choice of targets, they were quite obviously suicide attackers and had no intention of living out the day.

Put those two things together in your head for a minute: suicide attackers WITH body armor. That's not quite the contradiction it seems at first glance. In fact, it makes perfect sense if you think about it. These guys have two goals: 1) kill as many of their enemies as they can, and 2) keep fighting long enough to seriously disrupt life in the capital. As it turns out, they did pretty well on both counts, partly because their body armor allowed them to make the fight last longer than it should have.

After storming a couple of buildings (and making an attempt to gate-crash the ill-fated Serena Hotel)*, the Taliban reportedly set up on the roofs of some of the buildings in the area, with a commanding view of several major streets. It took several hours of heavy fighting for the ANP commandos to regain control. As of right now, they think that maybe one or two are still on the loose somewhere in the area. Guess I'm not going out to the bar tonight.

*If any of you ever come to Kabul, DON'T stay at the Serena. Don't get me wrong. Lovely place, top-notch service and an enclosed garden that almost makes one forget that you're in Kabul. However, the place is magnet for bad guys.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

BlogRoll Pt. II

Another section to add to the blogroll on the right, this time focused on the private security industry. Key among this group is the ever-useful Feral Jundi, which serves as a information aggregator for the entire industry. It was Matt at Feral Jundi that provided the impetus to actually get around to adding my blogroll in the first place.

Also in there is the personal blog of Eeben Barlow, the former CEO of Executive Outcomes, perhaps the most successful (operationally speaking) of all the modern PSCs. For a few years in the 1990s, they were the most feared and respected outfit in southern and western Africa.

For those of you who don't care about the private security industry, and just come here to read my latest ruminations on life at the ass-end of the world, feel free to ignore all this stuff.

Christmas Photos

No, not photos of my Christmas (you'll have to talk to my brother about those), but photos from a friend's family Christmas in the States. Obviously, I won't post them here, but rest assured they are what one expects from Midwestern American Christmas pictures. A properly-decorated tree, a room full of presents, various states of excitement in the kids, etc.

The interesting thing is that I asked my friend to send me some photos because some of my guys had been asking me about Christmas. They are of course aware of the holiday, and aware that it is (traditionally) a Christian holiday. Some even know the basic story behind it (baby, wise men, guiding star, etc.).*

*Although they seem puzzled by the idea that a baby born in the stables could somehow be important. In a nation full of people of humble beginnings, they still look slightly put out when they learn that Christ was allegedly born next to a donkey. One even asked me if there were pigs in the stable, preumably because pigs are considered unclean under Muslim tradition. No, I don't think so, I said, but I'm not sure he believed me.

They were however, deeply impressed with the variety and volume of presents that the children of this particular family received.* They were also intrigued by the TV in the background of one of the shots. "Is it plasma? Is it HD? Does he have one in every room?" For the record, it appeared to be a standard American TV set, and it's not like Afghans are unfamiliar with TV. They just think that Americans have more and better TVs than most (which is probably true).

*And I think it's fair to say that my friend's family is not overly lavish at Christmas. Sure, the kids get some good stuff, but not anymore than most kids at this time of year.

By far the most important topic of conversation upon viewing the photos was the children themselves. You see, this particular friend has three boys (a great strain on their mother, I'm sure). In a male-dominated society, boys are particularly prized as children and several of my guys remarked that my friend must be particularly blessed by Allah. Not bloody likely that Allah had anything to do with, I thought, but of course I kept that sentiment to myself.

P.S. One Afghan even asked, somewhat furtively, if the woman in one of the pictures (my friend's wife) was married. He's in the market for a bride, and apparently looking farther afield than his own clan. I told him that she was already married. He was visibly disappointed.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I finally got around to adding a blogroll to the sidebar. The first additions are blogs on or about Afghanistan that I read regularly. All of them are good (that's why they're in my Google Reader), but I want to highlight a couple that standout above the rest.

Abu Muqawama is the nom de guerre of Andrew Exum, a former US Army Ranger who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He's written extensively about both theatres, including this book. Currently, he's a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS bio here), which has been described as the "go to think-tank on military affairs."

Tim Lynch at Free Range International is a former Marine who now operates as a private security consultant in Afghanistan, mostly out of the eastern city of Jalalabad. He's often pretty harsh on ISAF tactics and operations (not wrong, just harsh), but he knows this country well, having operated here for a long time. Plus, he's an tireless advocate of the low-profile approach (i.e. no armored vehicles with tinted windows, nowrap-around sunglasses and no prominently displayed firepower). Since I rely on the low-profile approach to keep myself and my clients safe, it's helpful to see how others do it. He also has a crew of co-bloggers (old Afghan hands like himself) who contribute regularly.

There will be further additions to the blogroll in the future, both under Afghan Blogs and in some new categories. If anyone has any suggestions, please send me a link and I'll check it out.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Power Outages

One of the little things that struck me as odd when I first arrived (one of about a thousand such things) was the fact that cigarette lighters sold in Kabul all have a small flashlight built into the end. These are not fancy, expensive Swiss Army lighters; these are just the cheap, crappy plastic kind that you get at 7-11 in the States for 75 cents. Here they're even less, around ten Afghani, which is approximately 20 cents.

So I couldn't figure out why almost every lighter sold here had this tiny flashlight built-in. Certainly it raised the cost slightly, and every penny matters to most Afghans. So why would they all elect to buy these odd lighters? Even the people who didn't smoke had them!

Of course, at the time I was living in a shady hotel that had one redeeming feature: a pair of powerful new German-made generators which kicked on automatically when the city power grid went down. The lights flickered for a minute or two, but mostly I didn't even notice when the power was out.

Now that I live in private quarters at the mercy of the city power grid, and with my only backup a tempermental diesel generator that probably came into Afghanistan with the Soviet 40th Shock Army in 1979, I have discovered the reason for the flashlight-lighters. When the power goes out (which it does every day and most nights, sometimes for as long as eight hours), it's really handy to have a tiny light in your pocket so you don't stumble on the stairs or accidentally pee in the sink.

Not that I've done that. Recently.

Back Home

In my last post, on Christmas Eve, I mentioned that this site might go dark for a few days while I worked off the damage done by copious amounts of Jack Daniels consumed in a Dubai hotel room. Well, obviously it's been a little longer than "a few days."

While I did positively pickle myself that evening, the real reason for my lapse in blogging was that I spent two very pleasant weeks in London trying not to think about Afghanistan and this job. Not entirely successful in that, but still it was nice to get away. However, now I'm back in the Rockpile, so I guess it's time to go back to work.

About ten minutes ago, I received a nice welcome home from the bad guys, delivered as usual with a very loud boom. Loud enough to rattle the windows and send me out to the balcony to see what's going on.*

*Yes I know, when things blow up, the preferred response is NOT to go outside, but I'd rather know what's going on then sit here in ignorance. If the bad guys are up to no good, I want to know where they are and what they are doing.

Apparently, a rocket struck the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, which is the swanky* bit of town where the big foreign companies and NGOs have their fancy villas. Not my neighborhood, but when you're talking 122mm rockets a few streets over is still too close.

*"Swanky" of course being a relative term. They still don't have paved roads and the primary means of trash collection is by hungry goat, but the villas are nice.

And just now, the power went out, which means either A) the bad guys are being mischievious little bastards and messing with people, or B) someone in the Ministry of Energy forgot that they occasionally need to perform routine maintenance. Even with the explosion, my bet is still the latter.

So, I could go downstairs and start the generator, but I think I'll just sit here in the dark and tend the fire in my bokhari.*

*Dari for "wood burning stove," the heating as opposed to the cooking kind. Only source of heat I have during this winter. I've conclusively proven that almost anything will burn if you pour enough diesel fuel on it.

Now if I could just find where I put that bottle of Jack Daniels. I'm pretty sure there were a couple of shots left.