Monday, May 31, 2010

Existential Question of the Day

Just how many cigarettes can one smoke in a single day? This is assuming that

a) One is not really trying to smoke a lot of cigarettes; it just happens naturally, and
b) The full day lasts from waking to sleep again, regardless of the actual passage of hours.

Speaking for myself, my answer to the question apparently maxes out around sixty five, the point at which the fingertips get kind of tingly (not in a good way) and the throat feels like one has been gargling with volcanic ash.

Don’t think I’ll be doing that again for a while.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Twisting in the Wind

Well, no sooner do I touch down in Kabul than I get an email from the DoD's Joint Contracting Command that the solicitation for the TWSS program has been cancelled. The entire solicitation, a proposal we and our partners have spent six months working on, and the contracting office just up and decides that they're not going to proceed. No explanation given beyond "the U.S. Government has determined the subject Solicitation no longer meets it's needs."

The TWSS program (Theatre-Wide Security Services, pronounced Twist) was intended to be an umbrella program for the provision of static security at U.S. Army facilities throughout Afghanistan.* The idea was that JCC would solicit proposals from all the major PSCs and then elvaluate them based upon techincal/operational capabilities, companies' financial resources, and of course, price. The top six or eight outfits would then be selected as "pre-approved" for future work. When each future job or project went live (what the DoD calls a Task Order), only the qualified companies would have the opportunity to bid on it, and the determining factor would be bid price. Thus, the Joint Contracting Command doesn't need to review the full capabilities every time they need more guards. Since that portion is already done, they simply review a brief pricing proposal and select the one that gives the best value for money.

*A similar program (TWSS I) is already operational in Iraq and has been for some time. I've not worked in Iraq so I can't say if it's works as intended, but I don't recall hearing any systemic complaints.

It was supposed to streamline the contracting procedure by front-loading most of the review and qualification work in the early stages. Nationwide there are at least thirty major U.S. Army Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) currently and perhaps a hundred Combat Outposts (COPs) and more are being built all the time. That's a lot of highly lucrative (albeit difficult) work. Obviously, it would be extremely important to be on the short-list.

We'd previously been deemed "technically acceptable" and "in the competitive range," both of which sound underwhelming, but are actually the DoD's way of saying that the bid was acceptable and we were in the running to be on the short-list.*

*Note that we were hardly the only outfit in the running for this program. Verified information is hard to come by, but there were at least several other outfits or partnerships that had also met the criteria and were simply waiting for the announcement of individual Task Orders.

Now, with little explanation and less warning, the whole program has been shitcanned. I can't even begin to calculate the number of man-hours that went into writing, reviewing, editing and submitting that proposal. Suffice it to say that the final product was over 150 pages long and highly technical. Now it's dead.

The upshot of all this is that I may shortly be out of a job. A large part of the reason I was brought onboard was to facilitate jobs like this. Someone who can speak American to the Americans, so to speak. The same Task Orders will eventually be released, but now it will be on an individual basis with no pre-qualifications and completely open bidding. Might save a few U.S. tax dollars here and there (probably not), but it will also mean that the competition for any particular job will be fierce and the profit margins squeezed. In that fight, we're not exactly the big dog.

I'll have to scramble to find some replacement work pretty fast, or else the Rug Merchant is going to start wondering why he's still paying me.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Stopover in Dubai

After a couple of weeks off, I'm finally enroute back to Kabul. Had to kick-back for a day in a nice hotel in Dubai, waiting for the Afghan consulate to figure out a way to screw up the new visa rules.*

*The consular staff had become quite adept at screwing up the old visa rules, so the new requirements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs disrupted their archaic (and profitable) system. It'll be a few weeks before they figure out how to squeeze bribes out of the new system. Even the normally remarkably adept Afghan criminal bureacracy has an adjustment period.

Not that I'm complaining about another night in Dubai. There are worse places to spend a night, like.........Somalia? OK, there probably aren't too many worse places to spend an extra day. At least Somalia would be interesting and not nearly as expensive.

Prior to Dubai, I spent some time in Vegas, DC and London, as well as few days with the family in the Midwest. All in all, a very relaxing and beneficial trip, although between the poker tables in Vegas and the W Hotel in DC, I pissed through about two months pay. Hey, that's what money's for, right?

Back to A-stan this afternoon to begin to get dug out from those things which almost-certainly were neglected while I was away and try to put out the fires. Seems I've missed a couple of active weeks as the spring campaign season kicks into high gear.

A long list of posts coming in the next couple of weeks as I get caught up on all the things going on in-country and highlight a few things from the other Afghanistan-focused blogs and sites.

DVM Looking for Contributors

The always-entertaining guys over at Death Valley Magazine are looking for people interested in contributing to their site. In keeping with the catch-all style of the blog, the list of desired job categories is pretty broad, as is the scope of categories they routinely cover, so anyone looking to write the occasional post for James G., Bubba and the gang should click here.

Why they insist on adding more contributors and thereby increasing the frequency of their posts, and thereby make lazy people like me look bad by comparison, is a question I intend to raise with them at the earliest opportunity. As soon as I find my body armor, extra ammo and my go-bag.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reach Out and Touch Someone

While I usually avoid The Daily Mail (and most British press in general), I haven't seen this story reported anywhere else.

A range of 8,120 feet! Two rounds fired, two tangos down. Apparently they still teach marksmanship fundamentals in the UK.

The truly amazing thing to me is that his weapon, the L115A3, is designed and engineered to be effective at ranges up to 5000 feet. So Cpl. Harrison put both of those shots on target at a range 3000+ feet beyond the stated effective range of his weapon.

Well done, Corporal. Perfect conditions notwithstanding, perhaps a few dozen people in the world could have made that shot.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Afghanistan Humor

Foreign Policy's website points me towards a bit of National Security Advisor Jim Jones' comedy stylings, apparently at a talk he gave at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

Now say what you want about anti-Semitism (which I don't think Jones is really displaying here), but that is damn funny.

And note that no one on the interwebs (or at the White House) is crying about "anti-Talibanism."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Burqa Porn

Foreign Policy has a rather pointless slideshow of Afghan women in burqas entitled Veil or Prison.

*Pointless in the sense that the photos do almost nothing to illuminate the complex issue of veils in Afghan society. Although I suppose they might serve a useful function as Afghan porn.

Um, here's a question: why does it have to either/or? Can't it be both?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Culture Shock

Most contractors and, I presume, most soldiers who go on leave from A-stan hop a long flight to somewhere in the States, are met at the airport by the wife/girlfriend/parent/child and are safely and securely ensconced at home in a matter of hours.

My recent trip back to the States started out similarly, but rapidly descended into some sort of bizarre dystopian fantasy straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.*

*Can fantasies even be dystopian? I would've said no, but recent evidence suggests that they can.

Thirty hours after leaving Kabul, I was back at home with family for a brief but refreshing catch-up. Twenty-four hours after that, I made the rather dubious decision to jump back on a plane and head to Vegas for a few days.

Those of you who know me will be familiar with my longstanding rule against going to Vegas without proper adult supervision. When asked (usually increduously) why I had never gone before,* I always responded that if I went to Vegas by myself, in six days I would either be leaving in the penthouse suite of the Bellagio surrounded by strippers and cocaine, or end up dead in the desert with no pants. The latter always seemed considerably more likely.

*Given my well-documented affection for vices of all shapes and sizes, few who know me well were able to understand why I hadn't ever been to Vegas before. It seemed to them to be the obvious place for me to end up. They're probably right.

Well, I took the plunge and made the trip in the company of two old friends, both of whom are respectable, responsible married adults.* As it turned out, that was precisely what was necessary to keep the "better angels of my nature" from being overcome by my baser instincts. Without proper supervision, that contest is usually decided quickly, and not in the angels favor.

*Though they left the wives at home.

Kabul to the poker room at Mandalay Bay in two days is a recipe for severe culture shock. Attractive women to bring me free drinks (as if that right there isn't enough), thousands of dollars changing hands across the table, high-end restaurants a short-walk away and what can only be described as modern-day go-go girls dancing on elevated platforms over the Pai Gow tables. Stark contrast to sly Afghans, whiny American construction workers and burly South Africans operators.

In the end, we managed to avoid any industrial-level debauchery, and I lost only a manageable sum at the poker tables. Having not played any serious cards for a couple of years, I was unprepared for the Vegas sharks that patrol the poker room looking for their next kill.*

*Rule of Thumb: If you are sitting at a poker table, and a new person joins the game, and this person is on a first-name basis with the pit boss...........leave.

I kept the losses to less than a grand, which I thought was pretty good given the overwhelming environment and my lack of recent playing time. The majority of those losses can be traced to two hands, both of which I badly misplayed.

*Rule of Thumb #2: The baby-faced Dutch kid at the end of the table with eight grand in front of him is NOT an exchange-student with generous parents. He's a professional and he's playing his way around the world. With your money.

Only on the flight back to the Midwest did I realize that Vegas and Kabul do have one significant thing in common. They are both populated by keyed-in locals who are extremely adept at finding ways to take money off of Americans. In Kabul, they do it with a business license and a "logistics company." In Vegas, they do it with booze, cards and dice. And breasts.

I prefer the Vegas way.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Down Time

OK, so apparently a few of you have noticed that I haven't posted anything in a while. By way of response to the email questions I received:
  1. No, I'm not dead (yet).
  2. No, I haven't been fired (yet).
  3. Yes, my internet is working fine.

The reason I have been quiet of late is that I have been taking some much-needed time away from The Rockpile. As I mentioned previously, working for an Afghan company does not allow me the generous 3-months on, 1-month off rotation that many contractors have, so I have left Afghanistan only a few times in the last fourteen months.

Fortunately, my visa expired and the new rules put in place by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dictate that I leave the country, re-apply for a new 30-day visa and then re-enter A-stan and obtain a proper six-month visa and a new work permit. Note that while I would normally complain endlessly about the GoA's byzantine bureaucratic rules and red tape, in this case I'm going to let it slide since it allowed me to spend a couple of weeks in the States.

So far, I think I've spent more money in the last two weeks than I have in the last year. Worth every penny, if only for the chance to reconnect with a civilized world. I mean, who knew there were places in the world where one could buy a cup of coffee and a newspaper without resorting to a Land Cruiser and a concealed sidearm. Most people refer to this mystical place as "Starbucks." To me, it's disturbingly close to an (admittedly) warped definition of perfection.