Dan the Reconstruction Man

This was first posted sixteen years ago but has stood the test of time so well it’s worth moving to the front of the blog for readers interested in a different perspective of our failed Afghan adventure. I didn’t predict the ending exactly right but was close.

For the past five years our senior leadership has claimed the reconstruction of Afghanistan is their highest priority. Yet our efforts at reconstruction have proved so inadequate they should be a national scandal. A major source of our inability to correctly implement major projects are the force protection polices that restrict State Department and USAID personnel to the US Embassy complex. It is hard to get a sense of what is going on outside the embassy walls if you never leave the embassy walls. And the only people who leave the embassy walls are the contractor guard force from Global Risks who are inexplicably billeted in hastily built barracks off Jalalabad Road.

The embassy guard force barracks are on the right and a public truck parking lot on the left. Every day dozens of trucks backed up against our wall and the drivers took off until they were allowed into Kabul after dark. It took months of bitching to the RSO before this obvious danger was mitigated. Can you imagine State Department security officials being so caviler with the lives of 350 Marines? Of course not, so why was it ok to put contractors so far out in harms way?

The security situation is dramatically different from district to district within the 34 Provinces of Afghanistan but you would not know that unless you had some contact with the Afghans living in those provinces. That is difficult to do when every trip outside a “secure compound” is a combat patrol, every Afghan met out in the wild considered a potential threat, and every vehicle that gets near you in traffic a potential car bomb. Thus there is a need for more (not less) outside the wire contractors who can live and work with Afghans supervising reconstruction projects while simultaneously building capacity by training contractors to deliver quality work.

There was a program in eastern Afghanistan that did exactly that for the local contractors who had won projects funded by the American Army Corps of Engineers (CoE). I discovered this when the eastern regional supervisor came to stay at the Taj with us in 2008. Dan the reconstruction man was paid by the CoE to work with a consortium of local construction companies to ensure their bids were written and priced correctly, the work is done to standard, and bribes and theft kept to an absolute minimum.

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

His life support costs are a fraction of the costs of State Department or Corps of Engineers (CoE) personnel stationed in Afghanistan but unlike them he is out interacting everyday with the locals. Dan has seven years of Afghan experience, speaks some Dari, wears a shalwar kameez when working in the rural districts and like us, he’s perfectly comfortable being the only international around for miles while working projects in the bush.

Dan was getting ready to head home for a well earned 30 day break when his flight from Jbad to Kabul was canceled. Yesterday evening, instead of being on his way home he was sharing the finer points of holographic weapons sights with another outside the wire crew when he got a snarky email from the CoE headquarters in Kabul about his main project in Jalalabad. The CoE was accusing him of not doing the proper quality control 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 of these infractions demanding an immediate response.

Dan chatting up old friends from Kabul at the winterized Tiki Bar

Dan started to laugh out loud, he wasn’t remotely close to pouring concrete at the job site in question and he employs no stone masons but it was obvious what had happened. His Afghan government counterpart thought he was on his way to Canada so he was making his move. Dan 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 then asked the me to take him to the job site where he found everything in order.

It turned out that the Afghan Quality Assurance engineer (appointed by the Karzi administration)) wanted his “sweets” (shirini) from the subcontractors but had been unable to get a penny from them. Shirini is a dreaded word in Afghanistan, it’s code for a bribe which  Afghans have to contend deal every time they interact with any government official. The engineer in question bolted back to Kabul when he saw Dan driving up the project site.

Dan sent a 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. Guess what happened next? While Dan was home on leave he was fired for creating animosity with the Kabul appointees. It turned out that actually building capacity by living and working with the Afghans daily was not what our diplomatic class had in mind when they talked about building capacity because (according to them) it’s too dangerous to be outside the wire.

Scout - the offical prtector dog in training at the Taj
Scout was a good looking dog but not a good guard dog because loud noises terrified him.

I live like a king for pennies compared to the life support costs for our military, State, USAID, or the dozens of other federal agencies operating in Afghanistan. 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 from America. I would think “capacity building” would involve taking every opportunity to build capacity at the district level. Instead we are allowing the Karzai government to steal reconstruction funds hand over fist while ensuring that contractors like Dan who interfere with their corruption are removed from the field,

I will say this again knowing that I sound like a broken record we are running out of time. We can no longer afford continued failure in the stability operations fight. When the people of Afghanistan decided that we are not serious and not really here to help them they will eject us and we will have no choice but to go. The butcher’s bill for that will be more than 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 “Dan 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 yp.aryamanbhatnagar@gmail.com

    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.

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