Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kunar Shakedown

Last week, a Scottish development worker with DAI, Inc. was kidnapped on her way back to Jalalabad from the city of Asadabad in Kunar province.*

*That’s “out east” to those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Afghanistan.

According to reports, her two-car convoy was stopped by armed men on the road south of Asadabad and herself and three Afghans traveling with her were marched into the mountains at gunpoint. The official Taliban spokesman has said, “It wasn’t us,” but that’s really beside the point. If, as seems likely, she was grabbed by a criminal kidnap gang, the Taliban (assuming they want the hostage) will simply buy her off them for a small cash payment.

The ANP immediately rounded up some village elders from the area and asked them to negotiate her release, but they were unsuccessful.*

*According to one of my guys who is related to one of the proposed negotiators, the elders basically said to the ANP, “You want us to go up in those mountains with a police escort and try to save a foreign female infidel. Are you shitting me?”

DAI, Inc. is an “implementation partner” for USAID, which basically means that AID provides the funding and the scope/requirements of the project, and outfits like DAI go out and actually get it done. Or more accurately, they find local companies who can go out and get it done, since a lot of these projects are in unsafe areas (obviously) where Westerners fear to tread. DAI personnel maintain a project management and oversight role, with occasional trips to the project site. Except in this case, it didn’t seem to work out so well.

The missing woman was traveling low-profile, in a couple of Toyota Corollas, with three of her local staff and no security detachment.* Now I’m on record as being a proponent of the low-profile approach, but no security is taking it a little far.

*As opposed to high-profile, which usually means B6 armored SUVs, a scout vehicle and a chase car/gun truck, at a minimum. Basically “guns up” from gate to gate. A big fat rolling target in my opinion.

Perhaps she was in a bind and couldn’t wait for security, or maybe she got some bad advice. There’s even the possibility of some collusion from within the local staff. Either way, she’s gone and no one’s quite sure when/if she’s coming back.

Right on the heels of that news comes word that DAI is under investigation from the Inspector General at USAID concerning roughly $5 million USD that was paid for security on their projects and may have found its way to the Taliban as part of a protection racket.

Let me save the IG some time and a lot of paperwork.


*Although whether they are Taliban, Hezb-islami or just garden-variety scumbags is hard to say.

When you pay cash for security directly to local power brokers in unsafe districts, it almost always ends up in the pocket of somebody you’d rather not know. Think about it. The powerful figures in these districts (every district has at least one) have the influence to pull together fifty or sixty fighters with weapons, and yet the district is still unsafe. That’s because the guys you’re paying for security are the same people who cause the problems that require the security in the first place. Where I come from, it’s called a shakedown.

I wonder if somebody at DAI got wind of the USAID investigation and froze some payment to the local security force. If so, it’s possible that this kidnapping is nothing more than an attempt to collect on some outstanding debts.

In fact, I hope that’s the case, because then it can be solved and this woman returned simply by paying out some cash. If instead she’s being held by hard-core jihadists, then it gets a lot tougher to secure her release.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jimi Heselden, O.B.E.

The name Jimi Heselden probably doesn't mean much to most people. It didn't mean anything to me until I read his obituary the other day.

Best known as the guy who bought the Segway scooter company, he is more importantly (to me at least) the man who invented the HESCO barrier technology.

HESCOs are ubiquitous here in Afghanistan, providing force protection to every ISAF base and most ANSF posts and government ministries. Although simple in construction and concept, they are a major evolution on old-fashioned sandbags. It's impossible to calculate the number of lives saved by HESCOs in the past nine years, but I'm sure it's considerable.

Ironically for a man who invented such an important life-saving technology, Heselden was apparently killed when he accidentally drove a Segway scooter off a cliff and into a river near his home.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Lt. Srinivasan (or al-Hindustani as the ANA call him) has another good post up at the NY Times At War blog about his time down south co-located with an ANA unit.

This bit reminded me of my first couple of days, now almost nineteen months ago:
This wasn’t about respect anymore. It was about trust. I could watch their eyes retelling my every move and word since I set foot on this post. They had been sizing me up this entire time.
I felt like a lamb surrounded by a herd of wolves, teasing me by keeping their fangs at bay.

Plus, I'm curious to know where an ANA lieutenent got his hands on a chrome-plated 9mm Desert Eagle pistol when I have to get by with a crappy Smith & Wesson.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Contractor Casualty Numbers

According to ProPublica, more contractors than soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first six months of 2010, the first time that has happened since these wars began.

The report mentions the local nationals who work as translators and drivers for the military, but it’s based on Department of Labor statistics so I suspect that the numbers of contractor deaths are actually underreported. For one, most locally-owned PSCs in Afghanistan aren’t required to report their LN losses to the USG, and those are the companies that typically suffer the heaviest casualties. Secondly, there are plenty of LNs (at least in Afghanistan) that work as subcontractors to Western-owned PSCs and those numbers aren’t usually reported either.

If the employee isn’t on file with the USG, or if there are no DBA insurance payments involved, then the casualties don’t get entered into the official statistics. I don’t even want to guess how high the real numbers are.

(h/t to Feral Jundi)