Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Like the Coen Brothers, but............WTF?

I like Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin just fine, but this is just wrong on so many levels.

Some movies should never be re-made.*

*Or "reconceived" as I'm sure the Coen brothers will say. Note how they emphasize that they're staying true to the book, not the original movie. Except that the book sucked, a mediocre purple-sage Westerner written by a hack. The book didn't make the movie great. The Duke made the movie great.

Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Stars Wars, Caddyshack.......films such as these are sacrosanct. One simply cannot improve on greatness, and it's folly to try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saving the World? Um......What?

A while back, in response to my post about being worn-down and tired of Afghanistan, a commenter asked me if I was here because I "wanted to be a world-improver, or just because of a job?" A fair question, and not one with a quick and easy answer.

To be clear, I have no illusions about "saving the world,"* And if I did, this place and this job is certainly not where I would start.

*I know, a HUGE shock to those of you who know me.

The world has always needed "saving" in one way or another, and somehow those efforts never seem to pay off quite as permanently as their advocates would like. From the Peace Corps in the 20th century all the way back to Roman efforts to civilize the barbarians in the 2nd century BCE, people have been trying to "fix" the wide variety of misfortunes and ills of the world. Whenver I'm confronted by one of these well-meaning but tragically naive do-gooders extolling the virtues of their NGOs new program to bring Pashto-language Sesame Street to school girls in Kandahar or whatever, I always ask the same question: "So how's that working out for you?" The answers are usually disappointing. So no, I'm not here to "save the world" or even rescue a small Afghan portion of it.

And I'm certainly not here for the money.* In fact, I venture to guess that most PSC contractors are not in it for the money. Sure, back in the crazy days of Iraq in 2003-4, a handfull of guys were getting paid big bucks to put their lives on the line, but pay scales aren't like that anymore, not in Iraq and not certainly not here. The competition is tougher and the industry has matured considerably in the last ten years.

*I could get paid more sitting behind a desk in DC wearing a tie. Except that I no longer own a tie.

All that said, one does hope that there might be some small lasting positive effect from one's efforts. For me personally and for the company as a whole, the value we provide stems from two important factors: security and jobs. The service we provide is security, and in so doing we employ a large number of Afghans who would otherwise be forced to scratch out a living as farmers or laborers.

All that other stuff, building schools, health clinics, instilling democracy, the empowerment of Afghan women, establishing a system of justice, all of that is necessary and good. But they are also irrelevant without security and jobs. Without at least a basic level of security and decent employment for most Afghans, we can build all the schools we want and this effort will still fail.

So, are private security companies saving the world, or even saving Afghanistan? No, but then we don't claim to be. We simply enable others to make that effort, and hopefully keep them safe while they're doing it. And lots of Afghan men can support their families on the salaries that PSCs pay. That's good enough for me.

But of course I never was an idealist.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mistakes and Mosquitos

Been a crazy couple of weeks here lately, mostly due to internal company problems rather than external factors (i.e. bad guys). In the past month, we've wrapped up two big projects in Uruzgan and Nangarhar, mostly without incident but I'm still sad to see them go.*

*Closing down a project is almost as much work as starting one up, what with accountability lists for weapons and equipment, arranging transport and replacements and the general admin headaches.

The Uruzgan project was a constant nightmare, a combination of poor pricing and a very tough operating environment. Nevertheless, we had finally got it to the point where it was profitable when The Rug Merchant pulled the plug and opted not to take the six-month extension the client was offering. Despite the problems,* we had finally sorted out the operational issues and amortized out the upfront costs. That was the point to sit back and start making decent coin. Alas, it was not to be.

*More on the peculiar joys of Uruzgan Province in a later post.

No sooner had we pulled our people out of Uruzgan then word came down that we would be doing the same on the Nangarhar project. Unlike Uruzgan, Nangarhar is a reasonably safe place.*

*"Safe" is a relative term, of course.

We had been on the job for twelve months and things were humming along nicely. We had excellent support from the US Army, a good site with LSA constructed and paid for, a well-trained crew of expats and locals who were operating like a finely-tuned machine, and no heavy contact for the last six months (and no casualties for the duration). And to top it off, a decent profit every month.

Apparently, all that wasn't enough for the boss, so he pulled the plug. I fought that decision, but never did get a reasonable explanation. The client was left scratching their head, just as puzzled as I was.

So, yesterday we pulled all our people and gear off the site and conducted a Relief in Place with the outfit who was taking over. The managers from the new outfit were all smug smiles, knowing as they did the gold mine they'd stumbled into. I suspect that in 30 days, when the income stops rolling in, The Rug Merchant will regret that decision, but there's nothing I can do about that now.

Although I can't confirm it, I think the decisions to cut and run from Uruzgan and Nangarhar was a result of Karzai's latest brain cramp in which he announced his intention to close all PSCs by the end of the year. A couple of the big Western outfits have been raided and temporarily shut down, and I suspect that the boss wants to "fly under the radar" until the heat from MoI cools off. Last man standing after the bloodbath kind of thing. We'll see if that works. I have my doubts.

Back in Kabul now, dodging the last of the summer's mosquitos. Normally the flies are the most prevalent and annoying pest, but two of the people in my villa and three of my guards have gone down with malaria in the past few weeks, so I've become somewhat obsessive about the nasty little buggers. Malaria is treatable, but it's still no joke. If not caught in time, it can do serious liver damage, and even kill if it's particularly virulent. And the basic prophylactic treatment is some of the nastiest-tasting pills you'll ever find.

I spend a lot of effort listening for the telltale hum of a hungry mosquito, and keeping a can of industrial-stength bug killer handy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Maximizing Self-Interest

The NY Times has a good series of reports running on their website currently, written by a US Army lieutenent who was stationed in Kandahar. Unlike most of the high-level analysis offered by traditional news sources, Lt. Srinavasan's stuff is local, personal and micro-scale news, about his day-to-day challenges in dealing with Afghans in his sector. (I believe that he's writing about stuff that happened on his recent deployment, rather than posting real-time events.)

His latest column is chock full of interesting tidbits about the intricacies of dealing with locals, and neatly captures the shift that comes over an officious Afghan army officer when he realizes that he's not going to be able to take advantage of the newbies.

Unfortuately, the lieutenent's conclusions are probably spot-on:
But Captain Kalay represented to me the greatest frustration and disappointment of all: no matter how many troops, how much time, or how much money we throw at Afghanistan, no democracy can take hold and nothing will change unless this country’s leaders want it for their own nation. Captain Kalay is a powerful man — he has no incentive to want anything more than the status quo.........I was right about one thing though; this is indeed a math problem, not only to me, but also to Captain Kalay and every Afghan leader in this country. It’s about the maximization of self-interest. No matter how much Captain Kalay likes me, or even identifies with me, it doesn’t change the fact that he will act only to maximize his personal gain.

The truth of that was recently brought home to me when I was alerted to the fact that a man I considered a close friend in Afghanistan, and one of the best Afghans I had met thus far, was not as clean and as honest as I thought he was. He wasn't stealing from me directly, but he had kept certain information to himself and taken credit and profited personally from something I had worked very hard on. To make matters worse, the story of his deception was provided to me by another Afghan I had also considered to be trustworthy, but the revelation is causing me to question the trust I place in him as well.* Now I'm left wondering what kind of payment he will expect in return for revealing this secret.

*And yes, I did confirm the story through independent sources.

First installment of Lt. Srinavasan's story here. Second and third, here and here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life's Little Ironies

There are still a large number (no one knows for sure how many) shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles kicking around Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back in th '80s, the U.S. shipped hundreds of Stingers to the mujaheddin to fight the Soviets and not all of them were fired before the Red Army had had enough and bailed. In addition, the Afghan National Army of the time had some Soviet-made SAMs and there were even a few British Blowpipes shipped to the Northern Alliance.

The presence of all these portable anti-air missiles has made the Pentagon nervous for the last nine years but there have been few credible reports of any of them actually being used by the Taliban. While the missiles and launchers themselves are fairly robust, they weren't designed to be buried in some Afghan's backyard for twenty years. Time, heat, moisture and dirt take their toll. In addition, the batteries required to run the things were not designed to last for twenty years either.*

*It's not like you can just pop in a few D-cells and fire away. The batteries are manufactured specifically for the launchers, and one can't just buy new batteries off the shelf.

Still, the possibility exists that there are some functioning launchers and missiles out there and that sooner or later the trogs will find a way to get them in proper working order. There's also the chance that their friends in Iran or Pakistan could procure some more modern versions for them. Either way, it would be extremely hazardous to be a pilot in Afghanistan (especially a chopper pilot) if the bad guys get their hands on a number of SAMs.

So, in typical Pentagon fashion, DARPA throws a lot of money at the question of how to effectively counter surface-to-air missiles. Flares, chaff and jammers are pretty much standard on NATO aircraft nowadays (not so for the civilian and charter aircraft here), but those are only of partial effectiveness, especially during the lift-off and landing phases of a flight, when an aircraft is particularly vulnerable.

However, some smarty-pants at the University of Michigan is working on a cheap, solid-state laser to mount on military aircraft that will spoof or decoy incoming missiles. It's still in the early testing phases at this point, but looks promising.

*And is further anecdotal proof that the truly great ideas and most impressive people come out of the Big Ten, not those ivy-choked bastions of tweed and boat shoes on the East Coast.

The reason for this post is not actually to discuss SAM-counter measures but to draw attention to the name of the researcher at U of M who's working on this project. In one of life's little ironies, his name is Professor Mohammad Islam. He's actually named after both the prophet and the religion. Kind of like if his name was Doctor Jesus Christian.

I bet this year's Eid celebration at his house is going to kind of awkward.

Mrs. Islam: "So, what have you done for the faithful this Ramadan, dear?"
Prof. Islam: "Umm......invented a device that will make it harder for us to kill the infidel?"
Mrs. Islam: "Excuse me? You invented what?"
Prof. Islam: "Never mind. This mantu is delicious. Is there anymore tea?"

h/t to Danger Room

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And They Took My Dog Too......

Last week we moved out of the palatial villa that had been home for the past eight months and into a much smaller, more modest place in the Shahr-e-Naw section of Kabul. Not a bad house overall, considerably more homey and less institutional than the last place,* but not without its difficulties.

*Which was a marvel of modern Kabul narco-techture.

First, we’re on city power most of the time, which is unpredictable at best. We do have a generator, but only one and it’s ill-advised to run a generator 24/7. Sooner or later it burns out the motor and then you are well and truly screwed. So, we run it when we have to (or when I can convince the house manager to turn it on), but much of the time we draw power from the regular Kabul grid. That’s kind of like depending on three crackhead monkeys on exercise bikes to provide electricity. You never know how much you'll get and the cost of frustration is pretty high.*

*Actually, that’s not fair……to the crackhead monkeys. Drugged-up simians strapped to exercise bikes would at least have some entertainment value. The retards at the Ministry of Energy have nothing to recommend them, least of all entertainment value.

Secondly, I no longer qualify for the room at the top of the house. A reorganization due to client demands means that I get the room right next to the main door on the first floor. The cleaning staff rolls in chattering like hens about 0630 every morning which makes it tricky to get a decent night’s sleep when I finally rack out, usually around 0230. More importantly, if any trogs manage to get past the gate guards………….first stop, my room! Needless to say, I check my AK every night and make sure it’s close at hand.

This house does have a nice garden out back, which is useful in a country with a shortage of green spaces. Unfortunately, because the garden is so nice, the Safers decided that having Tiger digging up the flowers was not an optimum situation. And since he chews through any sort of leash or restraint in about three minutes flat, they insisted we leave him behind.

I don’t even like dogs, but I’d come to enjoy Tiger’s company and all his bizarre quirks. His visceral hostility to any strange Afghans in the compound, his obsession with well-chewed footwear, his love of spaghetti and his penchant for lunging at unprotected genitals. A good (if slightly crazy) dog. But then again, if you were a dog here, you’d be slightly crazy too.

Tiger, showing his best "Crazy Eyes"

So now Tiger is back on the mean streets of Kabul from whence he came. I hope that the six months of good food and proper care will have improved his health to the point that he can compete with the other strays, but I wonder if living with people who didn’t routinely beat him will have softened his survival instincts too much.

I find I can’t look at the mangy, feral dogs in the streets anymore, for fear I might spot Tiger in a bad state. The fate of single dog is a small thing in a place with so much misery but ultimately it’s the small things that matter. At least to me.