Friday, April 2, 2010

Cast of Characters (Revised)

Note: What follows is the piece I was going to submit for the 100th post on this blog, but in the event I was too tired, too bitter (and too drunk) to get around to it. Here it is, slightly delayed.

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.


Morgan said...

Great retrospective. I guess your first impressions were right. Reminded me of the article on FJ a couple days ago about The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, in case you missed it:

dennis said...

Yeah thanks for the look inside.