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)

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.