Curious Circumstance


April 12, 2006

Mysterious Land

Mysterious Land

I met up with an old friend in Dubai. Steve Shaulis and I served together in the Army, and we attended the Defense Language Institute together. After we both left the Army, we headed in very different directions. Steve began doing business in places like Romania, Uzbekistan, Thailand, and Singapore, and I started a business in Poland. Still, over the past twenty years we’ve managed to stay in contact, encountering each other now and then on three continents and in perhaps a dozen countries.

Steve first began his forays into Afghanistan in 1997, years before the latest phase of the war. Back then, he was doing business during the reign of the Taliban. Sometimes I’d visit Steve when he was home in Florida, where we’d don our scuba gear at night and walk out his back door to hunt for lobsters in the ocean. While we were finning underwater in the darkness cutting swaths with our lights to lobster hideouts, faxes from Afghanistan would be piling up in his office.

Although television was eventually banned there, many of the Taliban were fanatical about pro wrestling. Steve looks like a wrestler, and he’d sometimes wear wrestling T-shirts which often prompted the Taliban guards to ask for updates on their favorites. The Undertaker was particularly popular there. “They might be fanatics,” he told me, “but they are simple folk.”

Steve’s agricultural business in Afghanistan and other countries continued to grow, but in a flash a murky war started taking a more definable shape. General Ahmad Shah Massoud, in northern Afghanistan, likely would have been our greatest ally against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but on September 9th, 2001 he sat for an interview with two assassins who came as journalists. Their camera was packed with explosives; General Massoud was killed. Steve emailed me about the assassination. Just two days after Massoud’s death, four jets loaded with innocent people began slamming into their targets in the United States.

When the second jet roared into the Word Trade Towers, I knew instantly that Osama bin Ladin and Al Qaeda were the most likely perpetrators. It suddenly occurred to me that Massoud’s death was, in all likelihood, part of the attack: a smart move on the part of our enemies. I reached for the phone and called Steve Shaulis, finding him in Singapore that day.

What began that day is a story that will unfold across generations. But on that September 11th people around the world finally realized the credible and proximate threat of Al Qaeda. It was undeniable: they really had declared war on the West. When the Coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan started, war raged around him, but Steve continued to do business in Afghanistan.

I spent most of 2003 in Asia. When Steve mentioned he was bringing a delegation of Afghan officials to Thailand to meet with American and Thai poppy eradication experts, I stopped into Thailand to meet with my old friend.

Enemy operations in Afghanistan are financed largely with drug money. Poppy eradication in Thailand had been a great success, and though the Taliban are widely credited in the press for having stamped out poppies in Afghanistan, their eradication program had only succeeded for a year. After the invasion, the Afghan farmers again planted opium poppies, so in 2002-03, poppy propagation in Afghanistan was on the up tick. Then, in 2004 the crop was bigger still, exceeded only by the crop in 2005. A State Department official recently told me that the 2006 harvest will be the biggest in world history—and nearly all of the opium from those flowers will be exported.

There exists responsible and legal poppy cultivation in places such as India and Turkey, where there are strict controls for producing medicine from the opiates. Afghan opium, however, is used to make the heroin that floods the veins of Asians and Europeans and is spilling over to America, and demand for it ensures our enemies an overfilled cash box. Heroin is a perfect disaster for Afghanistan, and for us.

The Coalition forces are in Afghanistan for the long haul; permanent bases are under construction. Steve is currently fulfilling $15 million in base construction contracts in dangerous parts of the country. These contracts are mostly for the United Kingdom, the United States, and the United Nations.

I hooked up with Steve in Dubai; we met with some Swedish government representatives who are outsourcing many of the logistics and support roles for their military in Afghanistan. The trend of using contractors to support military efforts is not unique to the United States. In Afghanistan, Canadian, Swedish, Danish and United Kingdom military leaders are increasingly employing private organizations in their logistics operations. Businessmen like Steve are awarded contracts worth millions of dollars, but seldom do buyers get people of Steve’s caliber: Westerners with linguistics skills who can communicate in local languages such as Pashto and Dari, and whose excellent area knowledge and local contacts long predate the present war.

Steve’s colleagues range from warlords to politicians (sometimes these are one and the same people), and also include the shepherds and shopkeepers who watch the routes where he drives all over Afghanistan. His company has about six hundred full-time employees and a temporary work force that ranges from one to two thousand people. Most employees are Afghans. He knows that some of his own employees raise poppies on the side, which distresses the American government officials who hear about it. But what can be done? Going to certain parts of Afghanistan and refusing to work with those who participate in the poppy trade would be like going to America and refusing to do business with people who play the numbers.

Afghanistan from the sky

On the way to drop the rental car at the Dubai Airport, Steve spotted a Starbucks. He parked illegally, and ran in for a final cup of coffee before we headed back into the war later that day.

From Dubai our jet flew over the Arabian Gulf. After some time, the wings were over land again, and we began flying over what appeared to be desolate mountains, interspersed with desert. There were occasional signs of people below, but for at least half the flight—lasting two and a half hours—it seemed as though we were flying over the surface of a distant planet. Although the landscape shows the markings of water that flowed and collected in the past, for great stretches I saw no water. Eventually there were clouds and rivers below; as snow-covered peaks came into view I snapped a few black and white shots.

As the jet descended into the Kabul airport, the first traces of green and blue emerged.

Software is able to “remove” dust from photos. To demonstrate the amount of dust, half the photo remains as it was shot; the other half is cleaned and enhanced.

Kabul is mostly safe, and relatively colorless

Some troops have begun calling the battle for Afghanistan “the Forgotten War.” They are largely correct. When it comes to national and media attention, Iraq is not much better, but since there are roughly six or seven times more troops in Iraq, it might seem that our soldiers there would get more recognition. An Army officer told me recently that per capita casualties for Afghanistan and Iraq are nearly the same. Although six times as much coverage would be about right, mathematically, most soldiers I encountered who were serving in Iraq told me they had never seen a journalist there.

Businesses and homes

Kabul, April 2006

Final approach

The jet began its descent toward a primitive airport that looked like something out of a Flintstones cartoon. Farmers’ fields presented themselves, and as the wings sliced ever lower, cars and occasional colored roofs grew closer.

Immigration and baggage claim were simple affairs; we emerged from the building to find one of Steve’s Afghan drivers. Just as the driver approached I heard a karummph! An explosion near the end of a runway, and a small mushroom cloud of dust drifted into the air.

We drove through the streets of Kabul, unescorted. Naturally, every motorcyclist appeared to be a potential assassin. Nothing happened. There were donkeys and goats, bicycles and barbed wire, soldiers with guns, several traffic jams, men changing money in a traffic circle, and food stalls up and down the lanes.

There was Governor Schwarzenegger, beacon for body builders and immigrants around the world. He would like to be President of the United States but will have to change the law of the land first.

Special delivery: There were deliveries here and there, including this one marked for the French Embassy. I suspected a bomb, of course.

Road sign advertising Cell phone service (left) and hotels (below)

As in Iraq, there are cocoons where foreigners can stay and rarely risk bullets or bombs, but little happens in the cocoons that cannot happen more comfortably at home in the States. We wove down the streets, facing traffic head-on at times, until we came to a road where, just a few doors down from Steve’s place, a retired and feared warlord lives amid heavy security.

Before coming to Afghanistan, I emailed to Nick Meo, a British journalist whom I had come to know in Asia a couple of years before. Nick is now in Iraq, but he had spent much recent time in Afghanistan. I asked Nick for suggestions about traveling in Kandahar, Helmand, and Urozgan provinces.

He answered quickly:

Yes. My suggestion is don’t go. They are too dangerous to travel in by yourself if you don’t know your way around. If you’re going with Steve then you should be okay, but they are all very dangerous places now and security has deteriorated massively in the last year. You might just about get away with driving or flying to Kandahar, and making some trips outside the city—maybe to Lashkargar. But you will not make it back alive from north Helmand or Uruzgan.

I did not take his advice, but as of this writing I am still alive. The journey has begun.


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