Category Archives: Thoughts from Kabul, Afghanistan

These blog posts are observations from my 44-day consulting assignment related to export promotion in Kabul, Afghanistan from May to July 2010.

Days 14-18: Slow Going, 6 June 2010

Not the most enlightening email. We had three straight days of lockdown. Then we work on compound on Saturdays in order to give the Afghan staff the day off. So, it was four straight days in the house.

1. BOREDOM. The jirga lockdown caused me to finally hit major boredom. The four straight days in the house did me in. I didn’t think I could ever be bored of ping-pong. Andrey, the best ping-pong player here, and I split our first eight games. Now he usually beats me. Part of it is that he’s better than me. Part of it is that after 6-10 games of ping pong per day for ten consecutive days, I can’t even concentrate.

2. AFGHAN MOURNING. An Afghan officemate’s 24 year old younger brother died yesterday.  The Afghan mourning period is forty days. Day 1 is the burial. To prepare for the burial, family members wash the body. If one tear falls on the body, the washing must be restarted. Day 2 is the condolence. Day 3 is the hitam. It is an important day. I think it’s kind of like a somber wake. The whole mourning cycle is one year.

4. FLIES II. The flies in my room were driving me nuts. One of my housemates has an electronic fly swatter/zapper. It’s shaped like a tennis racquet. You swat the fly with the racquet, press the button and ZAP! Over the years, I have stopped killing most bugs. Mosquitos and bees of course. Generally, if the bug is not bothering me, I just toss it outside. But I had enough of these flies. I was like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. I grabbed this zapper and closed the door behind me. Just like Bronson dressing up like an old lady and riding the subway, I opened a banana and waited for these flies and said “Hey, you punk.” Two hours later there were fly carcasses strewn about and my bloodlust sated.

– Afghanistan is landlocked. During the old Silk Road days, the Khyber Pass came through Afghanistan and it was a major overland trading route. Unfortunately, it has now seaport and international trade in the modern era is difficult. Any way I had my first fish meal yesterday. Fish is my favorite. It was such a treat.
– Finally watched the Batman movie with Heath Ledger. He was good in it.
– Ping-pong update: Split with Andrey tonight.
– Kids finishing school. Doing Lake Association track and awaiting the start of flag rugby. Visiting with their cousins from out of town.
– More in a couple of days.


Days 12-13 – Jirga Lockdown and Working Blue, 4 June 2010

It’s Friday. The jirga ends today but we are still locked down. Security is awaiting for information that will let us travel. Friday is everyone’s normal shopping and restaurant day. But as they say, discretion is the better part of valor.

1. SUICIDE BOMBERS. I had a conversation with an Afghan about poverty. He mentioned that a relative or a friend was involved in a suicide bombing years ago. The bomber didn’t believe in or support the Taliban. He was desperately poor and the Taliban offered him a great deal of money to do a suicide bombing. It was the only way he could envision taking care of his family. I guess this is why we need to attack poverty.

2. FLIP FLOPS. I use a shared bathroom. I am pretty much the only who uses it but there is often water on the floor and I can’t always trace its origins. So I went to the Finest Supermarket to purchase a pair of flip-flops/sandals. (For you New Yorkers, I was hoping it was an old school Finast but it’s not.) There are various sandals and flip-flops there but nothing in an 11 1/2 or 12. A young clerk came over to help me and said, “This is impossible, sir. You have very big foot.” I bought a size 10.

3. BBQ PARTY. We had a nice TAIT (Thank Allah It’s Thursday) BBQ on the roof last night. The treat was hamburgers and buns. But even better were some outstanding lamb chops. Never mind I that I supposedly gave up lamb. (AJC: You and your family’s influence.) It was also the first time I had lettuce since arriving here. They do a chopped vegetable salad here similar to an Israeli or Lebanese salad. There was good camaraderie and I had my first three beer evening in Kabul. I loaded up some party music on the iPod and one of my colleagues had one of those speaker systems where you can drop your iPod directly into a slot and it plays. All in all, it was a nice time. Back in the gym today.

4. BANNED WEBSITES. As you might expect, any sort of objectionable Internet content is banned in Afghanistan. I was on the Sports Illustrated website. I clicked on the swimsuit issue link. Banned. Hmm… sexual image. OK, I get it. There was a link to a site offering free downloads of Kid Rock music. Banned. The site was sponsored by Jim Beam. OK, I get it. Rock music and alcohol. Then I clicked on a link about former Giant WR Amani Toomer’s father operating the scoreboard in Oakland. Banned. I don’t get it. Football? No, you can click on Scoreboards? Amani Toomer? Diva wide receivers? Technical glitch? Who knows?

5. MANGOES. Mangoes are very popular here. They are imported from India. They don’t slice them here like we do. They knead them until they are very soft, cut off the end, squeeze the mango, and suck out the contents. If you have ever watched an Afghan man work over a mango, it’s like he’s squeezing … well … a part of the female anatomy. The kneading process often takes them quite awhile. Either there’s a lot of satisfaction or pent-up frustration in mango eating.

6. BRINGING A RATED-R PEACE TO AFGHANISTAN. I will preface these remarks by saying that I fully understand that I sound like a sexist. (Debbie might say if I sound like a sexist, then …) Thinking about the extreme poverty, the mangoes and the banned websites, I was chatting with some of my colleagues about the situation here. Over a few drinks, we surmised that maybe what would help here is a little more skin. Life is difficult. Food is hard to come by. Alcohol is banned. There are very few pleasures in life. If I were a Taliban, I’d be angry too. Maybe a few more scantilly clad ladies would make life tolerable. Most men are not angry when enjoying the visage of a woman. Do you really want to go to the Promised Land and meet 72 virgins when there are attractive ladies in the here and now? If every woman was in a burqa, I’d be ready to do something crazy too. When I was getting my medical exam for my trip, my doctor suggested that the US Government buy a couple million iPods, PSPs, etc. and deliver them to the Taliban and the young people. His feeling was that these people need fun in their lives. Diversions. If we take those iPods and load them up with a bunch of FHM and SI swimsuit issues, between the video games and the ladies, these guys would be a lot more chilled out. (-;

– So far, my stay has been OK. I am flattered that several of my colleagues who I socialize with have asked me to request a long-term assignment here. When I tell them that I have no interest in a long-term assignment here, they look at me like I am crazy. Good money, limited home responsibilities, no expenses, all the basics of life (food, laundry, housing, etc.) are taken care of, etc. I’m glad they’re happy but it’s not for me.
– We don’t have screens on the windows and the flies are about to drive me insane. They don’t bite but they are buzzing around everywhere. They are the little fast ones too. Not the big, slow ones.
– Weather is beautiful if a bit dusty. Warm but not hot in the day. Cool and breezy at night.
– 8 1/2 hour time difference is great for watching American sports. I woke up at 7:30 AM and watched the second half of Game 1 of the Celtics-Lakers series.

Day 11 – JIRGA! JIRGA!, 1 June 2010

Jirga lockdown begins tomorrow. The Afghan staff is psyched. 4-day weekend. So, I will take a break from emails for a few days unless anything really interesting happens.

1. REAL WORK. I will create a marketing campaign for a fruit and vegetable processing company here on behalf of the Export Promotion Agency. If I help this company directly, I am in trouble. Our project works with the Afghan Government and trade associations. A different project works with the companies. I can tell you from experience that working with the businesses is always better than working with the Governments. So, in order to do this more interesting work, not to mention useful, I will be instructing the Export Agency on how to conduct a marketing campaign and use the fruit and vegetable company as a “practical case study.”
2. QUALITY BULLSH–. A project team member just returned from holiday. We hadn’t met previously. Anyhow, after two weeks away, he was asked to jump ‘back in the game’ immediately and talk with visitors from DC. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll give them quality bullsh–. ”

3. ROSETTA STONE SHAME. I asked our IT guy, a local, if there was a spare computer that I could test my pirated Rosetta Stone software. He said No because the computers are all supplied by the US Govt and he added that he purchased a genuine copy of Rosetta Stone for $465 on whatever salary he makes. Fine example I am. I guess I can do a better job protecting US intellectual property.

5. YOU MAKE ME WANNA SHOUT. Security uses a lot of military jargon — ALPHA, TANGO, CHARLIE, etc. I live in Alpha House. Being an Animal House fan, I am disappointed I don’t live in Delta House. SSS, there is a Delta House. During the peace jirga, we should have a jirga party … “JIRGA! JIRGA!” (Apologies to the non-Animal House fans.)

– One custom I love here: When you meet someone and shake his hand, they put their hand over their hearts in a “Pledge of Allegiance” style maneuver to signify their sincerity.
– LG reports snow in Utah. There is no snow even at the tip-top of the mountains in Kabul. The topography here is pretty awful. I am getting used to the over the mountain treks and it is rumored the road will be paved next year.

P.S. I asked a colleague about the matchmaking process. Is it arranged or not? He didn’t get what I meant but he sent me a description of Afghan weddings that I have attached. It’s a little hard to read but interesting.

Day 10 – Not GW’s Birthday, Memorial Day, 31 May 2010

Happy Memorial Day. I think about our soldiers every day here. All the guys who protect me are ex-US or British soldiers.

1. DEMONSTRATIONS. I was supposed to take a car to the Export Promotion Agency this morning but I was asked to wait because there was a demonstration. Apparently, there was a local TV program last night that reported NGOs and security companies are trying to convert Afghans to Christianity. This morning there was a demonstration in front of Parliament. The aftermath of the demonstration was the worst traffic I’ve experienced in Kabul.

2. KREMROL. At the office, they usually bring in bulani for breakfast. It’s kind of like of a scallion pancake in a Chinese restaurant. Today, they brought in kremrol, a local breakfast pastry. It was a round pastry with sweet white stuff inside … a creme roll.

– If you want Heineken here, you can get it. Home delivery. $50 per case. Ouch.
– Two of the better books I’ve read in the past 5 years, Three Cups of Tea (indirectly) and The Kite Runner (directly), both relate to Afghanistan.
– Despite my distaste for CNN’s politics (We’re right of MSNBC and left of Fox, therefore we must be unbiased.) and shoving climate change down my throat, the blog, Afghanistan Crossroads is great if you are interested in Afghanistan.
– If you’re keeping score, the leader of the Kandahar Taliban was killed by US forces today.
– I took a different route today to the Export Promotion Agency and saw girls’ schools. I was told the young girls go to school now and young women are allowed to attend Kabul University. Take that Taliban.
– I retract my insults to the Taliban. The peace jirga begins tomorrow and I should have an open mind and heart.

Days 8-9 – Weekend #2, 30 May 2010

1. CHARIKAR. I was supposed to travel about 40 miles outside of Kabul to Charikar to a food processing facility. I was a little nervous about traveling outside of Kabul. I was asked to travel outside of Kabul earlier in the week. I was relieved I had another commitment. As I pondered the second invitation, I realized that to be effective I need see things other than Kabul and I couldn’t be a wuss. Our security would not let me go if it was not safe. Besides, my colleagues travel all over Afghanistan — except to places that are Taliban strongholds or war zones. Many other places are often safer than Kabul. So, I said Yes. Little did I know that the requirement for me to attend this visit was a driver and and a security man in an armored SUV with me plus two “shooters” in an accompanying SUV. Just standard policy.  All I needed to go was some decent information about time, place, people attending, etc. My contacts basically said, “Drive on up. We’ll meet you there. Call us on the mobile when you leave.” That stuff doesn’t fly so I didn’t get to travel. On one hand, it makes me feel good that they do everything they can for my safety. On the other hand, the fact that they feel such an inordinate amount of manpower, expense, time and planning for a short visit is amazing.

2. PEACE JIRGA. We will lose three days this week to President Karzai’s peace jirga. This is a period of national reconciliation. A large council or assembly will convene to settle disputes. It is a Pashtun custom. The jirga is not a specific negotiation with the Taliban or insurgents but all citizens of all viewpoints are invited to participate. During the jirga, we will likely be confined to compound.

3. NEWS. This weekend, we learned that the 1000th US soldier died in Afghanistan and there were “lapses” that caused Afghan civilian deaths in February. We came here in 2001 and the lack of progress on all fronts in nine years is frightening. It’s time to think about a different way of doing things.

4. SMALL WORLD. A friend of my brother-in-law is an Afghan-American living in NJ with business interests in Afghanistan. We had breakfast this weekend in Kabul. He lives in Montville, NJ and takes his kids on summer Sundays to the ice cream shop in the town where we live (Denville). It’s a small world. When I first started doing this type of consulting, I had commented to a friend that is was sad to make close friends and not see them again. He replied that in this business you will see them again down the road. Today, a colleague who I worked with in Ukraine five years ago walked in the door of our compound. Since I saw him last, he has two more kids and 30% less hair but he’s a familiar face.

5. GANDAMAK. I went to my first restaurant in Kabul, the Gandamak Lodge. It is an old hunting lodge with antique rifles on display that the Brits frequent. Its most charming feature is they have a “plaque of shame” for people who haven’t paid their bills. I clearly have not been here long. When I returned to the compound and said I wasn’t particularly impressed by the Gandamak other than having a nice courtyard and good coffee, my colleagues basically thought I was a “fussy britches” looking for five-stars. When I said that all I was interested in was a clean table and decent service, they basically responded, “That’s about as good as it gets, FNG.”

– You know how people say, “I used to be pretty good at …” You can fill in tennis, golf, poker, dancing, etc. Well, I was never good at pool and I still stink at pool. I have been playing more ping-pong.
– I bought a bogus copy of Rosetta Stone French for $10 figuring this would be the perfect opportunity to study French in my spare time. And then I realized if this bogus CD/DVD trashes my PC, I am screwed. So, no French study.
– Watched the Incredible Hulk movie with Edward Norton. Thumbs down. Very funny how they don’t censor the foul language on the soundtrack but censor the closed captioning. So, someone says, “Bullsh–!” and the closed captioning reads “Bullcrap!” Lots of Bollywood channels on the satellite feed here.
– 25% done. Woo-hoo.

Day 7 – @#$%^&*, 26 May 2010

One week down, five to go. Not an exciting day if you want to skip.

3. NON-AFGHAN FOOD. It’s Afghan food nearly every night for dinner. Tonight, spaghetti bolognese.

4. MONEY MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND. Since the wages are good here for people who do Government consulting work, it’s like crack. People here just can’t do one tour and leave. They keep coming back for more.  Most of the people I have encountered here are on their second tour of a year or more. I have probably talked to 3-4 people who have been at the scene of bombings. All of them elected to stay in Afghanistan and they indicated most of the other witnesses to bombings do also. When the option years for the contract kick in, there will be more long-term opportunities in Kabul. People ask me if I am coming back for a long-term position. When I say No, they are in shock.

Day 6 – Chuck Heston Would Have Been Pleased, 25 May 2010

Densely populated mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan

Densely populated mountain in Kabul, Afghanistan

An interesting day today. Lots of meetings.

MORE STREETS OF KABUL. Today I saw a goat drive in downtown Kabul. Somebody drove approximately 30 goats to a vacant lot to let them graze on garbage. I didn’t see any vegetation just old Dr. Pepper boxes, cans (Afghans don’t like bottles. They like cans. Why? I don’t know.) and all kinds of other crap. When we drive from our office to the Ministry of Commerce, there is a big mountain in our way. In order to avoid traffic, our driver decided to drive the mountain today. All I can say was Holy Sh–! Not a speck of macadam, asphalt or concrete on the mountain. The mountain was paved with stray dogs, trash, dirt alleys and houses crammed together. (See below.) When we reached the bottom of the mountain, I felt as if I had sparred with someone and took way too many body shots. While driving, I try not to stare into other cars. Afghans are very private. We are specifically warned not to look into the yards of neighboring buildings from our villa’s roof deck. While we were stopped in traffic, I peered into the car next to us and saw three guys in an SUV sitting with semi-automatic rifles. The car wasn’t marked as a police, military or even a private security car. As soon as I saw the rifles, I whipped my head straight forward in case the penalty for rudeness was a shot across the bow. On the lighter side, I saw a ferris wheel on our ride today. It looked like it had never been used.

GURKHAS. Our upper level security guys are Gurkhas or Gorkhas. The Gurkhas from Nepal form a special regiment in the British military. Unfortunately, after their service in the UK armed forces, they often return to Nepal for a life of poverty and alcoholism. Joanna Lumley, the British actress in the original Absolutely Fabulous television series, made a big splash last year campaigning for Gurkha retirement benefits. Anyway, Gurkhas are prized in roles for ex-military personnel because they are highly trained and cheap relative to an American or a Brit. When we drive directly from the compound to the office, we have a driver. The driver is trained and armed. When we go to an external site, a Gurkha comes for protection. When we drove to the Ministry of Commerce today, a Gurkha came. Upon arrival at the Ministry, we were unloading some materials for one of my colleague’s presentation. The Gurkha insisted on carrying the projector inside. Realizing he could not enter the Ministry with his sidearm, he quickly passed his gun to the unsuspecting driver who fumbled it like Tiki Barber before Coach Coughlin made him change his grip on the football. The .45mm hit the ground about 6 feet from me and I was very pleased the safety was on.

One of my colleagues is headed home on Thursday, so he, our team leader and I decided to christen the pool table with the help of our friend Johnnie Walker. It was a nice evening. And after a week of no alcohol, even the Red tasted especially smooth.

Day 5 – Boring, 25 May 2010

A slow day today. Too much time in the office. Lunch cooked by locals is served in the office. You pony up $2 in cash daily. There was a big plate of stew, rice, salad, a bowl of yogurt, cucumber and mint, and watermelon. Plus a piece of Afghan bread. Wow.

Like Al Gore’s “Tin Man”, I have my own call sign with security. When I am picked up by the driver, he confirms I am in the car by announcing my call sign. I’d tell you my call sign but I’d have to kill you … (-:

Tomorrow is a more exciting day.

Day 4 – Cruisin’, 23 May 2010

Today was a my first real day in the office. I also was driven to appointments all over town. The highlights follow.

STREETS OF KABUL: The traffic is horrendous. The roads are amazing. I thought the roads were bad in rural Romania. Not even close. It took over an hour to drive from the Ministry of Commerce to our office which is probably a distance of 1-2 miles. The long drive did give me a chance to watch the goings-on. Every woman here has her head covered. Some women cover their faces but it is a significant minority. Although the dust is so bad here, most Afghans have a scarf around their necks so they can cover their noses and mouths when the dust kicks up. Motor scooter and bicycle riders don’t wear helmets but wear scarves. We drove by the Central Mosque and it was modern looking but still a pleasant looking sight. Every important office is behind cement walls and has armed guards. There are guys with rifles on every block. Scarier than the terrorists are the organizations with low-end security comprised of one toothless guy out front with AK-47 in hand. God forbid one of those guys gets spooked. We passed by several schools. The schools were a welcome visual relief — young, bright smiling faces in matching uniforms of dark pants and pale blue short sleeved shirts. Until I realized I didn’t see any girls. There is a far greater Central Asian presence in Kabul than I had anticipated. Afghanistan is close to Tajikistan, China and other Oriental countries.

CRUISING IN STYLE: The vehicle of choice in the international community is an armored Toyota Land Cruiser. The vehicle looks pretty conventional but weighs 2-3x the norm because of armor plating and bulletproof glass. The passenger door weighs close to 300 lbs. I was assured that the door would stop any bullet coming toward the car.

MOCI. I sat for awhile in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. I made the mistake of visiting the can. It won’t be a regular habit. Hole in the ground. No TP. Just a pitcher of water. No soap at the sinks. I have previously confronted nasty holes in the ground at Eastern European government ministries but not usually at the buildings where they meet with foreign businesspeople and try to convince them that this is a modern country. At the ministry, I sat with eight bright, educated, fresh faced young economists eager to learn and improve Afghanistan’s lot. I have to admit my thoughts turned dark and I wondered if one of these young men could be the next Faisal Shahzad. I feel guilty but the thought was still there.

ERRATA. My favorite Afghan export is a spice called Asafoetida. This resin is so pungent that it’s nickname is Devil’s Dung. Very appetizing. They set up a pool table in the basement of the compound’s villa and purchased a BBQ for the roof. “Party on Wayne, party on Garth.”

Day 3 – Not Much, 22 May 2010

I will keep this one short. It’s a good day to skip reading these emails.

We work on Saturdays but the Afghan staff has the day off. So, no one goes into the office and we work from the compound. Since I arrived, I have been the only person living in the basement. Several people are being moved from other compounds into the basement. The rooms upstairs have private bathrooms. The basement rooms share two bathrooms. So, I will soon be waiting for the bathroom … just like home!! (We have 1 bathroom in our house.)