A Report From Kabul

Issue #104 / February 2020
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I came to Afghanistan in March of 2007 for that best and worst of all reasons… for a friend.

I hadn’t planned on ever writing about this adventure, save for my memoirs, but time has passed, things have changed, and I’ve realized that this rises to my standard for Free-Man’s Perspective: that it is interesting, important, and something I’ve never seen in print before. And so we’ll proceed.

What you’ll find in this issue is the real story of what goes on surrounding wars. We won’t be covering battlefields and their horrors, but rather the staging and supply and the business of war.

The photo above, by the way, is Kabul International Airport, looking just about as it did when I arrived in March of 2007. And this, believe it or not, was the better-looking side of the airport.

The friend I did this for was a fascinating man named Ric Cattell. I met Ric at a gym, and he struck me as bright, fun and tough. We trained together and began sharing stories and ideas. My impressions turned out to be right, but it also turned out that he had a long and much-awarded background in the British military, international security, and in related operations. He knew all the tricks, all the principles they were based upon, and all the right attitudes for proper implementation.

So, when Ric asked me to help him setup a company and to help him run it, I said yes and began working on interesting design and logistical challenges. And then came Afghanistan. Ric had great contacts and we learned there was an opportunity to set up training programs that would provide actual benefit to people, as well as paying us handsomely. And so I said yes again, even though it was at the far end of my comfort zone.

The trip was scheduled for four days but reduced to three after a suicide bomber struck and the places I was to visit were locked down. But it was a very full three days and brought me inside a world that few of us ever see… and I think a look inside this odd world was, and is, useful.

A Separate World

War zones have a feeling of separateness to them. Everyone seems to understand that what would be unthinkable in their home town is not unthinkable here. That difference, perhaps associated with an increase in adrenaline, can bother people deeply or make them feel more alive than usual. This difference can also be addictive to some people.

The difference struck me viscerally between the last two of my flights. I was waiting in the old terminal of the Dubai airport when a flight to Olso, Norway boarded, leaving me as the only westerner in the terminal… a old, beat up terminal with mosques every fifty meters along the hallway. I had to fit in, for hours, with a hundred or more Afghanis, nearly all of whom were wearing the traditional robe-type of clothing.

When the boarding of our plane to Kabul was announced, I joined everyone else and stood, inoffensively, in the middle of the crowd. This sensible response quickly got complicated, however, as all the other men started pushing each other to get to the front of the line… fairly seriously pushing each other. I couldn’t just let myself by pushed around (the guys on my left would resent that I wasn’t holding my own against the guys on my right), but I couldn’t let myself push too hard either; I was bigger and stronger than most of these guys. And so I tried to match the average push… a very odd thing to do.

But when a woman started pushing through the crowd, every man froze, instantly. I, of course joined them. Then, as soon as she had gone through, this mosh pit of robed Afghani men resumed shoving each other, me in the middle of the pack and pushing right along with them.

So, the feeling of separateness very definitely struck me, and was reinforced the whole trip, including the ride in from the airport, featuring burned out and blown up tanks on the side of the road.

And as I say, there are people who get addicted to the feeling of these places. For instance, at the daily breakfast that was served at my hotel, I had a conversation with an old pilot who wanted to regale me with stories from all the war zones he’d known, stretching over quite a few decades. The man simply couldn’t step away from the tumult and its elevated hormone levels. He was addicted to them, and in fact chased them.

The Business of War

War zones, as it happens, are double-insulated from scrutiny:

  • First, they are dangerous places. Not many accountants will spend months in a war zone reviewing the books of someone who’d rather shoot him or her than let them see the real numbers… in a place where another dead body isn’t that hard to explain.

  • Second, the people back home are trained by their politicians and news-readers that their wars are righteous and that their young people are dying for an essential and just cause. News of dirty business simply doesn’t fit with that and is nearly always pushed aside.

It is also the case that a war zone is one of the few places where high wages are available to an average working person. A truck driver in Iraq, for example, makes several times what he or she would make back home. The same goes for just about every job in the war zone that requires outsiders to be brought in.

And so there are all sorts of big-money opportunities in war zones. They are among the few remaining places where a poor boy can make good… if he doesn’t get blown up in the process.

War zones are also where bureaucrats can find big money… again behind two layers of insulation. Here, to begin making this point, are two paragraphs from the report I wrote immediately upon my return from Afghanistan:

Contracts are awarded by Western agencies, by far the largest being USAID. Because of massive fraud in the first batch of contracts, a variety of NGOs are “watching the watchers” to verify lack of fraud. This, however, has been spectacularly unsuccessful and the roughly 2,000 NGOs in Afghanistan are known for doing almost nothing but holding endless meetings.

It is universally held by the parties involved that USAID contracts are given out almost exclusively to the friends of USAID officials. So much so that a recent contract award was followed with a public notice saying that even though it seems contracts are awarded to the same folks every time, there is no corruption involved. People in the industry had a hearty laugh in response.

The company responsible for police training in Afghanistan was DynCorp, who claimed (according to the Washington Post) to have 500 trainers in Afghanistan, and to have trained 93,000 policemen. Their training contract for Afghanistan and Iraq combined was, again according to the Washington Post, $1.75 billion.

But while I was present in Kabul, I had meetings with people in positions to actually know about this. One of these was a mid-to-upper level Kabul policeman. (Important enough to get me a private meeting with the General in charge of all police training in Afghanistan.)

This man informed me that the quality of training and training materials was woefully inadequate, and that the current police force was corrupt from top to bottom1,2. He showed me the training materials he had been using. The quality was simply abysmal, provided long before by the Norwegians. It had been copied and recopied on poor copy machines. In addition, the translation was faulty.

The next day I spent at full hour with the General who oversaw all of this, at the Interior Ministry compound. The General, after a few introductions and an explanation of my interests, went on at some length about how much his department had accomplished. It was, to be blunt about it, nearly all bullshit. When I asked a few direct questions, he was forced to admit as much and became ominous. I shut up.

But as I was leaving, the General was careful to say, repeatedly, that I must pursue this “from the other end… from USAID.” That is, I’d have to find the right person at USAID and give them a piece of the action. (They, in turn, would give the General his piece of the action.) Or, to call things by their true names, I’d have to bribe everyone properly.

This is endemic in war zones, and I suppose it always has been. The incentives have always stood in favor of it. And to give you some idea of the scope, I was able to obtain a list of all the businesses pursuing these types of things in Iraq, as of 2011. The list runs to more than 3,000 companies. There is a lot of action to be had in these places.

On top of this, contracts are simply not fulfilled much of the time, regardless that money has changed hands. When I arrived at the Kabul airport, the lone X-ray machine looked like it was from the 1970s, no doubt purchased for almost nothing. The X-ray machines at the US Embassy were out of order altogether. I know of another case where a few dozen trucks were purchased; they arrived meeting all the specifications, save that none of them would even start. That part was left out of the spec, and so broken trucks were delivered.

Higher Level Business

The dirty business that concerned me in Afghanistan is the lower end of it all… the kind that rubes from the Midwest have a shot at getting rich on. The business at the upper levels is every bit as lucrative and as corrupt.

Just above my level were the international engineering companies who were building bases and rebuilding government facilities. And, of course, doing so slowly, poorly and very expensively. There is a legitimate complaint in that “getting things done in a war zone is hard,” but after five-plus years the Kabul airport remained an unmitigated disaster. There were still bomb craters in the floor, old, just slightly functioning lighting3 and a men’s room with dysfunctional everything.

And the Kabul airport was by no means an exception in this regard. The only thing that really worked in Kabul was the cell phone system. And almost the only decently-paved roads ran between the US base, the airport and the diplomatic area of the city. The rest were dirt, bombed or formerly-paved returning to dirt.

The Opium Trade

The big business of Afghanistan is opium, of course, and here are my notes on it, with some redactions:

Opium production is controlled by various warlords (including Taliban) who force farmers to grow opium poppy, then process and ship it worldwide. This business is deeply involved in paying-off and/or intimidating government officials, as well as bankers, shippers, and so on.

A specific problem in counter-narcotics is one XXXXXX, son of Afghani (official) XXXXXX. This man – widely held to be mentally disturbed – oversees a private military company involved with counter-narcotics. My sources assure me that he is involved in the trade. And, since he is a (major official)’s son, he is almost untouchable. My sources also add, unanimously, that the younger XXXXX runs more than one private prison in the provinces.

The quality of the counter-narcotics operators provided by XXXXX’s company is considered so low as to be less than useless. As far as I know, no lives have been lost because of them, but at least one group found themselves in jeopardy and were lucky to have lived.

Again here, the contracts for counter-narcotics are let via the USAID system.

According to my contacts, who had been there from the beginning of the war, there were two (and only two) members of the coalition that displayed honesty and integrity in counter-narcotics. I’ll not include their names for their sakes, but one was British and one American. Everyone else was in on the game. Think about the scope of that for a moment, considering the size of anti-drug agencies and anti-drug campaigns involved. The US Drug Enforcement Agency has 10,000 employees (not to mention contractors) and USAID has nearly 4,000 employees (again not to mention contractors). I’m not sure what the numbers are on the Brits, Canadians, French, Germans and the other 26 countries involved.

Also wrapped up in this are thousands of NGOs, who are a deeply twisted story all of their own.

Nation-State Dealings

One aspect of life in Kabul that I could examine with an expert eye was building construction. Here as well, the situation was shocking.

Concrete, for example, was always mixed with small hand-mixers. I saw only one ready-mix concrete truck, and that one was servicing the US Embassy. I was told that the concrete itself was sub-standard, and my cursory examination confirmed this.

I asked why there were no concrete plants, given that billions of dollars of Western money had come into the city. I was told that Pakistan and Iran were making fortunes dumping their reject concrete into Afghanistan. I learned further that one concrete plant had been planned, but that Pakistan was preventing its construction.

Think about what that implies for a moment:

  • That Iran, clearly considered an enemy by the US and the other “coalition members,” was doing lots of business in Afghanistan regardless. The Pakistanis, considered near-enemies by more or less everyone in the know among the western powers, are doing a tremendous amount of business as well. (Their intelligence service, ISI, has been involved with innumerable terrorist groups and events, including the sheltering of Bin Laden.)

  • That Pakistan and Iran have enough power in this area to get what they want, powerfully influencing deals between Afghani officials, western contractors and western governments.

These things, then, tell us that the world doesn’t really work the way it’s presented to us on the news. And that provides a third level of insulation for the war zone:

The truth of it would leave a billion people with broken assumptions about the world, leading to all sorts of mayhem, ranging from the philosophical to the violent.

Here were a few more of my observations:

Construction techniques are abysmal. A sort of bamboo pole system is used in place of scaffolding. This is much slower and much more dangerous, but I saw no proper scaffolding in town. When concrete is poured, no sleeves are provided for piping. Instead, holes are drilled afterward.

The cost of labor is very low. At a day-labor office around the corner from the XXXX XXXX compound, hundreds of men line-up every day for any possible sort of work. Training is non-existent; when skilled workers are needed, they are brought in from Pakistan.

The structure of security forces is three-layered: At the top are a very few westerners (perhaps less than 50 in all of Kabul), overseeing the operations only. Below them is a layer of Gurkhas in supervisory capacities. At the bottom are the security officers that are actually doing the work – all locals.

The local security officers are often dangerous. On one occasion XXXXX encountered several of these – employed by a major western contractor – guarding a man who visited the compound. They walked around the secure compound with automatic weapons on display. They were commanded by XXXX’s head of security to put them away. They refused and were told to leave. Outside the compound, they continued to display their weapons and to be generally flamboyant. Soon enough a shot was heard. Fortunately, only a car was damaged.

The Wise Old Man

I had, during my stay, a private interview, very carefully arranged, with a senior advisor to the Afghan government. If he were known to have met with me his life would have been in danger.

This gentleman was one of the very few wise old men of Afghanistan. He had lived for some years in the United States and returned to Afghanistan in hopes of helping rebuild it. A week prior to our meeting, he had traveled to one of the provinces, disguised as dying man being carried to a shrine. He had wanted to see the situation for himself. The week following he was scheduled to do the same, or nearly the same, in another province. Then he was to return, permanently, to the United States. (I hope he made it.)

The gentleman told me plainly that, “Afghanistan is a failed state.” He repeated this. In his opinion the situation was hopeless. He went on to say that the government was corrupt from top to bottom and beyond salvage. These were not words of anger, or even of disappointment, they were words of resignation.

When I talked about training, he was careful to explain to me that the level of training required went much farther than I was assuming. “They have to be taught how to walk,” he said. I suspect that a look at confusion appeared on my face. He went on to explain that the people of the provinces (millions came to Kabul in 2001-2002) don’t know how or where to walk.

At first that comment sounded ridiculous, but I remembered that I had seen many people walking, seemingly mindlessly, in the middle of streets. They seemed genuinely surprised when they almost were hit by vehicles. How it is that they didn’t learn quickly to change this habit, I don’t know. The gentleman gave me a further example: Carrying water from place to place in buckets. Upon reaching the terminus, the people just dropped the water, generally spilling a great deal of it. They had to be specifically taught to set it down gently4.

General Conditions In Kabul

I don’t think any reasonable observer would have expected good conditions in Kabul, and I certainly didn’t, but it surprised me nonetheless. I have too many stories than I can really tell (all generated in three days), but I want to recount some of the central ones so you have the feel of this place.

  • There were people begging and digging for food in garbage piles all through Kabul. I could barely turn away from one image I saw: A lone child, perhaps eight years old, digging in the garbage while a stream of adults walked by and not one stopped to help. (The adults may have been in terrible need themselves, but still…)

  • The infrastructure was abysmal. As I noted, the airport had holes in the floors, very few light fixtures at all, and is barely operable. The roads are full of large holes and the vast majority are unpaved. Electrical power is inconsistent and people who want reliable power must run their own generators. The water is not considered suitable for drinking by westerners.

  • My entry from the airport was telling: I walked over the field of rubble shown in our opening photo to the first parking lot. There I found a paved lot and men carrying rifles, but not my driver. I walked to the next parking lot, this one partly paved, but again not my driver. Then I walked around a corner and saw what looked to me like a Middle Eastern refugee camp, complete with poorly dressed people hanging on a fence. I literally walked backwards, back around the corner. After a moment it occurred to me that I did see an opening in the fence, and a man who looked out of place. I returned slowly and found that the man out of place was my driver. He hadn’t been able to pay enough bribes to get into the good parking lots.

  • Some business was being done. Food was sold on the streets, and there were a few streets full of stores with plumbing fixtures, washers, dryers, and so on. Nonetheless, the majority were considered lucky if they had water (of whatever purity) in their homes.

  • Almost no western troops are ever seen in the city. The only credible show of force on the streets are the police and Afghani security men. I never saw a western military person during my stay; they were walled-up in their compounds. I saw but two western humanitarian-aid workers (associated with some NGO), and that was only because they were on one of my flights5. I never saw an identifiable aid worker on the streets, nor any that I suspected of being an aid worker.

  • I developed an instinctive level of trust with a young woman working for my chief contact. On about the second or third day, both of us alone in a meeting room, she needed to ask me a question. “XXXX and the others are nice,” she said, “but I need to know the truth. If I went to America, could I really have a car?” My reaction was about what you’d expect, and I informed her that she’d have to work hard to get the car, but she could do that, and yes, she could drive it wherever she wanted… and that millions of young women do.

Beyond their shock value, what the conditions in Kabul told me was that there was no reason the Taliban couldn’t come back to power. The West simply hadn’t made things better for the people of Kabul. And if they couldn’t do much for the people of the capitol city, they couldn’t have done much for the provinces either.

The combination of deep poverty, rich westerners playing bribery games, easy money in opium and thoroughly corrupt, western-supported government is perhaps as good a combination as can be had for the Taliban or similar groups to build power.

Business Odds And Ends

I gathered a fair amount of business intelligence at this time and I think passing some of it along helps round out the picture. And so, here are a few of the prices and terms I found:

  • Fuel delivery from Kabul to Masir e Sherif, 2 times per week, was selling for $4000 per day, with further setup costs to be covered by client.

  • A close protection team (bodyguards) of 12 men (8 on 4 off) with housing expenses and flights, were paying £175 per person, per day, with £100 per person per day going to the bodyguards.

  • Transportation services sold to a Western army, from Kandahar to Tirin kot, 2-4 times per week, was costing $2,700 per day, with set up costs covered by the client.

  • One local guard force of western contractors cost only $250. per person per day, plus all expenses including flights to and from the UK. It paid each guard £100 per day. These were the lowest numbers we heard, and bear in mind that these men were paid for every day they were in Afghanistan, whether or not they were on duty.

  • The initial set up costs for a house rental, furniture, and various expenses including a car were $25,000. After that, it was $18,000. per month for house, local guard force, fuel, generator, general upkeep on house.

  • Salary for 3 ex pats (aka, westerners) was $25,000 per month. Travel expenses were additional: $5,000 plus flights every 2 months.

  • Securing contracts was thought to require a minimum of 6-9 months, after which you could move out of Afghanistan and utilize your contacts from a distance.

Final Thoughts

As I said at the open, war zones are strange places. And this one, by all accounts, was quite typical. For example, my breakfast companion, the old pilot, thought it was quite the same as all the other war zones he’d know, going back to and including Vietnam. And given that the incentives involved are pretty much the same, serious differences would be surprising.

The whole war business ends up being something of a big, traveling caravan. The war starts, embassies are set up, and the war-zone profiteers pile in. A few good locations for meetings are found or made, support and supply operations begin, foreign aid dispensers arrive, friends of politicians circulate and communicate back and forth to the controllers of the big money spigots, and all is hustle.

Oil-workers, truck drivers and construction workers decide to take the risk for better paychecks than they’d get anywhere else, and soon are flying back and forth. You can pick them out at transit points like the airports of Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dubai. The bosses of international construction companies flock to DC and the other capitol cities for lunches and dinners at fine restaurants or private houses; tremendous amounts of money change hands without visibly changing hands.

Reporters, at the same time, auger to be “embedded with the troops,” guaranteeing face time on the evening news. Big-name news people will fly into heavily guarded compounds (where they’re probably safer than in Kansas) and report “live from Kabul,” gaining lots of face time on the news. Their bosses will trade favors with political operators.

All of this, we must remember, is unseen by Joe and Jane Average. It is double- or triple-insulated. Television viewers will be told only the facts that make them feel good about the war, save, of course, that Party A will still get some shots on on Party B and vice-versa. Still, they’ll never say much that might make “the troops” appear less than heroic6 or make the overall operation look bad. (The last real exception to this involved some of the reporting around the Vietnamese War, but even then the major networks were careful not to push it too far.)

Everyone’s making money, everyone feels like part of the big game, and few members of their caravan will be shot or even terribly inconvenienced.

And once the war winds down, everyone goes home and waits for the next theater of opportunity.

Those who aren’t in the caravan – those who live in the war zone – aren’t so lucky. They very often suffer and are left behind, often in the same condition or even worse, when the caravan moves along.

And, of course, those who end up paying for it all have no choice in the matter.

And so, there you have it. This is what really surrounds war, whether we hear about it or not.

* * * * *

See you next month.


1This was fully verified over the course of my trip. The level of open shakedowns by police officers was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else. For example, any western-looking person passing through the Kabul airport (exiting, not entering) was shaken-down. Three different policemen demanded (and got) money from me. The last of them stood by me, increasingly hostile, for several minutes, telling me “Give. I see you have money.” This in the full sight and hearing of many people packed tightly next to me in multiple queues. As he grew increasingly hostile, I handed him a twenty-dollar bill, after which he left me alone. The pattern was that you handed the policeman some cash, whereupon he would bring you to the front of a queue, order those already in line to stand back (poor locals, having been there for quite some time), then inserting you in front. Again, this was done quite openly.

2My driver and I passed a certain traffic circle in Kabul every day. There, policemen tried continually to stop us and to demand bribes from us. My driver, with some skill, avoided them, but the policemen screamed at us and I watched them stop other vehicles. Again, this was done overtly.

3The man checking my passport had no lighting (presumably no electricity) and had to hold the passport up to get some illumination through a bomb-created gap in the wall that still hadn’t been repaired. (Not exaggerating!)

4A year or two later I repeated this story to a well-connected friend, and he took it to the boss of Xe (Blackwater). The boss replied that yes, it was a problem, but that once the workers got some proper nutrition it went away.

5The NGOs were broadly held to be useless, hidden away in safe compounds and present in Afghanistan almost entirely for publicity and bragging rights.

6It should be added that individual soldiers are at the bottom of the list of those who are culpable. Some few are nasty to begin with (as with any large group) and some are damaged by the exercise, but most signed up either for commendable reasons or because they simply needed a job.