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Shakedown

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By Tim Lynch

Printed with permission from:  http://blog.freerangeinternational.com/

Afghanistan

We had to make a run to Kabul last Friday to take some clients to the airport and to pick up new ones.  The Jalalabad to Kabul road is considered very dangerous by the military and US State Department, of medium risk by the UN, and very little risk by me and the hundreds of internationals who travel the route daily.  The Taliban or other Armed Opposition Group (AOG) have never ambushed internationals on this route with the sole exception of taking some pot shots at a UN convoy last week.  The reason this route remains open is that it is too important to all the players in Afghanistan to risk its closure – almost 80% of the Afghan GDP flows along it so the Taliban would have a real PR problem if they cut it causing a large scale humanitarian crisis.  The criminal gangs and drug lords who cooperate with the Taliban would also become very agitated if the road were closed and probably turn on any real Taliban groups foolish enough to be within their reach if that happened.   We don’t take this run lightly but we often choose to make it without body armor or long guns because we are afraid of being ambushed by the other villains – members of the Afghan security forces.  On Friday our long string of luck ran out and we became the latest victim of the Afghan security company game.  It cost us two sets of body armor which we cannot replace because you cannot import body armor into Afghanistan and we were lucky to get away with the weapons (which are also irreplaceable.)

Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations.  A few of them are very shady companies and deserve all the contempt and bad karma in the world to befall their greedy principals.  But most of the companies operating here are well run and highly professional and to facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the efforts to regulate the industry.  However that effort has been stymied at every turn by Afghan government officials who seem less interested in regulation or the rule of law than establishing rules from which they will clearly benefit.   Just one of many examples – when the first set of regulations was written they stated the payment of all fees and penalties would be made to the Ministry of the Interior (MoI.)  The Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA) politely pointed out that the new Afghanistan constitution specifically stated that all fees and taxes would be paid to the Ministry of Finance ONLY.  There are many internationals working daily in the Ministry of Finance (MoF) as mentors so fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.  It was pretty clear to us that our assistance in Afghan constitutional law interpretation was not well received and the process has gone downhill ever since.

There still are no valid laws regarding PSC’s in Afghanistan but there have been a series of “temporary” licenses issued which every legitimate company in Afghanistan has acquired.  These “temporary” licenses of course mean little with state security organs not part of the MoI.   Afghan security forces have arrested internationals working for licensed PSC’s who had individual weapons permits and letters from their general in MoI and thrown them in jail for weeks at a time.  Although we cannot replace the body armor stolen from us we were lucky to get off lightly, it would be very difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing and international out of the Puli Charki prison.

Here is how it went down.  We were through the Mahipar pass and almost to Kabul.   We came up to the last “S” shaped curve before the Puli Charki checkpoint and there was what I think to be an NDS (National Directorate of Security)  checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and some depth –  a good ¼ mile between the east and west bound checkpoints.

Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me – his Dad had a stroke and he is back in Oz with Ms. Beth (his Dad is doing great by the way which is something we are all thankful for) so I had my good friend and official driver in the contested areas Hajii come down from Kabul to drive us up.  This turns out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving – when they see an armed Expat with a local driver it is an indicator for an “ illegally” armed international which means big cash if they play their cards right.  I flashed my weapons permit and license but the boys noted my two clients – two PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had body armor.  In Afghanistan body armor, (used to protect clients) armored vehicles (also used to protect clients) and radios are considered the tools of war and those of us working here must obtain licenses for them.  But clients change constantly so we cannot get individual licenses for them.  We have also never had a problem with catch 22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.

The reason I take Hajii on all missions into contested areas is because he is a former Taliban commander of some repute (emphasis on former.)  He has also been with me through thick and thin and I love the guy – we talk for hours although I understand very little of what he says and I doubt he understands anything I say.  But he is useless when dealing with the law because who knows what the hell he is up to when he’s not working for me but whatever it is I am certain it is not legitimate.  I heard him say right after we were stopped something like “the armed white guy is a little crazy and I would not arrest him if I were you.”  I am pretty sure that was what he said because I gave him a loud WTF Hajii?  And he did not smile indicating things were serious.

The NDS wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license.  They also started searching our baggage – I had another gig starting up in Kabul and had extra rounds, magazines, and a first aid kit all of which is considered illegal (for internationals) in Afghanistan.  The “commander” who is the pot bellied slack jawed fellow in the black fleece started pulling all my stuff out for confiscation.  I looked at Hajii who shook his head slightly giving me the go sign and went off like a firecracker at the “commander” who also instantly lost his cool and started to yell back at me.  That is a great sign because it indicates fear on his part and I knew I was not going to lose my spare ammo (which is expensive) and first aid kit.  When he started yelling I started smiling my wolf smile which fellow sheepdogs would recognize as a pre-incident indicator and criminals recognize as a sign they have overplayed their hand.   But they took the body armor off my MIT charges and I really could do nothing about it.  The “commander” gave me his own wolf smile when his boys stole the body armor because he knew there was no cell signal in the canyon, so what was I going to do?  You can only push so far in a situation like this.

Here is the weird part.  Amy Sun our other MIT charge was snapping pictures and caught three armed men way up on the ridge line watching things unfold.  They were armed but way outside the range of the AK – 47’s they were carrying.

Here is another look:

 

 

I have no idea who these guys were but do know that the Taliban and in particular Al Qaeda fighters value good body armor and pay well for it.  I suspect whoever these guys were, they could now be the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor.  I am probably wrong about that but my current disgust over this incident drives me to assume the worst.

This kind of harassment has been routine for the past 18 months in Kabul.  We have been spared because we have the proper licenses and travel normally in pairs.  Yesterday I was copied on an email from the security director of the biggest US AID contractor in the land about one of their projects in the north.  It is slightly redacted:

This afternoon Gen Khalil, commander of the police in Sherbegan, visited one of our well sites demanding to see the PSC license of (deleted) Security. He informed (deleted) that the license expired and that they have until 16:00 to produce a new one or face arrest.

Rather than facing arrest all LN guards were stood down and the Expats and TCNs went to Mazar to stay over for the night.

This leaves one of our sites uncovered and can have a serious impact on our operations.

Can MOI please as a matter of urgency issue new licenses?

Maybe someone in MOI can talk some sense into (deleted) head. His no is xxxxxxx

Which brings us to the US Embassy and how they react to news like this which is (to my mind) deplorable.  The embassy take is – and I quote “we do not encourage US citizens to come to Afghanistan for any reason and will not help you in your dealings with the Afghan government.  If you are arrested we will endeavor to ensure you have adequate food and a blanket.”  It is hard for me to relate the disappointment with which I view our Department of State.  I was the project manager for the American Embassy guard force and know exactly what goes on inside our embassy but because I have invested every penny in my company I will refrain from further comment.

A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious.  The local people are the prize here – everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level.  But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years here we still cannot get the most basic infrastructure programs accomplished.  The most efficient way to do that is with small numbers of armed contractors who are able to work at the district level for extended periods of time.  There are a few people doing that right now – armed because they have to be, but working at direct daily quality control of Afghan building contractors working on various reconstruction projects.  We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and quality controlling projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen.  That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because they can be accounted for. Donor dollars and expat project management would significantly help break the funding logjam which currently hampers district level reconstruction of roads, irrigation systems and micro hydro power generation.  At some point one hopes the powers that be will realize this and aggressively support the Americans and other internationals who are operating far outside the comfortable confines of Kabul.  For right now we are basically on our own which will eventually lead to tragedy.  Nothing good will come from continued confrontations between dodgy police running “surprise” checkpoints and armed internationals.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    mike kakara · 10 years ago
    Tim ,
    Although I 've never been to your side of the globe I have traveled quite a bit South of my home Texas.In Mexico what occured is known as the "bite" Had ocassion to be involved in a minor accident years ago, when the local Feds showed up my pal Robles told me not in any terms to claim any injury cause this would lead to more $ why do the leader of the locals allways have big ole pot bellies? Any way the dude inquires if "infirmo" which means are you hurt ,nope everythang is cool all smiles the local fed had us follow him downtown and after much discussion and a few toadhides we went on our merry way. There is a bunch more to the story , however I don't think it's appropriate to dicuss in the manner we speak. Keep on keeping on ,shoot low they may be crawling. My sincere gratitude for your fine service to our country, and what your about now. Thoughts and prayer are with you and yours
    Regards Mike
  • This commment is unpublished.
    thad lucken · 10 years ago
    http://www.tfp.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1133

    what a good guy, really have to give it up for him.

    keep it up, youre doing good work too-tl
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Huntress · 10 years ago
    Please read: Talking With The AOG. http://blog.freerangeinternational.com/?p=119

    "We were asked by a journalist if we could set up an interview for a story heƒ??s working on. "
    Check out the photo of the journalist's & see if you can figure out who he might be ;-)

    The story the journalist was working on is" The Road To Hell".

    Please take some time to read the many other dispatches Tim & Shem have posted. These guys are courageous & There is much to be learned about AFG from them and we can thank Mike for bring them to our attention.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joe215 · 10 years ago
    "A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious. The local people are the prize here ƒ?? everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level. "

    Anyone who has followed MY's dispatches over the years will recognize this sentiment from Iraq in 2006. Surely, with Petraeus in charge now, we will heed the hard learned lessons from Iraq and apply them to Afghanistan (Feet on the street, micro loans, etc...)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kim · 1 years ago
    Characters look actually freaking good.

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