Monday, April 26, 2010
*A particularly stupid euphemism, as if any fire that kills you can be "friendly."
The NY Times is reporting that a UN report has found that perhaps four of the five staff members killed in the guesthouse were victims of the ANCOP rather than the Taliban attackers. As a witness to parts of that attack and the security forces' response to it, I can say that there was an awful lot of firepower directed against that building from the outside. Apparently not all of it was particularly well-targeted.
As I've said in the past when talking about the ANSF, I don't fault their bravery, just their judgement.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Last Monday night, the ANP* decided to mount one of their periodic raids on local Kabul establishments that sell alcohol. A total of five were targeted, four of which were shut-down immediately. The last one escaped being shut down because the district police commander is a regular customer and cut a deal with the owner. I know because I was there at the time.
*Jerome Starkey, writing for the Times, describes these units as the "vice and virtue" police but that's not really accurate. There are no "vice" police here (and there damn sure ain't any virtue). It's just the regular ANP, supported by units of the NDS.
As per SOP, the next day the police described these places as "the centres of immorality and the centres of alcohol." Note also the use of the word "guesthouses" to describe these establishments, which implies rooms for sleeping and perhaps other nefarious activities (i.e. prostitution). Only one of these places was an actual "guesthouse" and that happened to be the one I was at.* So the only true guesthouse is the only one that didn't get shut down.
*And, just for the dirty-minded out there, there is no prostitution at that establishment. I was only drinking in the bar.
I also love the use of the phrase "center of immorality," as if your average Afghan cop is even passingly familiar with the concept of morality. Moral and cultural relativism aside, there are at least a few basic concepts that should be considered beyond "moral" and buggering underage boys and coercing bribes from the destitute probably fall outside those parameters. Both of which the ANP excels at.
Also per SOP, the cops carted off all the booze. As the article points out, "1,164 bottles of wine and 5,194 bottles of beer" were confiscated, to be destroyed later.
Um..........here's the thing: there's always way more hard liquor in these places than beer and wine. How come that stuff isn't mentioned in the press release? Because that's the valuable stuff. Anyone can get beer (and Afghans don't drink wine, generally speaking); it's the whisky and the vodka that's truly valuable. They don't mention that because it didn't make it into the official inventory. The hard stuff will be sold out of the back of ANP Ford Rangers for the next couple of weeks. I conducted a little experiment to confirm this and managed to procure four bottles of Johnnie Walker Red Label for $70 USD each (below market rates) from the ANP district chief who lives across the road. He even had a drink with me to seal the deal. So much for stamping out the vice of alcohol.
Next post: after the booze is carted off and the owners harassed and arrested, the truly despicable stuff starts. Everyone who thinks that all we need to do to solve Afghanistan's problems is to empower Afghan women should pay attention.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
*For instance, head down to the Bush Bazaar** and see the vast array of pilfered, purchased and purloined items for sale that only recently were the legal property of a NATO military force. Uniforms, tactical gear, body armor, MREs, boots, all of it available at a considerable discount, and all of it to use the Goodfellas terminology "fell off the back of a truck." I least one hopes it's stolen. Stories, perhaps apocryphal, exist of U.S. Army uniforms for sale in the bazaar with the bullet holes stiched up and some suspicious looking dark stains.
**Yes, it really is named after former-President Bush, although it's worth pointing out that back in the 80's there was a similar market selling stolen Russian gear and the locals called it the Brezhnev Bazaar. Re-selling of stolen goods has a long and glorious tradition in Afghanistan.
Basically, everyone here, from the lowliest shopkeeper to the highest government official* is in a mad scramble to grab every Afghani, rupee, ruble and dollar that they can get their hands on before ISAF finally bails out and this place returns to the Dark Ages from whence it came.
*Yeah, I'm looking at you Karzai. And your scumbag brother too.
Now I don't generally fault the average Afghani for trying to make a buck (even off of stolen goods). Most locals live on $100-$120 USD a month, and have to care for an extended family. As long as they do what they say they will do, and don't try to cheat me or my people, I can live with it.*
*Unfortunately, the list of Afghans I know personally after fourteen months here who haven't 1) broken a promise to me, or 2) tried to screw my company, my guys, or me personally, is short enough that I can count it on my fingers. With fingers to spare.
However, the "official" corruption, especially of the police, is something that I cannot forgive. The common argument is that the police aren't paid very well (true) and therefore one should expect a certain level of corruption (false). The fallacy of that argument is contained within itself.
If the police aren't paid well (and they aren't), they could get jobs that pay nearly as well without all of the occupational hazards that come with an ANP uniform, like being reviled by the local population and targeted by the bad guys. I know there are jobs out there that pay just as well as the ANP without the attendant risks. I know this because my company (among many others) provides many of those jobs.
But Afghans join the ANP for reasons other than the official pay. Mostly, they join because a police uniform is license to do anything they want (including get away with murder- more on this later) without fear of repecussion. It's not the pay they receive, it's not even the bribes they demand (and get), it's the near-total impunity that comes with the uniform and the Kalashnikov.*
*Think Georgia State Trooper with an automatic weapon and without those pesky Miranda rights or the ACLU looking over his shoulder.
To follow, a couple of posts that demonstrate in deplorable fashion the truly depraved and degraded state of the Afghan National Police. When this country descends back into the cesspit from which it never should have crawled, lots of fingers will be pointed at those supposedly at fault for "losing Afghanistan." Make no mistake about it. When Afghanistan is "lost" it will be because of the Afghans themselves.
I'm somewhat accostomed to being awakened at odd and inappropriate hours by various external stimuli, everything from earthquakes to carbombs to gunfire to the guards at the ECP accidentally triggering the "panic button."*
*Which is actually pretty funny, in a tension-busting, early-morning kind of way. A bunch of guys standing around in their shorts, holding assault rifles, one third looking like they just shit themselves, one third looking like they are desperately hoping that the bad guys are actually coming through the gate and the final third (mostly the South Africans) looking like they've been through this a million times before (which they have). Odd crew that I live with.
Back in October of 2009 however I wasn't yet in my currently luxuorious surroundings. Instead, I was living by myself in a three-story shithouse over in Shar-e-Naw with only an AK-47 and a feral cat for company.* And then this happened.
*He later died. It was sad.
Needless to say, not the way to start the day. Being the type of person to strongly object to being awakened at any hour, especially early in the pre-dawn darkness, I did what seemed logical at the time- grab the AK-47 and go out on the balcony to see what's going on.*
* The cat, to his credit, was nowhere to be found.
This, as it turned out, was perhaps not the wisest course of action. I won't go into the details again (see here and here), but suffice it to say that six people died in the guesthouse about forty yards from my door. One of those people was an American by the name of Louis Maxwell, a security guard for the United Nations.
Maxwell, with the support of another UN security guard, Laurance Mefful, in an effort to protect those under his charge, had the reflexes and the foresight to get himself into position on the balcony of the guesthouse and engage the bad guys coming through the gate. I can't say if he managed to take any of them down, but the fact that the gunfight went on for about five minutes before the first ANP arrived is a testament to his ability. At the very least, Maxwell managed to keep the bad guys out of the main building until most of his compatriots had escaped out the back. Although he was apparently wounded, he held his position until the attackers were dead*, thereby saving probably more than a dozen lives.
*Killed either by Maxwell himself or by the recently-arrived units of the ANCOP, a sort of SWAT team for the ANP.
Louis Maxwell committed himself effectively and honorably and survived the Taliban attack. It was only after he came down from the roof, and after the ANP had secured the compound, that he was killed. According to video obtained by the UN, he was shot at point-blank range by Afghan police in the courtyard of the guesthouse. The reason? They wanted his gun.*
*Based on the file photo of Maxwell, the weapon appears to be a Heckler & Koch G36K, which is a top-end assault rifle. Pretty rare here, but often the preferred choice of a professional shooter.
I'm sure the Karzai administration will claim that it was a case of mistaken identity or friendly fire, but take a look at this picture of Maxwell. Does he look like Taliban to you? Does he even look Afghan? At a hundred meters anyone could tell that he wasn't a bad guy.
No, it was simple greed that triggered Louis Maxwell's murder. A scumbag Afghan cop, hyped up on violence and blood and sure of his own immunity, saw his chance to steal a weapon worth a few thousand dollars. So he executed a wounded man, and then picked up the weapon and walked calmly away. None of the hundreds of Afghan police or soldiers in the vicinity made any move to stop him.
This country makes me sick sometimes.
H/T and photo credit to Feral Jundi.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Like me, the author of Kandahar Diary maintains his anonymity for personal, professional and OPSEC reasons. He mentions that he flew in from Brisbane, so possibly Australian, but also possibly not.*
*Based on what I know about PSC convoy ops down south and from the few clues gleaned from his posts, I could speculate about the outfit he works for but I won't. He doesn't mention it, so neither will I.
From the few posts he's put up so far, I can tell he'll be an entertaining read. He already posseses the standard disdain for Big Army fobbits, as is obvious by his reference to them as "pasty faced, pudding-gutted base pogos." And that's the guys who live at KAF. Here's hoping he never has to see the paragons of the fobbit species resident at Bagram. He'd probably shoot them on site. Or puke. Or both.
Only thing I differ with him on is his complaints about the food. Lack of fresh fruit? Check. Too much chicken? Check. Piss-warm UHT milk? Check. Luke-warm bacon? Check.........wait, WTF? You've got BACON?!?!? I haven't had bacon since shortly after New Years Day. I'd gladly shoot somebody for some pork products, luke-warm or otherwise. Apparently life down south ain't all bad.
One other thing to mention: the author notes that he is on a ten-week deployment. That is one of the key advantages (perhaps THE key advantage) to working for a Western outfit. Reliable, predictable leave schedules, with a limited time in-country on deployments. Ten weeks on, three or four weeks off is the industry standard here. Needless to say, I've had a total of five weeks off in the last thirteen months and even that time was really more of a "working vacation." The price you pay working for an Afghan outfit (one of many).
And I recognized myself in this quote:
I am smoking too much – I need to get back on the home routine of a couple in the morning and nothing again until 6.00 p.m. Don’t even think of saying I should give it up – this is neither the time nor the place for that.
Sounds familiar, except for the bit about "a couple in the morning and nothing again until 6:00 p.m." That's just insane.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
At least ten times a day, I will be engaged in discussing something important with The Doctor and one of our supervisors (or The Rug Merchant) will barge in and start talking. Leaving aside the fact that the question they wish to discuss is usually something that a retarded platypus could figure out on their own rather than an acutal important issue, the very fact of the interruption is infuriating in itself. They simply have no concept of the idea of waiting until a conversation is finished, or at least attempting to break in in a polite or proper manner.
More annoying is the fact that other Afghans seem to have no problem with this and take no action to stop it. This indicates to me that it's another of those cultural oddities that makes life here ever-so-slightly more difficult. Some of the younger, better educated Afghans seem at least aware that they are interrupting (not that that acts as a prevention in any way), but the older ones are unbelievably rude when it comes to conversational skills. To be clear, they don't know they're being rude, and by Afghan standards perhaps they're not, but it still makes every meeting or discussion take twice as long as it should and makes it extremely difficult to resolve complex issues with a proper discussion. After the third or fourth interruption, most people give up and settle for whatever resolution was last on the table.
I'm pretty sure the Afghan parliament functions under the same rules, which probably explains why the government here is so disfunctional.
Monday, April 5, 2010
No, not Easter. I'm talking about Opening Day.
And what's worse, I can't even get the Cubs opener vs. the Braves on my new TV. Seven channels of cricket, four of soccer, two auto racing and two golf (along with about a dozen of Arabic/Pakistani/Indian/Tajik music videos), but no baseball.
There's definately something wrong with this country.
Incidentally, Cubs take the NL pennant this year. This is our year. You heard it here first.
Update: Well, the Cubs got shelled 16-5 by the Braves, thus continuing a glorious Opening Day tradition of losing in particularly disheartening fashion. Big Z looked like he was pitching underhand, and the bullpen wasn't much better. Still, I stand by the above statement. This is our year.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Well, after over a year here in Afghanistan, I’ve finally reached 100 posts on this blog. Sometimes that seems like a lot of work, but it’s really only an average of less than one post every three days. Not particularly diligent, as anyone who knows me would attest to.
Anyway, rather than simply mark the occasion with a wasted post,* I thought that I would a retrospective look back at an earlier post, specifically the Cast of Characters that I wrote last March.
*Do you suppose that my aversion to “wasted posts” is part of the reason why I post so infrequently? Duh!
Below is the text of the original post (lightly edited), with additional comments in italics.
It occurs to me that I’m going to be referring to a lot of people repeatedly on this blog, and it would help to have some sort of system for identifying them. Obviously, since this is anonymous for OpSec* and professional reasons, I have to be somewhat circumspect in how I name people. Thus, I’ve devised the following cast of characters to guide readers through the swamp that is the Kabul private security industry. I’ll have to add to this later on as my list of associates and contacts grows, but here it is for now:
*That’s Operational Security for those of you who were wondering. Admittedly not as big a concern for me as it would be for a soldier or Marine out in the field, but better safe than sorry. I'm also doing it this way to protect the essential anonymity for professional reasons.
For those of you who think that using the actual names or pseudonyms instead of entirely fake nicknames would be easier, it might help to realize that there are six or eight very popular male names in Afghanistan, so any list of actual names would be highly redundant. Sometimes it seems that every third guy here is named Massoud. Confusingly, many Afghans go by only one name, which only adds to the difficulty.
The Rug Merchant (aka The Boss): In any other part of the world, this guy would be considered shady. In Afghanistan, he’s connected. Hyperactive to the point of mania, always carries at least three phones, one of which is usually ringing. Has not grasped the concept that talking fast and loud is not synonymous with communicating effectively.
Thirteen months of working closely for and with The Rug Merchant has convinced me that he is, beyond a doubt, the single worst business owner and the most despicable individual that I have ever encountered. Without a single redeeming quality, as far as I am able to determine. Dim to the point of retarded, manipulative and domineering, he is incapable of accepting responsibility for anything the company does (or does not do). This despite the fact that he claims sole responsibility for any successes and is sickeningly fond of touting the virtues (real and imagined) of “his” company to any and all. I have contemplated violence against others many times in my life (and followed through on a few rare occasions), but only with him have I truly contemplated homicide. Only fair, as he’s also the only the boss I’ve ever had who actually threatened my life.
The Godfather: One of the Western backers of this venture. A retired banker, experienced in finance and business, and a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Unfortunately only appears in Kabul every few months and only stays for a few days. Also the guy who got me this job, so my opinion of him is dependent on what kind of day I’m having.
My opinion of The Godfather has not diminished in the past year, except in one respect. He is such a gentlemen that he is incapable of discerning the true nature of the person he’s in business with. Constantly hopeful that The Rug Merchant will turn out to be the latent tycoon that he claims to be.
The Doctor: An actual medical doctor and the Deputy President of The Company. Good English skills, lots of experience and very easy to work with. My time here would be a lot more trying if it wasn’t for his patience and dedication.
If my opinion of the The Rug Merchant has deteriorated (from an already minimal level) and my opinion of The Godfather has remained about the same, my opinion of The Doctor has been enhanced considerably by working closely with him for over a year. Without a doubt, the finest Afghan I have met since I’ve been here. A remarkable man in a tough position.
The General: A former Afghan army officer (probably not actually a general), in charge of overseeing the training and deployment of the guards. Not the brightest bulb in the box, and speaks not a word of English, but we get along great after I gave him some of my imported cigarettes. Now we’re blood brothers apparently. Has a staff of three NCOs who conduct the drills and instruct new recruits. Also known as “Saddam” for his eerie resemblance to the former Iraqi dictator.
Actually, he is (or was) a General in the ANA, and a man of vast contacts across Afghanistan. Can arrange nearly anything with a phone call. Constantly at odds with The Rug Merchant, but a quietly indispensible member of the staff.
Smiley: One of the General’s many assistants, apparently his responsibilities are limited to drilling the new recruits in Afghan/Soviet style marching, which is pretty comical to anyone familiar with Western methods of drill. Always cheerful and eager to talk; somewhat hampered by the fact that he only speaks four words of English, which are repeated incessantly with a broad smile.
Smiley is gone, after proving his incompetence to anything more than march around the yard. Good riddance, as I struggled to find anything that he was capable of doing for us.
Hazmat (short for Hazardous Materials): Personal bodyguard and batman to The Rug Merchant. Always wears a cheap three-piece suit with a bright pastel shirt, and carries a slung AK-47 with him everywhere he goes. Earned his nickname because one can see in his eyes that something is broken in his head. Has a nasty streak and is overly impressed with his own importance, but is probably capable of even worse stuff given half a chance.
Hazmat is still hanging around, acting as a batman and personal assistant for The Rug Merchant. After months of clandestine observation, I have discovered why he keeps his job despite his total lack of situational awareness or weapon skills. As it turns out, his primary (perhaps only) ability is having a contact list of a large number of local women of less than total moral purity. In short, he’s a pimp for the boss. Pretty sure that falls outside the realm of proper Muslim behavior.
Frankie Avalon: A dead-ringer for the singer (circa 1962), without the singing voice, but a competent dancer. Works as the “intelligence chief” for The Company, which is a bit of a euphemism. His job consists of sitting in a small room watching three TVs and monitoring the internet for current events. Sends out half a dozen emails a day with morbid announcements like “Two killed by IED in Helmand” or “Aid worker shot in Kunduz.” A real bundle of joy, but his English is better than most so I talk to him a lot.
A lad whose talents are not fully realized, mostly because he is not able to demonstrate his keen intellect and surprising people skills. Never flustered, never angry, just placidly soldiers on, doing a boring job to the best of his ability. Could use more like him.
Mad Max: The best driver in the company, which is an extremely valuable skill in a place like Kabul. Given the option, I always choose him to be my driver. Able to find his way around Kabul traffic with surprising alacrity and is friendly and pleasant to boot. Carries a pistol under his jacket.
The pistol is gone, after a tense incident at a police checkpoint last fall. Still, although we’ve added a few good drivers lately, Max is still my favorite because of his openness and willingness to discuss every aspect of Afghan society and culture without taking or causing offense.
Hound Dog and the Pack: Hound Dog is my personal favorite among the PSDs (Personal Security Detachment, aka bodyguards). He would probably be insulted to be called “dog” but he reminds me of an old hunting dog that has been kicked once too often. Always looks a little downtrodden, but has excellent situational awareness and takes his job very seriously. Like the aforesaid dog, there’s something about him that makes one think he’ll bite back if pressed. The Pack is my generic name for the rest of the PSD team (since I don’t know their real names). Most of them are solicitous and professional, although sometimes a little slow off the mark. Tactical initiative is not a well-developed Afghan trait.
Sadly, Hound Dog is no longer with the company, although he has been replaced by my new favorite PSD. The rest of the Pack is mostly still around, although I travel a lot more now without them as I tend to move fast and low-profile, two things that Afghans are generally not good at.
Mutt and Jeff: Two of The Boss’s assistants, exact job description unknown. They meddle in training, admin, pricing and general business decisions. Since I don’t know what they’re saying, I don’t know if they’re useful or not. Mutt speaks some English, at least enough to ask “How you this day, sir?” Jeff speaks none at all, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to talk to me. Both smoke heavily (my cigarettes if they can get them).
Mutt is pretty scarce these days, having developed a series of family problems that keep him away from the compound. Jeff, on the other hand, is a constant presence and, as a retired ANA officer, has gotten us out of several tight spots with the authorities. Of course, his rather aggressive personality has gotten us into a few tight spots as well. Still smoking my cigarettes.
The Prince: So-called because his real name is the same as a prominent Gulf sheikh, Prince is the designated interpreter for The Company. Unfortunately, he never seems to be around when I need him and not all that much when I don’t.
I’ve found several new people who have better English skills than The Prince (and also speak Urdu and a little Uzbek), so I reassigned him to the Finance Department. Doesn’t have an affinity with numbers, but he does posses a small degree of the boss’ trust, so he’s qualified to handle cash.
Mr. Greensleeves: Unsure as to what he does exactly (or even generally). Most of all he seems to hang around the compound wearing bright pastel jackets (usually green- hence the name), joking with the rest of the staff. The best dancer in The Company, as proven at a traditional Afghan wedding.
As it turns out, Mr. Greensleeves is actually a pretty useful member of the finance staff. Or at least he’s capable of understanding the Ministry of Finance’s reporting requirements and keeping on top of them. Still wearing bad designer knockoffs from Karachi and Delhi, but I’ve managed to adjust his fashion sense to slightly less visually-assaulting clothes.
The Player: Another of the admin staff of indeterminate purpose, he always wears faded designer jeans, colorful T-shirts and RayBans (full disclosure: I wear my Oakleys as often as possible, to project the necessary degree of authority and anonymity).
Not popular with most of the staff (especially The Doctor), but I find him to be useful and efficient, if somewhat annoyingly subservient and sycophantic. It seems that I’m the only one that he makes an effort to work for, but that works just fine for me.
Eli: The finance guy who apparently is still learning how to use Excel (maybe they don’t have Dari language user guides). Good with numbers, but follows The Rug Merchant's lead to closely (i.e. anything to increase gross revenue, regardless of net profit).
Eli and I have come to a workable understanding over the past year. Before a major outlay, I run the numbers for him to prove that I’m right, and he backs me up when I’m trying to convince the boss to spend the money. Doesn’t always work, and he still refuses to have the fights that a Finance Manager should have, but he’s slowly coming around.
Bear: So-named because of his great bulk, hirsute appearance and massive paws. Bear is euphemistically referred to as the Facilities Manager, which means he is in charge of the logistics here, including maintenance and provisions. If the current conditions in the compound are any indication, a man woefully out of his depth.
Thirteen months have proven my initial assessment that Bear is a man of limited capabilities in a demanding job. The food still sucks, the compound is still a dump and we never have spares of anything we might need. Nevertheless, his personality and openness means he’s one of my favorite people to talk to at the company, regardless of the fact that he doesn’t speak any English. I’m told his Pashto poetry is quite good, but of course I can’t read a word of it.
Jeeves: My recently-assigned assistant for all-things-not-covered-by-someone-else, Jeeves is the guy who makes sure I have sufficient tea and food at all hours of the day and night. Pleasant to the point of deferential, has some limited English and is happy to talk politics when we can find the right words.
Jeeves is unfortunately no longer with us. Like most people of talent, he has moved on to bigger and better things, only to be replaced by a series of less competent individuals. Only one stood out from the rest and he’s gone now too. I still keep in touch with him and he is one of those remarkable Afghans that gives me some small measure of hope for this wretched country. Someday I’ll write a post just about him.
The Lion: Doesn't actually look or act like a lion, but he's Tajik, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of the Panshijr Valley and one of my personal heroes. (More on Massood here). The Lion joined us after several years with the ANP's elite counter-narcotics commando battalion. He's quiet and reserved, but highly competent and professional. The Lion serves as our senior instructor. I had to personally insist to The Boss that we hire him and for that he is unfailingly loyal. If I had five hundred men like him, I'd own this country.
My initial instincts on the Lion were correct, except in one regard. Instead of five hundred like him, I could probably manage to run the entire country with no more than two hundred. Another of those quiet professionals which gives me hope for the future.
There are some additional personnel that have joined the company in the last year, but this is already too long for a blog post, so I’ll add them later in a separate list.