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 Groups (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.)

NDS Commander and 2IC
NDS Commander and 2IC

Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations. A few of them are 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. To facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the effort 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 were written by the Afghan government it stipulated 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. There is enough international mentors at the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to ensure fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.

It was immediately clear 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 from the 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 difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing an 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 a NDS (National Directorate of Security) checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and a good ¼ mile between the east and west checkpoints.

Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me so I had Haji jann, my good friend and official driver in the contested areas, come down from Kabul to drive us up. This turned out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving but 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, 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 two-way 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 this catch-22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.

The reason I take Haji jann 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 but we love to chin wag with each other. 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 gave him the WTF Hajii? look and he did not smile indicating things were serious.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license. They also started searching our baggage which was problematic. 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 Haji jann 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.

One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
slightly enhanced view
slightly enhanced view

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 these guys are now the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor. I may be 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 I have 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 to benefit them. But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years 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, they are armed because they have to be, and they are doing the daily quality control of Afghan contractors working on various reconstruction projects. We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and doing quality control of the projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen. That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because the money 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.

12 Replies to “Shakedown”

  1. Hey Tim, boy that sucks and I feel for you guys. Excellent article by the way and certainly a heads up for guys operating on the private side of things in Afghanistan.

    You know, it would be interesting if those vests had tracking devices on them and check out where they end up? -matt

  2. Wow. I’m surprised they didn’t try to confiscate the camera too. Could Amy Sun have been accused of being a spy? She took a good series of photos of the whole negotiating thing.

    BTW, regarding Matt’s comment. It would be interesting if those vests did have RFIDS and could be tracked. Gee, I wonder if that rumor could be passed, maybe the Taliban or bad guys would be less interested in them, if they thought having them would lead US forces to them.

    BTW, love the insight you provide on this blog.

  3. Afghans (men) love having their photos taken! Even if they are in the middle of shaking a couple of vests off of you. I threw out half the photos just ’cause it’s too obvious the fellas were posing for the camera. Even the dudes on the ridge straightened up, slung their rifles, and sucked in their guts when they saw the camera…

    The reaction to the camera leads to several funny stories. Like the time we were following behind a pick-up full of AK-armed ANP, escorting the regional Chief of Police. We’d just gotten to the curvy part of the Tangi Valley and I start shooting (the camera) from the backseat through the windshield. This causes all the ANP to perk up, sling their weapons all ready-like, straight index fingers and all. They start striking gunner poses, scanning the high ridges and generally behaving like something’s going on. Except I notice that they keep looking at the camera out of the corner of their eyes and grinning broadly in between poses, and straightening their uniforms. However, Shem-bot, cradling an MP5 between his legs in the passenger seat and already on edge since we entered the valley, only notices the sudden drastic change in posture and responds like there maybe is something they know about that we don’t… ah, the hilarity.

  4. Hey, Tim…just pass the cost along to your “clients”….if you get “robbed” of the tools of protection while doing your job because of the unusual circumstances….the client gets to replace the stuff. Either the clients want to be protected or not…I have no doubt that they would be able (or even brave enough) to even contemplate going to some areas of this world if they didn’t have your protection…

    You ARE a businessman …granted you are a soldier first and foremost..but you’ll never stay in business unless you have the tools to do so…rule #1 in free enterprise. Any bean counter will tell you that.

    Just a thought…

  5. Well 3100 aint that bad my back channels say it would run around $40k to send an M4 “legally” to a PSC in the stan and I’d most likely have better luck hideing all the parts in a used chevy Tahoe and sending that to you.

  6. As an ex-pat living outside the wire (who also used to work at the embassy) I can so identify with everything you have written. I can honestly say that I fear the N.D.S. more than the Taliban.

    Good tip on the local driver as a cue. They tried to take my weapon and ID off of me at the same checkpoint. I wouldn’t get out of the vehicle, flashed my ID (which they grabbed and I grabbed back), and told my driver to go. Luckily they didn’t shoot or pursue as I drove off.

    I have so many stories like this…it’s ridiculous and sickening.

  7. I accidentally came across your blog and highly enjoyed it. I spent 18 months in Afghanistan working for a PSC running convoys in Kabul and Kandahar. I feel bad about you losing the vests but laughed a little at the same time. I know the exact check point your talking about. We always slowed down flashed the ID/US flag and drove off. But then again our vehicles were armored. Good luck and stay safe! Hopefully I’ll run into you guys back in Kabul soon.

  8. Tim,
    Unfortunate as it was, it made for a good story and a compelling read. Well done to keep you wits about you. As I was reading your recounting of it, it made me think how in Iraq, since the handover on 1 Jan, more and more the U.S. badges mean less and less. Contactors there have run roughshod over the local authorities for so long there is even more hate and discontent than in the Stan, I am affraid. There are going to be a lot of dicey checkpoints to navigate and more than a few ‘wolf smiles’ flashed in the months ahead on both sides. Nice work keeping your eye on the ball and realising that the mission is getting the PAX to the old aerodrome safely and presumably you would have been transiting back through the AO later the same day it really made no sense to allow the situation to escalate out of control, as maddening as it is to be fleeced by ‘crooked cops’. I had a similar situation occur once and had to have my driver explain in Arabic to the head honcho. ‘Listen, you are gonna get away with this today…but just so we are clear. I know your a crook. So now you know that I know that you are a crook.’ Heads nodding all around ‘wolf smiles’ exchanged we moved off. Every day we as contractors stay out of the newspapers is a good day for the industry. Alexander the Great is credited with saying, “Remember upon the conduct of each depends the FATE of all.”

    Keep up the good work.



  9. I have been stopped 4 times by NDS. God I have those fuckers. They basically steal our shit and just take off. Literally running to their trucks and taking off. The same slack jaw fat guy has gotten my 3 times!

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