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.

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