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 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.)

Day 2 – The First Friday, 21 May 2010

Friday is our off-day. It was a slow day and I didn’t sleep. (See entry 5.) Here’s what’s happening.

1. VISIT TO ISAF MILITARY BASE: There is a large flea market held on Fridays in the parking lot of an international military base. Two colleagues and I went there today. The main products for sale were Afghan hats, furry boots, lapiz, knives, rugs, scarves, and counterfeit DVDs, watches and sunglasses. I bought Rosetta Stone for $10. I am sure it will be as good as the real thing. One of the complaints by the Americans here is that the rules seem to change from week to week. Last week, if you showed a NATO country passport, you could visit the flea market. This week, you had to have an escort if you didn’t work on the base. You were required to wear a badge to walk on the premises to the market but then remove the badge in the market. A military contractor who arrived from Orlando a few days ago volunteered to escort us. I chatted with him a little bit. He indicated that he had been going through some personal things back home and decided to come to Afghanistan to put some distance between him and his old life. A rather extreme approach. He was thinking about signing up for another year. I have met a number of people who left here and swore they would never return but have returned.

2. MORE ON RULES: Only certain restaurants are allowed for dining. There is a particular place where the staff here loves the cappuccino and croissants but that restaurant has been removed from the approved list. You are allowed to do point-to-point shopping. So, my colleagues go to the restaurant with their own takeout cups and get the cappuccino and croissants to go since they are “buying coffee and bread” and not dining at the restaurant. When there’s a will … I am learning that there are creature comforts here. Two colleagues went to the Kabul Health Club today for a manicure and pedicure.

3. WEATHER: I was cold the first night in my basement room and slept under two blankets. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone says it has been unusually cool until now. So far, it’s mid-50s F at night. The weather is starting to heat up and will be hot soon. It was pretty hot at the market. (BTW, Dubai was 96F when I landed at 7:20 PM.) The sun rises here at 4:30 AM.

4. KABUL: I have seen some interesting fortifications and mosques from a distance in Kabul but I can’t say I have seen anything beautiful. The mountains surrounding the city are brown and barren looking. The city itself is quite poor. Roads are dirt and there are open sewers, septic tanks and drainage channels. More detail to come.

5. BLEEPIN’ TELEMARKETERS: I went to bed at 12:30 and forgot to turn off my US phone. It rang at 2:30 AM and it was Kitchen Magic. I couldn’t fall back asleep and was up the rest of the night.

6. CAMARADERIE: I’ve mentioned in emails about previous assignments that often I operate as a “lone wolf” consultant. I come in and meet with people, go off for a few days and then write a paper, make a presentation, do a training session — whatever. While I work by myself for the most part, being part of a team and living on the compound makes the experience much more social and also allows me to learn from people who have been here longer than I have. Besides me, our project team is headed by a Lebanese Christian who went to Syracuse and became a US citizen, a Kazakh who lives in Vancouver, a Kyrgyz who lives in Stockholm and a guy from Fort Lee, NJ who lives with his Kazakh wife in Florida. Quite the international crew. The cooks put out the food around 6:30 in the dining room. Dinner is rice, a meat dish and a vegetable dish or a salad. (The food has been pretty good so far.) Everyone strolls in between 6:30 and 7:00 to eat. Some people stay and kibitz, others eat and run. But everyone is friendly and talks about work, Afghanistan, other countries, etc. Kind of like summer camp for adults.

Tomorrow is my first work day.