Saturday, August 21, 2010


As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing much lately (for this blog or for other projects). Things have been a little thin around here lately.*

*A recurring problem.

There's no shortage of things to write about, and discuss, but frankly, I'm too tired to do the issues justice.

I'm tired of this job. I'm tired of this company. I'm tired of this industry. I'm tired of the Afghan government.* I'm tired of this war.

*And not all that enamored with the U.S. government at the moment.

Most of all, I'm tired of this place. I've always been ambivalent about the mission here, but lately I find myself wandering to extremes. One day I'm convinced that we can do this right and that someday this country will be better off. The next day I'm emphatic that this country deserves it's self-inflicted fate. Whether either position is correct, I have no idea.

Maybe I just need to get out and recharge my batteries. Or maybe I'm just done. I'm not sure which yet. What I am sure of is that something needs to change. Just haven't figured out what that "something" is yet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kidnap & Ransom

Last Sunday night I got the sort of text message that everyone one in this business dreads. "Incident in Kabul. One of ours down. Details to follow."

A message like that sets off several hours of frantic activity trying to trace the course of events, determine the casualties and sort out the next step. The Ops Manager, the Duty Officer, myself and the Deputy President all traded calls and texts for the next two hours until we pieced together the story.

A kidnap attempt of a local national in Kabul had resulted in one of our guys being shot, and his protectee snatched by four men in a dark SUV. The puzzling thing was that the name of the protectee was not on our list of clients. WTF? What was our PSD doing with a high-risk target when we didn't even have a contract or an agreement to provide the service? And what exactly is the fallout when someone you are protecting is snatched when you weren't supposed to be protecting him in the first place?

Turns out that one of actual clients, the president of an Afghan construction company, had contracted with us for static security at his office and a PSD team to cover his movements. Nothing unusual there. Where it gets strange is that this client had decided that his brother, the president of another separate Afghan construction company, ought to have protection as well. Rather than recommend that he contact us and write a proper contract, he simply phoned The Rug Merchant and asked if his brother could "borrow" one of our CPOs from time to time.*

*CPO= Close Protection Officer, i.e. a bodyguard; PSD= Personal Security Detail, i.e. a team of bodyguards.

Now the obvious answer to a request like this is ""

Upon reflection, one might say, "Hell no."

But, The Rug Merchant, renowned across two continents for his limited mental capacity, said, "Sure, why not?" And then didn't bother to inform Operations, or anyone else in the chain of command. Just one Afghan doing a favor for another, no reason to make it formal.

The problem arises because a PSD team is calibrated and staffed to account for the anticipated threat and the likely movements of the client. Most importantly, there's more than one guy on a typcial PSD team, both to provide backup and to allow for downtime. In this case, the client's PSD team consisted of three guards, two of whom were with the client whenever he moved outside his office or residence.

Last Sunday, the client decided to stay at home and give two of the CPOs the night off. The third he loaned out to his brother for the night, failing to consider that one CPO is rarely sufficient if there's trouble. And, as I said, he had verbal approval for this from The Rug Merchant himself.*

*It's not the client's job to understand the risks and tactical situation. Our job is to protect them and tell them when they're being stupid. A task that The Rug Merchant failed at spectacularly.

So, the client's brother (whom I suspect is a deeply nefarious character with lots of enemies) goes off for a night on the town. His only protection is a CPO who has been loaned out without notice on his night off, has never met the protectee or his driver before, and has no idea of the destination or the schedule. Pretty much a recipe for disaster.

Plan for disaster, you generally get disaster. On a side street in Sherpur, their car was blocked by a pair of SUVs and four armed men rapidly surrounded the car. One of them smashed the passenger-side window and stuck the barrel of an AK-47 in my guy's face. Unable to bring his own weapon to bear, the CPO simply grabbed the barrel and pushed it down, trying to get the muzzle away from his face.

Generally, kidnap of locals in Kabul is a non-violent affair. The gangs who pull it off are usually experienced criminals and the last thing they want is shots fired in the middle of the night. They're also not used to being resisted and they certainly don't like it when someone grabs their weapon. In this case, I suspect that the kidnapper simply panicked, surprised that anyone would dare to argue with him. Unfortunately, his Kalashnikov was set to full-auto and in his surprise and anger he squeezed the trigger and put a burst into our CPO at a range of about ten inches.

Because the CPO had pushed the muzzle downward away from his face, he took five rounds between the chest and the knees. Needless to say, he stopped resisting at that point (as one does with five bullets embedded in your soft tissue) and the kidnappers bustled the protectee into one of their vehicles and tore out of there before the cops could arrive.

Despite several faults, the AK-47 is an effective weapon. The 7.62 x 39mm round is a powerful one (roughly equivalent to .30 caliber) and usually one is enough to put someone down, two is almost always fatal. Taking five, at point blank range, into the chest, stomach and upper thighs, is an invitation to Allah. Amazingly, not only did the CPO survive, but the doctors at the local hospital tell us that he'll make a full recovery. I've come close to death from a particularly bad hangover, and this guys gets punctured through his vitals by five bullets traveling over 2000 feet per second, and he's going to be fine, albeit after a long recovery. I'm told that his name in English means "strong" or "powerful" and now I don't doubt that it's appropriate.

Now we're stuck with the fallout, including a lot of uncomfortable questions from the Ministry of Interior as to why were providing an armed escort to someone without a contract. As to the fate of the "protectee," I confess that I don't much care. He's not one of my clients, he's obviously a moron and he nearly got one of my people killed. His family will probably pay the ransom, but they better not come to me for donations.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Ramadan-Eve Gift

Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim festival. During Ramadan, it is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or have sex during daylight hours. It's considered a time for reflection, practicing restraint and patience. Traditionally, things are more quiet around here during Ramadan, with even the Taliban taking a break from major operations.*

*Afghans will tell you that this pause is because of religious strictures against violence and the fact that Ramadan is a time for prayer and being with family. Personally, I think it has more to do with the fact that even the Taliban are tired and hungry. It's tough to go out and set an ambush at nightfall if you haven't eaten anything all day.

I guess the trogs* decided that before Ramadan kicks off and they fall into a hunger-induced stupor they should use up the explosives they've managed to smuggle into Kabul recently. Use 'em or lose 'em, I guess the theory goes.

*Henceforth, my preferred designation for the Taliban will be "trogs" or "troglodytes," a more accurate term given their genesis as primitive, cave-dwelling, illiterate mouth-breathers. Plus, "booger-eaters" was taken.

Today, they decided to use 'em. I was at my office when we heard the blast. It was close enough to be of concern, although far enough away that I knew right away that it sucked to be somebody else. My second thought was, "That sort of sounded like it came from the direction of my house."

As it turns out, the attack was on a guesthouse about ten blocks from my office, and four blocks from my residence. Initial reports are still coming in and there's a lot of conflicting information, but it appears that two suicide attackers attempted to breach the gate at the guesthouse, were stopped by the Afghan security guards and that at least one detonated himself on the street. Both attackers died and they took at least two Afghan guards with them. Apparently, none of the guests inside the house were seriously hurt (but I bet their ears are still ringing).

Tactically, it's very similar to the attack on the UN guesthouse last fall, except that in this case the trogs didn't get through the perimeter. That's the difference between properly-trained and motivated private security guards and the ANP that died defending the UN guesthouse. Proper procedures, a hardened perimeter and alert guards made all the difference. Could have been a nightmare scenario, but the security seems to have done their job. Of course, it cost two of them their lives.

I'm told the guesthouse belonged to Hart Security, but I'm not sure if it was a simple hotel, or an operational center. Either way, if this turns out to be an attack specifically targeting a PSC, then this game is changing and fast.

Hart Security is a proper outfit, so I'm sure they will do the right thing for the families of their men. And the imams say that the trog "martyrs" will by now be enjoying their 72 virgins in paradise.* But two of them for two of us is not even close to a fair trade.

*Is it written anywhere in the Koran that the virgins** are actually female? That's something I'd want to clarify before I strap on an explosive-vest. I think I'd want some assurances on that point.
**And what exactly is the attraction of virgins anyway?

Perhaps Ramadan is going to be busier than I thought.

More from the NYTimes here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nation Building?

The other day, in a post titled Taliban Justice, I noted a Time Magazine story with a rather disturbing cover photo. The story was basically a human-interest piece about the fate of an Afghan girl named Aisha who had been horribly mutilated by the Taliban for fleeing an abusive, arranged marriage.

One commenter (known only as "b") wrote:

The girl was mutilated a year ago. At that time there were some 100,000 NATO troops in country plus lots of contractors. So if a 100,000 troops can't prevent such, what are they doing there? And how would that change with 200,000 troops? Just asking ...

A fair question, but here's the thing: no matter how many troops we have here, Western forces cannot ever put a stop to this sort of thing. The marginalization, diminution and sometimes abuse of women is part and parcel of Afghan culture. Western military force will never put an end to that. Only Afghans can end that, if they so choose.

I've been here nearly 18 months, working closely everyday with a large number of Afghans. In all that time, not once have I met the wives of any of my people, except for The Rug Merchant, and that was in Dubai and only briefly. Even modern-minded, relatively progressive Afghans like the men I work with keep "their" women sequestered. They may object to the depredations of the Taliban, but that doesn't extend to breaking ancient social taboos about women and public life.

So, once we accept that the social structure of this country is not something that can be adjusted by force, the real question becomes two-fold, "Can/should the social structure of this country be changed to a more progressive, modern approach, and if so, what (if anything) can Westerners do to assist that transformation?"

To me, the answer to the first part is fairly obvious. If Afghanistan is ever to be peaceful, prosperous and stable, then some of fundamental underlying principles of Afghan society will have to be cast aside. I'm not saying that will be easy, or even likely, but it is a cold, hard fact. Analysts and pundits like to make long-winded arguments about the Great Game, the Cold War, "strategic depth," etc., all intended to absolve Afghans of responsibility for their plight, but the basic truth is that Afghanistan is the way it is partly because of the atavistic elements present in Afghan culture.

The second part of the question is considerably more difficult. I'm not convinced that there is all that much that Westerners can do to promote the sort of "social adjustment" that I feel is necessary here. People everywhere are notoriously resistant to cultural change, especially when they feel that it is being imposed from outside. That said, I see some small signs of hope among the slowly-emerging Afghan middle class. Thus far, they are concentrated in the major cities, and greatly overshadowed by the oligarchs, warlords, and narco-terrorists who rule much of the countryside. But they do exist, albeit in small numbers, and they almost unanimously desire a society that affords the opportunities that Westerners tend to take for granted. Jobs, security, education, a government that is more protective than predatory, these are the things that this Afghan middle-class desires.

They're not about to give up their cultural identity, nor will they cease being devout Muslims, but they are willing to cast a critical eye on some of the traditions and structures that have given this country over thirty years of war.

And that, I think, is what ISAF can accomplish here: buy the Afghan middle-class the time necessary to make their own changes, and find their own, better way of doing things.

If that's "nation-building" then so be it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Love the Smell of Cordite in the Morning

I'm not regular reader of The Guardian, but a friend of mine in DC alerted me to this video report on their website from last Thursday. It covers over a month that the reporter spent embedded with USAF and US Marines in Helmand Province.

Note that a significant portion of the video shows US Marines on a combat patrol, so don't expect polite language. They are Marines, after all; they're not hired for their decorum.

The one flaw is that the reporter, Sean Smith, keeps incorrectly referring to the USAF Pararescue Jumpers (aka PJs) as "Prepared Jumpers." I'm sure they are "prepared" but that's not what the "P" stands for. Hey Sean, perhaps a quick Google search would be in order before you do your next voice-over.

Best line in the video (at the 5:30 mark):

Call over the radio to the Marine patrol leader:
"We don't know if it's your position or not, but there is a possible imminent attack"
"Hey, you're using a double negative, dickhead. 'Possible' and 'imminent' are two different words. Which is it going to be?"

One can imagine how the distinction between 'possible' and 'imminent' might be important to the guys in the field.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Taliban Justice

Note: The links below connect to a disturbing story, and an even more shocking photograph. Not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish.

A while back, I asked to be reminded of what we're doing here. Ultimately, is the cost of so many allied and Afghan lives, not to mention the financial burdens, worth it for what we may accomplish here. I still don't have an answer to that, at least not one that I find satisfying. My own opinion changes from day to day.

Time Magazine has a cover story about one Afghan girl's experience with Taliban justice. Time even used a photo of the girl on the cover of their latest issue. Needless to say, both are disturbing. The other day, in a post about WikiLeaks, I mentioned the Taliban's concept of "justice." That concept is on display in the Time story.

I won't editorialize the story here, except to say that it is A) one individual's story and should be read as such, and B) it certainly highlights one of the things that is fundamentally wrong with this place. To all who claim that we should reduce our presence here to simply hunting Al Qaeda with drones and let the Afghans sort out the rest for themselves, try going to Aisha's house and tell her that Afghanistan will be a better place under the Taliban. Somehow, I don't think she would agree.