Tag Archives: consulting

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 CNN.com 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.)

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.

Day 1 in Kabul, 20 May 2010

NOTE: These blog posts have been edited/redacted from the original emails. My purpose in the blog is to inform and entertain not hurt anyone’s feelings or make public statements.


1. GREETINGS FROM KABUL. Some of you may not know that I am in Kabul, Afghanistan. I arrived on Thursday, May 20th. If I didn’t tell you, sorry. Two things happened. First, the process came together very rapidly at the end. Second, I have become your classic middle-aged ethnic man who is emotional about everything. Thus, I avoided most potential emotional situations.

2. WHY AM I IN KABUL? AKA IS HE INSANE? I am in Kabul to do economic development work for the US Agency for International Development. It is a six-week junket to help build Afghanistan’s export promotion capability. The idea is that if people have decent jobs and a future, then maybe they will be less likely to strap a bomb to themselves or sell opium. I came here for the following reasons: a.) to do a mitzvah (a good deed), b.) have a unique experience and c.) money. I’d be lying if I said money wasn’t the biggest part of it. Am I insane? Perhaps. This is definitely the craziest thing I’ve done since jumping from one terrace to another terrace while eight stories up at a hotel many years ago. (They were only 2-3 feet apart. Sorry, Mom and Dad.) Generally, we are not targets and only 9 Westerners have been kidnapped in Kabul since 2001. They provide a lot of security. Everyone here says it’s not as bad as the media makes it out to be. Is this thinking a coping mechanism? A delusion? I’ll let you know in 6 weeks.

Frankly, the hardest part is being away from Debbie and the kids for six weeks. With all the travel I’ve done over the years, I’ve never been away more than 3 1/2 weeks. They treated me wonderfully my last few days at home.

3. AM I SCARED? A little. If I were really scared, I wouldn’t have come. There’s obviously a little fear. The news of the bombing in the past few days wasn’t too appealing. I had a few teary-eyed moments before I left thinking about the possibility I could never see my kids again. But I spoke to about 10 people who are here or had been here and all of them said they generally felt safe and would consider going back to Afghanistan. My real fears:

a.) My work is related to my specialty but is not “in my wheelhouse” and I did not have the opportunity to prepare as I would have liked. I want to make certain that while I am here that I am effective.
b.) I will be incredibly bored of the routine and confinement over six weeks.
c.) That I will begin to look like a mullah because I forgot my ear and nose hair trimmer. Nail clippers and a razor aren’t the same. Aging sucks.

4. THE JOURNEY. I left Newark Airport on Tuesday afternoon. Debbie and the kids drove me to the airport after Jesse’s performance of Pirates The Musical earlier that day. I am pretty sure I saw Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame at the airport. I didn’t tell him that I took my first blind date to see Fame but it was sold out and we saw the Cheech and Chong movie “Up in Smoke.” Anyway, I flew from Newark to Dulles to Dubai. On the plane, I sat next to a big, beefy fellow with a blond crew cut in his mid-20s. Sure enough, he was headed to Afghanistan as a private security guard at the US Embassy. The flight was 13 hours and he didn’t eat once. This guy was 6-5″ and 260-275. Man, when he feels like eating, stand back.

I overnighted in Dubai but didn’t go out and paint the town red. I arrived late and I was tired. Dubai truly is a crossroads of East and West. You see the all the peoples of Asia and a lot of Westerners too. I had two glasses of red wine and a Romeo y Julieta petit corona at the hotel (RLK and DSS: Thinking of you.) before I departed. I woke up this morning (Thu) and headed to Kabul. Many of the people on my flight to Dubai were also on the flight to Kabul. There were plenty of ex-military types with crew cuts as well as grizzled foreign aid types from the UK and US. There were many more Westerners than locals on the plane. There were a surprising number of single females. A Western female, no matter how young or old, big or small, pretty or not, is popular in these parts. Lots of guys and no fraternization with the locals.

5. A SIDE NOTE: WE’RE ALL PREJUDICED. I travel all over the world and try to help people of all colors and creeds develop their economies. But as I was sitting in the airplane while the others were boarding, I was watching people who originate from one corner of Southeast Asia to the furthest corner of Southwest Asia file into the plane and thought, “I hope one of those really smelly types doesn’t sit next to me.”

6. ARRIVAL. I’ve arrived in worse airports than Kabul but not many. Customs and all that stuff was OK. I was met by one of our security officers. Nice fellow. Ex-UK military. He escorted me to an armored SUV. When we arrived at the car, he said, “I don’t expect any incidents. We haven’t had any incidents. But if we do have an incident, keep your head down below the window and don’t exit the car unless I tell you to.” We drove through the streets of Kabul which reminded me of the poor neighborhoods in Cairo in the 1990s. Lots of dust and dirt.

7. THE COMPOUND. After our trek through town, we stopped at the compound where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks. It is behind concrete walls and has armed guards. We are staying in a 14 room villa. My project colleagues live in the other rooms. I have a basement room which is very similar to the room I had in Reitman basement at Brandeis U from 1980-1982 except I don’t have a roommate who studies organic chemistry and reads Hustler magazine. (DEW: Huge fan in the room. Awesome white noise.) The folks in the compound are very friendly. I had dinner with them and we had a little get-together in someone’s room after dinner. They serve breakfast and dinner at the compound. The food was pretty good. A spicy tomato soup and a chicken curry with rice. The villa has a rooftop deck, small exercise room, TV room and a ping-pong table.

8. UNDER HOUSE ARREST. Except for the ankle bracelet, I feel like one of those prisoners who is under house arrest and is allowed to go to work and come straight home. I am allowed to go to other compounds and specific stores and restaurants cleared by security. I am under no circumstances supposed to walk anywhere. I am to be driven. There is no riding in any vehicles other than our secured vehicles. The social life is visits at the compounds and the occasional dinner out at a cleared restaurant.

9. SIGNING OFF. It’s gettting late. Tomorrow is Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. It is our only official off-day but I need to study up for work and meet a few people. I also want to get to the gym early.

10. EMAIL LIST. If I missed someone, sorry. Just send me his/her name. If you don’t want to receive these emails, again sorry.