Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Perils of Recruiting

Working for an all-Afghan company (except myself, of course), one of the most common questions I get from clients and potential clients is, “How do you screen your guards so that you’re sure none of them are Taliban?”

The short answer is that we screen them carefully, conduct background checks with the government and insist upon at least three letters of recommendation from reliable sources.*

*Letters of recommendation may not sound like much to Westerners, but Afghans take it very seriously. An example of the power of the written word in a mostly illiterate society, I suppose. That, and the fact that if there is a problem later with a recruit, Afghans will actually track down the people who recommended him and give him a beat-down.

All of that however, doesn't always work perfectly. Sometimes you just have to sit down with someone and get an idea of their personal history.

Recently, one of my supervisors offered his friend for a position as a PSD (i.e. bodyguard). This friend, according to my supervisor, had lots of military experience, was very tough and spoke several languages, including Turkish, Russian, and Arabic. Sounds perfect, right? Except that bit about the languages was setting off alarm bells in my head. Lots of older Afghans speak some Russian, some percentage speak Turkish, and a small few speak some Arabic. But all three? Where did this guy learn all these languages? Certainly not in Afghanistan’s decrepit school system.

Turns out, upon further investigation, that he learned all these languages by traveling extensively as a young man to various parts of the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. Unusual, but not unheard of. Other than the Afghans who have more or less permanently relocated to Pakistan, there aren’t that many in Western countries, and the proportion of those that can afford to travel freely is pretty small. So initially I was impressed and eager to interview this guy.*

*Which would require a ‘terp, since in all of his travels he hadn’t learned English. Later on I realized that should have been the first indication that not everything was as it seemed.

The kicker came when my supervisor casually mentioned that his friend also spoke some Yugoslavian* and that’s when the picture began to come together. Further investigation was definitely in order.

*Yugoslavian is not actually a language. Serbo-Croatian is the language of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, but since this supervisor wasn’t even completely sure where Yugoslavia was, I figured it was understandable that he didn’t realize his mistake. In fact, he thought Yugoslavia was somewhere near France. Um…….no, not exactly.

Question: What do you have when you find a well-traveled Afghan with “combat experience” who speaks Arabic, Russian, Turkish and a little bit of Serbo-Croatian?

Answer: A very bad guy.

That’s right, you’ve got a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the “international jihadist movement.” In other words, not somebody I want anything to do with. Interview cancelled. Interviewee escorted out. Don’t want to know his name or where he lives (in case the NDS/FBI/CIA come asking about him later).

I learned later that this guy learned his Arabic in a Pakistani madrassa under the tutelage of “foreign instructors”* back in the 1990s, Russian from his time fighting alongside Chechens against the Red Army and the Serbo-Croatia from his stint fighting with the Bosnians in Yugoslavia. The Turkish came from an extended stay as a “guest” of the Turkish state security when he was picked up trying to pass through Istanbul on a fake passport.

*One guess who the “foreign instructors” were. Here’s a hint: some of them were probably business associates of this guy.

Needless to say, he accumulated his combat experience along the way. Basically, he had first-hand experience in most of the conflicts of the 1990s, all of it as a foreign volunteer helping out his Muslim brothers. Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, he was involved in all of them. I think it’s safe to assume that he wasn’t a Red Cross volunteer.

Now I have to wonder about the supervisor who brought me this guy.

Exactly how is he choosing his "friends?"

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Deep End of the Pool

So, a while back one of the locals comes to me and says, “Sir, we have a problem.” Generally, when one of my guys says that it means that they have been unable to do something that I asked them to do and they’re about to lay the blame off on someone else.

However, this wasn’t one of my guys. He was a local “fixer” that works for a subcontractor of one of our clients. Not normally somebody I’d have a lot of contact with, and before that day not somebody I knew more than in passing.

The tone of his voice and his body language immediately put me on my guard, hushed whisper, glancing nervously around, etc. I thought he was going to say that someone had been stealing, or that he was convinced one of my guys was a Taliban sleeper agent. Afghans love to maneuver themselves into the good graces of Westerners by speaking ill of other Afghans.

Not in this case. The “problem” he described to me really was a problem, not just for him but for our client’s entire operation. It seems that another local, a well-connected subcontractor, was muscling in other peoples’ business, forcing all the local subcontractors to use “his” vehicles, “his” suppliers, “his” security, etc.

This sort of cut-throat competition among Afghans for a slice of a big Western contract is pretty standard stuff. A big construction project is funded at levels that most locals can’t even conceive of. It’s not unusual for a construction job to be valued at $15-20 million USD, and that’s not even the really big ones. A good portion of that goes to the secondary and tertiary aspects of the job, like logistics, life-support and security. Everything from accommodations and food, waste-water treatment, trucks and equipment rental and high-speed internet or even satellite TV on the job site.

Naturally, when money like that is at stake, everyone (especially the locals) scramble all over themselves trying to grab a slice of the pie. Some of them are one step up from incompetent (a good portion are two steps below), many of them are companies that exist solely for the purpose of taking a cut and passing the work on to other locals, and a few are actually proper outfits that provide good service for good fees. And, on virtually every big job, one or two of them are little more than fronts for local criminal elements or ex-warlords.

For these guys, “standard business practices” involve strong arm intimidation of the other local contractors, trying to force them out of the bidding process, or making life difficult for them once they win a subcontract. Of course, the scumbags are always waiting in the wings, ready to capitalize on the “failures” of those subcontractors who fell victim to their tactics. It’s not unheard of for a local warlord to ambush the supply trucks heading to a remote job site, and when that results in a subcontractor unable to provide the items they’ve contracted for, a representative of the warlord shows up and offers to make the problem go away, usually by claiming that his security guys are better at protecting the convoy. Of course, “his” security guys are the same ones ambushing the convoy in the first place, so naturally when they get the job to deliver the supplies, the rate of ambushes drops off dramatically.

Normally, the big Western companies pay as little attention to this sort of local squabbling as possible. They’re here to build stuff (and take a huge chunk of US taxpayer dollars to do so), not get involved in the petty machinations of the locals. As long as stuff gets delivered, and services are provided, they generally don’t want to know who they’re dealing with. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes, and Americans are masters of intentional ignorance.

In this particular case however, the scumbag local (let’s call him Qasim, not his real name) was attempting not only to take business away from other local companies, but also insisting that the major US construction company utilize his services, and only his services, for all of their needs. Leaving aside that this is a breach of scumbag etiquette (Rule One: Don’t Involve the Westerners Directly), it also put the US company in a tough spot, since they had already written subcontracts with a variety of local outfits. If they back out on them now, those locals (some of whom are pretty well connected themselves) will scream to the government, which will bitch to the US Embassy about “bad faith” and the State Department-types (or AFCEE or US Army Corps of Engineers) will order a review of the entire contract. Best case: project is delayed by several months. Worst case: the whole project goes back out to tender. Bad news for everybody.

Qasim has been making rather crudely veiled threats to the staff of this US company, phoning them at random times to “casually mention” that he knew that a couple of their guys were on the way to Camp Eggers and what kind of car they were driving. Basically, saying “If I want to, I can hurt you guys. Make my happy or somebody gets snatched (or worse).” This obviously is an unacceptable security risk, so they came to us and sought our help. Mostly, they wanted additional guards and PSDs for their staff, as if throwing more guns into the equation would make the problem go away. Instead, we suggested that we send some people to chat with Qasim and see if there was a way to make him back off. Not by intimidation, ‘cause that generally doesn’t work with guys like that, but by accommodation. Perhaps a small fee, or a guaranteed piece of the next big contract, or maybe just employment for a few of guys as drivers or builders.

We were all set to do that when I walked into the client’s villa last week and found them all smiles and good cheer. “Problem solved,” they said, “no need to worry about Qasim anymore.” Needless to say, I was curious as to how they had managed to make this go away. Turns out, they didn’t have to. Someone did it for them. The official story is that Qasim was electrocuted by a faulty appliance while taking a shower (hey, it could happen). The unofficial story is that he crossed the wrong guy, insulted the wrong criminal, or screwed the wrong warlord out of his cut. Someone meaner and more ruthless than he was, evidently. But hey, you play in the deep end of the pool, you better know how to swim.

Welcome to Afghanistan, where business is a full-contact sport.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Road Trip

Almost midnight, and I just got the word that I'm making a run to Jalalabad tomorrow. The curtailment of sleep is a greater concern than any risk from the movement. The run to Jalalabad is pretty secure, with only occasional trouble along the way.

Admittedly, once we did run into a spot of difficulty on the way back, but generally speaking the trip is no big deal. Tangi, Surobi and the Darunta Dam area sometimes see some HiG activity, but not usually until late in the day.

Rule One: Avoid the ISAF convoys- favorite target of the bad guys, and prone to indiscriminate fire when they feel threatened.*

*A Mk 19 40mm AGL can ruin the day for everyone within 200 meters if the gunner has a brain cramp and decides that all Afghans are "hostile."

Rule Two: Avoid fuel trucks- second favorite target. I learned my lesson on this one six months ago.

Rule Three: Keep an eye on the driver, especially on the pass through the mountains. Afghan drivers' testosterone is probably the single greatest risk on this run.

Back tomorrow afternoon with any luck, but my go-bag is packed in case we need to spend the night out at the job-site. Extra ammo and a can of peaches, as always. And this time, I'm taking a bit more firepower than a pistol.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Darwinian Evolution, COIN-style

Thirty-six hours ago (Saturday morning), one of Operations Officers mentioned that there was fighting up north in Baghlan Province.

Yeah? And your point would be? There's hardly a province in Afghanistan that doesn't see some level of violence on a daily basis. Baghlan is by no means immune to that.

Except, here's the thing: the fighting was not between the Taliban and ISAF, or the Taliban and ANSF. So, was it Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) fighting the government, or international forces? Nope.

Instead, Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) had decided to duke it out with the Taliban, apparently over the rights to tax some isolated villages. (BBC story here).

When the bad guys start killing the bad guys, I make a point to stop whatever I'm doing and smile for a minute or two.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Death Valley

Back in the States, Death Valley refers to the desert on the border of California and Nevada, the lowest point in the U.S. Here, when people refer to Death Valley, they usually mean either the Tagab or Alasay Valleys, or the Arghandab down south.**

*Full disclosure, we have recruited in the Tagab and Alasay valleys. They can become no-go areas for ISAF forces, but with the right contacts they can yield some very tough people willing to work in extremely dicey areas.
**Although, in a nod to a certain conflict in Southeast Asia, all of those are also sometimes referred to by local American forces as "Happy Valley."

However, it does have another meaning, Death Valley Magazine, an online repository for useful information, reviews of the latest gear and the occasional bit of humor or commentary. The homepage is here. Chock full of good advice (check out this bit on the Greyman). Written by a consortium of guys, so they are able to to post something every damn day. Something I haven't been able to manage (yet).

Perhaps too esoteric for people not actually involved in this business,* but worth a look if you spend time in the shitty bits of the world, or enjoy reading about those who do.

*How many people outside of the PSC world really need a review of the latest in tactical gear? Or knives?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

In addition to being the one-year anniversary of my arrival in Kabul, Thursday the 4th of March is also an important day for reasons that have nothing to do with Afghanistan, COIN, Islamic fundamentalism or American foreign policy.

Yep, that's right, it's the first game of Spring Training for the Chicago Cubs!

At 1405 (that's 2:05 PM Central Time for those of you in the civilized world) today the Cubs take on the Oakland A's in glorious HoHoKam Stadium.*

*A fine stadium that I actually visited once, due to the over-indulgence of the former girlfriend** who was wise enough not to expect me to skip a visit to HoHoKam on a trip to Phoenix. It was August, so the Cubs weren't even in town then, but it was fabulous to go nonetheless. Somewhere, there are still some pictures of that day.
**I prefer the term "former girlfriend" as opposed to "ex-girlfriend" simply because of the negative connotations of the latter term. She, on the other hand, would probably prefer the "ex-" for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who knows me well.

Courtesy of the Daver over at View From the Bleachers, here's the projected starting line-up (for those who care):
  • Theriot SS- Always been a fan of "The Riot." Quick bat, quicker glove, has some trouble with consistency (and no serious power to speak of), but he's a gamer. Supposedly, the young phenom Starlin Castro will platoon at shortstop, which is good because we need to get an idea if this kid can really play.
  • Kosuke RF- Still a fan of the "The Fuk" despite the fact that he didn't quite rise to the (unrealistic) expectations placed on him.
  • DLee 1B- The old warhorse, somewhat more limited in his range now, with a nagging injury, but still one of the league's best firstbasemen, and a potentially game-changing bat.
  • Aramis 3B- Also a little long in the tooth, but also one of the best third basemen in the game. Power, consistency, good range at the hot corner, the whole package. If 'Rami and DLee have the years they're both still capable of, we're going to the playoffs.
  • Byrd CF- Don't know much about this guy, mostly 'cause I've been disconnected from the important things in life for more than a year. Good reports, we'll see.
  • Colvin LF- Ditto. Colvin who?
  • Fontenot 2B- Reminds me of Micky Morandini, the "Dandy Little Glove Man." Font is probably not that good (yet), but he's got talent.
  • Soto C- We'll see if he can return to his rookie-of-the-year caliber season of a few years ago. Calls a good game for a young catcher.
  • Wells RHP- Which Randy do we get this year? The "ooohh, that was nasty!" Randy, or the "Wow, he hit that really far!" Randy. Time will tell.
Man, I miss baseball. I might even watch a Yankees game, if it was the only game in town.

h/t to VFTB.

Mis(sed) Communication

One thing I forgot to mention:

Last night (Wednesday), I happened to be awake quite late, until around 0230 or so, and while having a final cigarette on my balcony before I turned in, I noticed that some of our guards at a site about a block away were rotating their positions. Although the guys on this job site are usually mobile through the night, conducting perimeter patrols and such, it’s usually only one or two at a time. Last night, it seemed that at least half a dozen were up and moving. It seemed odd, but I didn’t think it necessary to go check it out. If something was up, the duty officer would let me know, right?

As it turns out, not so much. I got up this morning and went to the office at the customary time, only to discover an email in my inbox from the client at the above-mentioned job site, stating that there was a “credible threat” against the government ministry which is right across the street from the job-site (and, needless to say, right across the street from my residence). This government ministry, so close to my house that I could probably spit over the wall of their compound from my balcony, was alleged to be a possible target of a VBIED/asymmetric attack that evening.

The duty officer, upon receiving this threat, alerted our guards at the adjacent job-site, but apparently it slipped his mind that a phone call my way would be advisable. Nice to know they’re thinking about me.

Fortunately, nothing went boom last night. We’ll see what happens tonight.

365 Days

After I got back to my place tonight, stoked up the fire and poured my customary cup of days' end coffee, I suddenly realized that today, 4 March, is the one year anniversary of my arrival in Kabul. Since it's Thursday, and therefore tomorrow's on off-day (sort of), I promptly poured out the coffee and went for something stronger.

(Yes, I realize I should write some sort of One Year Retrospective Post or something, but I honestly can't think of what to write. Maybe something later this evening, depending on how fast my typing skills degrade.)

Not that there is any great reason to celebrate, but I thought I should mark the occassion somehow. Not in the mood to try and hit the town tonight, so I guess follow the immortal (and underrated) advice of George Thorogood and the Destroyers and "Drink Alone." After George sets the mood, perhaps some more classic 70's rock (Journey, Styx, Foreigner, maybe a selection of Skynyrd if I'm feeling particularly red-neckish).

Let's see, what do we have in the cigarette-and-liquor storage cabinet?

1) Two cartons of smokes- nice to know I won't run out, but not exactly what I'm looking for.
2) A pint of.........Chivas Regal?!? Really? It was a gift from The Godfather when he was in town recently. What does he think, I'm a pimp? Maybe I should get myself a big hat with a feather and a purple crushed velvet suit.
3) Yet another bottle (full) of Whyte and MacKay's Blended Scotch- Mssrs. Whyte and McKay have obviously not quite perfected the blender's art yet (despite being in business for over a century); not one of Glasgow's finer products.
4) The true prize, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label- blended Scotch in general is not to my taste, but at least this is high-end blended (and quite hard to get nowadays in Kabul). Save that for later, I think.

So, I guess we start with the Chivas (and maybe some Curtis Mayfield or Barry White tunes to match, just to continue the pimp theme), and then move on the W&M's. If the bad guys blow something up tomorrow morning, I'm sleeping through it this time. Unless it's my front door, in which case I hope I can find my weapon and my pants before they get to the third floor.

Update: The Chivas is gone. Next step is the W&M's.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dust and Mud

One thing have as yet been unable to figure out about Afghanistan (one among many things) is the atmospheric physics of this place. When it's warm and dry, the dust* is choking and pervasive, and when it rains that same dust turns to cloying, suffocating mud.

*Afghani dust is unlike any dust I have ever encountered. It's not the yellow cake of the Middle East, more wind-blown sand than dust, and it's not the gritty, gravelly dust of the American Southwest.** It's not the stinging, pulverized rock of North Africa, like invisible spirits are throwing tiny fistfulls of gravel in your face. And it's not the white, pulverized limestone of certain Mediterranean islands that coats everything like flour.*** Afghani dust (or khaak-baad in Dari) is a sui generis element, distinct in both form and function from any other type. Geologists should come here just to study the dust.
**The dust of the American Southwest, in my limited experience, is more akin to flying dirt. Admittedly, "my limited experience" consists of having to consume a slice of wedding cake that was positively black with the stuff during a particularly ill-advised and windswept outdoor Western-themed wedding in Arizona.
***And yes I know that paragraph makes me sound like quite the world-traveler, but I can assure you that is not the case. Those four examples constitute the all-too-short and near-comprehensive list of all the interesting places I have ever been. Well, not counting Arizona obviously. Arizona is not all that interesting.

The dichotomy between dust and mud here is perennial and all encompassing. No corner of this country (at least not one I've found thus far) is immune to the twin effects of these two elements, which are really no more than the solid and semi-liquid form of each other. Sort of the yin and yang of the dirt family.

But the thing I can't figure out is the behavior of the crucial element in the dust/mud equation, namely water. Specifically, it never seems to evaporate. It must, or else there wouldn't so much dust in the summer months. And any quick survey will show that, despite Afghan claims to the contrary, this is not a country well-endowed with water resources.* It is largely an arid, dessicated place.

*Afghans living in certain areas will proudly point at their pathetic little mountain streams barely scraping out a channel in the rocks and extol the virtues of "their river" and the bountiful harvest it will bring. Obviously, they have never seen the Mississippi River valley or the rich, black soil of the American Midwest. If you took an Afghan farmer from Helmand to Illinois to see the farms there, he'd probably shit himself, praise Allah and die.

Nevertheless, water seems to evaporate only extremely reluctantly, and over time-spans measured in days for even the smallest puddles. Simple condensation in the bathroom will take the whole day to disappear, and even then leave the bathroom floor slick and wet.*

*I know, 'cause I fall down a lot. And not always because of the whisky.

With so little moisture in the atmosphere, one would think that water would evaporate nearly immediately, sucked greedily into the air to redistribute it's value somewhere else. But no, mostly it just sits in pools in my bathroom, puddles on the kitchen counter, small lakes and trenches in the street. Waiting for an unwary victim to slip, or be splashed with the foul slop that lurks near the curb. If one could gather all that useless, standing water and dump it somewhere, maybe Afghanistan could actually attain that fabled agricultural excellence the locals are always claiming is their birthright.

Yeah, I'm a little obsessive about the water (and the dust, and the mud). Not an healthy obsession, I realize, but if you knew what was in the water here you'd be worried about it too.