The Reconstruction Man

For the past five years I have listened intently to the senior generals, politicians, and U. S. State Department officials as they tell the world that the most important thing to be done in Afghanistan is reconstruction and the rehabilitation of infrastructure. In countries where a majority of the population is illiterate actions speak much louder than words. Our ‘actions” on the reconstruction and rehabilitation front are so woefully inadequate that they should be a national scandal. I hold the military and the Department of State equally at fault. The reconstruction “battle” is a Department of State responsibility and they set the security parameters under which US contractors operate. The State Department and US AID people live in the US Embassy complex – a gigantic walled ultra posh compound with everything you could ask for, great gym, extra pay, dirt cheap booze and cigarettes. But they never leave and there is a mindset which develops when you live behind gigantic walls with lavish security and that mindset is THE REASON why reconstruction is so slow.

The security situation is dramatically different from district to district within the 34 Provinces of Afghanistan but you would not know that unless you were in those Provinces 24/7/365. Instead every venture outside a “secure compound” by the embassy or Army is treated like a combat patrol, every Afghan a potential attacker and every vehicle on the road a potential car bomb. A trip to the international airport (3/4 of a mile from the embassy) is as serious to these people as a jet fighter sortie over North Vietnam circa 1969 was to a jet jockey. Tijuana, Mexico is far more dangerous for Americans than Kabul, Afghanistan but getting decision makers to understand that and then adopting force protection rules which reflect it seems to be impossible. The American military is not as culpable as State – a few commanders have even dispersed their formations down to the district level bringing instant stability and security to those areas during their brief tenure in country. But as a general rule the American military is confined to large bases, their situational awareness generated by the classified intelligence circulated from on high.

But we continue to try and find a way to operate better using the same constraints, the same policies, and the same force protection rules which always produce the same results. Capacity building means using and training local contractors to deliver their product to Corps of Engineers (CoE) standard. The CoE personnel and contractors in Nangarhar Province take this seriously. They teach courses on various trade related topics, host RFP (request for proposal) writing workshops, they do what they can but realize that you cannot “capacity build” from inside a gigantic secured compound. CoE personnel may venture away from base but I have never seen them so like all the other U.S. government agencies they use Afghans who have been appointed by the government to be their eye and ears.   Have I ever mentioned the government of Afghanistan has a little corruption problem? Do you think it a solid plan to trust government officials to do 100% of you QA/QC work for American construction projects?

Dsn packed up and ready to go with our new protector dog in training Scout
Dsn packed up and ready to go with our new protector dog in training Scout

The free market is a wonderful thing and the Afghans are responding to the trickle of money not going directly to DynCorp or The Louis Berger Group by developing their capacity to compete without CoE or US AID help. Which brings us to Dan The Reconstruction Man. The Afghans may not have much formal schooling but they are smart. They know they have to perform to standard and need to learn how quickly. There is a model in use which works and works well Dan is one of the expatriate operators working under that model. Dan works for a small group of local construction companies who are building various bases around Nangarhar for the US and Afghan government. His job is to ensure that the bids are written and priced correctly, the work is done correctly, to keep all the various subcontractors honest and on schedule, and to keep the amount of (US Taxpayer) project monies lost to bribes and theft to an absolute minimum. Dan lives at the Taj with us, drives all over the province in a Toyota Corolla, and spends long hours doing the tedious work of mentoring young Afghan construction workers on the finer points of project management. His life support costs are somewhere this side of 2% of the life support costs we pay for State Department and Corps of Engineers (CoE) personnel stationed in Afghanistan and unlike them he is out interacting everyday with the locals by himself mind you. Dan has been in Afghanistan, off and on, for seven years, speaks some Dari (no Pashto which is a tough to learn) has a full set of local garb and like the so many other Afghan hands is perfectly comfortable being the only international around for miles while working on his projects.

Dan is getting ready to head home for a well earned 30 day break. His flight from Jbad to Kabul was canceled so he has to go by road which he doesn’t like one bit. He is not worried about Taliban but the Afghan government security forces might see his jocked up AK and assume he is illegally armed. Which means they will take his kit and demand bribes which if not paid could result in a couple of weeks in the Pul-e-Charki prison. That sort of thing happens here with depressing regularity.

Dan is from North America, a retired military combat engineer with SF time under his belt and an understanding wife who supports his current overseas endeavors. Yesterday evening, as he was sharing the finer points of holographic weapons sights with a couple of his former me and some other outside the wire security operators he told us a quick story which illustrates exactly how bad things have gotten in the Stability Ops battle.

Chatting up former team mates who are down in Jbad with clients at the winterized Tiki Bar
Chatting up former team mates who are down in Jbad with clients at the winterized Tiki Bar

Apparently Dan got a snarky note from the CoE accusing him of not doing the proper QC on his concrete mix, not having his QA guy on site as required, and not having the required personal protective equipment (PPE) for his stone masons. They sent pictures and demand an immediate response. At the site in question Dan was not even close to pouring concrete and he employs no stone masons so needless to say he was perplexed. He was also (unexpectedly) still in Jalalabad and thus able to get on this complaint quickly. He checked his vehicle log to see if his QA guy had been dispatched, he checked his phone logs to see if his QA guy had called in from the work site, he asked the assigned driver if he had taken him to the work site and finding all in order he drove out himself to find out what the hell was going on. Surprise, surprise it turns out the CoE Quality Assurance engineer (a local national from the government) wanted his “sweets” (shereni) from the subcontractors and was not getting a penny. He thought Dan was gone for a month and made his move thinking he could get away with it. Shereni is a dreaded word in Afghanistan. It is the code for a bribe and internationals will run into this at some point but  Afghans deal with it is every time they interact with any government offical.

Dan was able to send back his own tempered response which should serve as a wake up call but won’t. He pointed out that they were not pouring concrete yet and that the pictures of his “stone masons” were taken at the Afghan business located next to his site which has nothing to do with the project in question. He deals with issues like this almost daily and more than earns his salary by doing so. Dan and people like him are taking serious risks operating without a wing man, armored vehicles, radios, or any kind of protection.   The American embassy does not encourage guys like him or I to be here. Dan provided an immediate, direct, positive impact on all the projects being funded in the eastern region. Without guys like him the Government of Japan would not be able to operate here and they are about 1,000 more effective than US AID.  It is not like we are the only ones who have broken the code on this, I know a few of the CoE reps in Nangarhar and they, to a man, want to operate the way we do, get around like we get around, and use their talents to make a difference. It is easier spending so much time in Afghanistan when you live like we do, when you can have your own little Scout puppy dog, your own room with attached bath, a bar where you can sit and spend time with friends. But that is not the reason to imitate our operational posture the reason to mimic us is the cost savings. We cannot afford to continue operating with the lavish overhead found at the embassy and all large military bases in this country. Quick example – KBR charges the military $35.00 per man per meal.   I can feed myself and 10 guests for $35.00 a day…total.

I live like a king; well more like a king whose family is almost broke but a king all the same. I do so for pennies on the dollar of what is currently spent for life support by the military and Department of State. I also impact the local economy every bit of food consumed on our military bases and embassy is flown in from Dubai, every stinking morsel. We eat locally procured food prepared by locally trained cooks and it is good.   When I need work done on the Taj I hire local contractors and use local products, the military hires KBR and imports every bit of their construction material.   I would think “capacity building” means trying to build capacity. To our friends from Washington DC “capacity building” seems to mean talking about various million dollar programs with well healed lobbyists who recently retired from either State or the military. I guess a complicated society like ours needs and values people who have the fortitude and stamina to engage in endless conversations and meetings about things like “capacity building.” I can’t do that, I hate meetings with a passion. Dan is the same way he doesn’t talk about capacity building nor does he think he is building capacity. He has been paid a fair wage, given a set of tasks and like every good SNCO I have ever known goes quietly about his job demonstrating more initiative and self motivation than any three self help gurus you can think of. Actions speak louder than words in the third world.

Scout - the offical prtector dog in training at the Taj
Scout – the official protector dog in training at the Taj

Our country is going broke. We are already over a Trillion dollars into the bailout money and have yet to spend a penny on the “toxic sub-prime mortgages” which the money was supposed to buy in order to save our economy. The big three are lining up for their turn at the public trough. Arnold wants us to bail out his state while maintaining all the bizarre policies and taxes which has driven capitol and jobs out of California. The Office of the President Elect (I did not know we had one of those need to check my pocket constitution because I’ve missed that part somehow) is talking stimulus but the kind of “stimulus” that Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi have to offer is not something I would care to experience. We are going broke and need to start realizing that at least in Afghanistan we can be much more effective for much less money. Let the senior people who hide their tired, micro managing, ineffective, morale crushing, modes of operation behind the rubric of “force protection” take all their fobbits and go home where “force protection” is much easier.   There are already people here who can do the job faster, better, cheaper while saving the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars.

The way forward is clear; the operational model designed and verified by the people who have been working effectively here for years. I will say this again knowing that I sound like a broken record we are running out of time. When the people of Afghanistan decided that we are not serious and not really here to help they will eject us and we will have no choice but to go. The butcher’s bill for that will be more than most Americans will want to consider. Look at what happened back in 1978 when the people of Herat decided they wanted the Soviets and their families to go, they all went, in body bags.

15 Replies to “The Reconstruction Man”

  1. Hah, Dan has his bags packed and has a bad ass “Taj” cover sitting right on top. Who do I have to give some shereni to in order to get one of those muthas? OoRah, watch your six.

  2. You hit the nail on the head w/ every post. Keep up the good fight and stay safe.

  3. A friend of mine in NC is a Columbian expat. Fled that country because of crushing corruption. He asked me once why this country (USA) didn’t experience those things. I went into some rant about our Anglo/Western Civ tradition of individual liberty and common law exrcised objectively. Unfortunately, only the USA and a few other locales in this world are the exception. I have a sinking feeling that’s all about to change.

    PS: My own ‘official protector’ is a lab/border collie mix – Scout. Best damn dog I ever had. Good luck with yours & many thanks for your excellent site.

  4. It is so obvious that the redevelopment projects are so hit or miss. There is no serious economic development going on in Afghanistan, and with the State Department failing to back up Americans who want to help, that’s not going to get any better any time soon.

    Keep telling the truth and maybe someday someone with some juice will hear and heed. I the meantime, I’m diggin the song you’re singin.

    Looks like a Cuchi dog, from the size of those paws. We were adopted by a dog in the Afghania Valley that went on patrols and guarded our VPB for nearly a month. We named her Scout. Then she was assassinated by the 7th Group guys back at the firebase.

    They didn’t like dogs.

    Hope yours fairs better… keep Scout away from 7th Group.

  5. Scout looks like a promising protective pup.

    I don’t know about the DoS or USAID not wanting to back-up or support Americans who want to help, I don’t think they have the resources, people or money wise. A lot of reconstruction projects in Iraq have been paid for by the US Military. I’m kind of surprised about your assessment of the PRT not leaving the wire. That is too bad for them. I followed a PRT blogger in Iraq and he was always going out and about. Granted, he was traveling with the Marines.

    The corruption thing is a hard one to get around as is the Taliban being able to come into communities and take the things that Coalition forces provide to make life better. That frustrates me. I often wondered why the people didn’t just stand-up to them, until I saw some graphic video of what they do to people who do stand up to them. I’ve been preaching CAP teams since way back – – which are now called MITTs in Iraq. I hope as things calm down in Iraq they are able to put more people on the ground and help provide local security.

  6. Tim,
    Just tripped across your blog. Glad to see you’re alive and well. I figured you be in the thick of everything. I haven’t gotten to Afghanistan yet, but blogs like yours help paint the picture.
    Semper Fi,

  7. Thank you for your continuing good work and I hope that at least some of the decision makers are attending to your opinions.

    My question is: how would you induce the people behind “the wire” to get out and make meaningful contributions? Is it a matter of upfront selection, e.g., personnel? Can the people simply be ordered to go out among the people beyond the wire? Should there be inducements of one kind or another, or should there be penalties for failing to do what is required to the best of their abilities? Or all of the above?

    It is my experience that, when attempting to effectuate a change in a bureaucratic system, it is insufficient to point out the problem. It helps to provide a solution to the organization whose methods and behavior you’re attempting to influence, a solution which seems to lead to a better outcome with a limited downside.



  8. Dear Tim,

    I work for an organisation called The YP Foundation which is a youth organisation based in New Delhi, India. It aims to empower young people by engaging them with social issues.

    Im currently heading a project known as “Bridge The Gap”, which is a cultural exchange project working with Indian and Afghan students based in the city. We aim to engage the two communities through the medium of literature, films and discussions as an important first step towards promoting cultural understanding and sensitisation between the two communities.

    As part of the project we are publishing our own magazine “The Bridge: Understanding Afghanistan Today”. We seek to project an alternative image of Afghanistan than the one which is promoted in the media by focussing on the post-2001 developments of Afghanistan; its culture, heritage and history; the role of media, terrorism and external forces in shaping its current situation; the personal experiences of people on working with Afghans or in Afghanistan; the relations of Afghanistan with other countries etc.

    Since you maintain a blog and write about Afghanistan we were hoping you would be able to contribute something for our magazine as well!

    For more information on the project, magazine or organisation please feel free to contact me at

    Thank you so much and hoping to hear from you soon with a positive response!



  9. Tim,
    Just found your blogsite. Keep up the good work. I often wondered what you were doing so long on the computer while we were there. We went on to Herat after Kabul and encountered a different, more relaxed atmosphere there. Met the Mayor, Governor, and US Envoy and had dinner with all three. Rotary is an awesome network for peace and understanding. If it had not been for my connections with Rotary, I would not have been able to come to Afghanistan and see for my self exactly what you are saying about the US Embassy cooped up behind the walls. How can you help anyone outside if you never get out and look around? Being a private American citizen seems to be the way to see things in Afghanistan. We went places that the government “types” have never been to. We were assured by the locals that we would always have safe passage back to their homes. I believe that.
    Hope you have a safe and blessed holiday.

  10. Hi Tim, I read your post with much interest. I am currently serving on the Kapisa PRT as the lead engineer. So, your comments hit particularly close to home. However, I agree completely that the reconstruction effort has not resulted in as much change as the Afghans need. I am very interested in your ideas of how to improve.

    Thank you for helping to raise awareness of the complex challenges facing this amazing country. We need more people like you working everyday to make this a better place.

    I will look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Ba ehteram,

  11. Tim San, I’ll start with an apology; being the IT god that I am, my first comment did not “take” somehow, no doubt due to my expertise with this plastic brain, and the good free scotch in the Emirates lounge in Heathrow, so sorry that I am so tardy in effectively responding to your piece above. Thanks Tim. Good job mon ami, comme d’habitude. It’s -32 here now and I am freezing my korma here, but I have been to an Oilers game and that makes up for the frostbite. I wish you, Shem, Scout, Brandon, Beth, and all of our Jalalabadi friends good spirits (figuratively and literally) throughout these holiday times. I have spent many Christmasses away from “home” in Afghanistan and in other conflict zones over the last 3 decades, and I know full well that it can be a difficult time in some ways. I am fortunate this year, unlike the last 2 in A’stan, to be able to get to my homeland and family now, but my thoughts and best wishes for safety and happiness are with you all now too. I’ve learned since my return that apparently there has been an election in the US and some fella named Osama or something like that has won it. I would have appreciated you giving me a “heads-up” on that Tim, you being the political creature that you are. But maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. It happens. Anyway mate, I look forward to seeing you and the J’bad posse again in a couple of weeks upon my return. Keep the faith Tim, I can see by the comments on this and the other postings that you are enlightening some, making others think, and keeping keeping people connected with the reality of Afghanistan, which is a rare commodity. And you do it in a way and style that few others could ever match. Good on you. Kuda hafiz bro.

Comments are closed.