Observations on Kabul and the private security market

Private security contractors have been in news lately mostly due to the ongoing Blackwater saga from Iraq.  I cannot comment on Blackwater’s operations in Iraq but do know a few of their contractors working Afghanistan. They seem to be above average in the quality department and better yet (the ones I know) are on interesting contracts. The Blackwater country director is a former FBI agent who has been in Afghanistan a couple of years longer than I have. He is unquestionably one of the most knowledgeable Americans on Afghanistan and the current administration should spend time talking with him.   Given the time he has spent in -country combined with the breadth of projects he has supervised there are few Americans who have is insight.

The problem contractors in this country come in two flavors, local companies that are unable to perform and companies spawned by former Department of State officials or closely tied to US prime contractors.   USPI, a Texas based company with all its corporate officers now under federal indictment is one example. The defunct, transparently corrupt World Services International (WSI) headed by Henry Wilkins is another.

The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors
The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors but Afghan drivers will not give way knowing the soldiers will not shoot at them

I have only seen a group of wild international contractors, rifles pointed out all windows, screaming through downtown traffic once and that was over two years ago. The international firms operating here are staffed with expats who, as a rule, have extensive in-country experience. They tend to move, some in hardened vehicles and some not, blended in with local traffic and obeying local traffic laws. That last remark is a joke there are no real traffic laws in Afghanistan just a number of unwritten rules revolving around perceived position vis a vis the bumper or quarter panel area of adjacent vehicles.

ISAF troops making an illegal U turn and menacing all Afghans around while
ISAF troops making a U turn in downtown Kabul and menacing all Afghans around them while doing so. We have been in Kabul for 8 years and one would think that maybe we could come up with better techniques

The good companies would sack international consultants immediately for conducting convoy operations which were out of sync with the local traffic. The US Army now has armored SUV’s which they drive aggressively by blocking traffic, hitting vehicles which do not get out of the way fast enough, and being a general pain in the ass. For the life of me I cannot figure out why it is that they continue to operate in Kabul as if they were on Route Irish back in 2005.

Kabul had changed dramatically since I moved to Jalalabad 14 months ago. The tension in the city is palatable. Old Afghan friends who were brimming with optimism back in 2005 no longer smile much or joke about when they too will visit Disney World in America. Mil blogger David Tate has a great post on being back in Kabul after a four year absence and he also has several posts detailing the misery of trying to move around the country as a reporter embedded with the military. I do not know David but find his observations spot on.

I awake every morning to the sound of multiple sirens peeling through the pre dawn chill. That is the newest technique of the American Army loud sirens to help alert traffic ahead to move out of the way. I hear those sirens all day long because both international and American military traffic has increased at least 10 fold in the past year. Convoy after convoy after convoy line the Jalalabad and airport roads all of them pointing guns at every vehicle or person who comes to close, all of them forcing traffic off the road in front of them, all of them looking every bit as stupid here as they would driving through Washington DC in a similar manner. Except now they have an abundance of SUV’s to add in the mix.

The other day I saw one of these SUV convoy’s (at least 8 vehicles) and in the middle was a large Expedition with an American flag placard in the left windshield and the two star placard of an American Major General in the right of the windshield. Is it me or is that not the most stupid thing you have ever heard? Why make it easier for the Taliban to kill an American General Officer?  

This is good to see - new armored SUV's with firing ports.  The staff officers
This is good to see – new armored SUV’s with firing ports. The staff officers in Kabul don’t need these – ETT’s do.   Only is the south is the threat capable enough to warrant the use of infantry fighting vehicles

We are supposed to bringing security and infrastructure to the people of Afghanistan. Yet when our military interacts with the people they do so at the point of a gun with full body armor, helmet, ballistic glasses, special purpose fighting gloves (I have a pair myself because they look cool,) ear plugs, etc And do you know what the people of Afghanistan think? They think our military men and woman are cowards. When the Soviets were here their troops would go out on the town after duty hours (unarmed) to patronize local restaurants, stores, tea houses, and bars. The Expats around the country continue to do that to this day. The French restaurant in Kabul is the largest taxpayer in the country and it is packed every night of the week save Sunday.   I’ve seen senior military officers in uniform in the bar occasionally despite the ban on alcohol consumption by American forces.

A friend leant me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout suppressor
A friend lent me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout flash suppressor to use on the PSD gig I am currently working.   It is a vortex design which kicks all the gas and most of the noise out in front of the weapon.   A standard bird cage suppressor will give both shooter and driver a vicious headache if you have to shoot from inside a vehicle which is the most common scenario for contractors in Afghanistan

I am in Kabul filling in for the month for a friend who is home on leave. I’m working for one of the larger security companies as a “shooter” on a PSD team which is looking after business developers from the largest American firm working in Afghanistan. My co-workers (both Afghan and international) are fit, well trained, and very competent. My duties consist of escorting men around three or four offices in Kabul. Most of the people we escort have been here a long time. After working hours they jump in to unarmored beaters like mine to hit the town for a little night life. I have not asked but suspect all of them will tell you that having the lavish security they currently enjoy is overkill in Kabul. But what we think doesn’t matter the fact is that they are operating under contract from the US State Department and must conform to the security regulations in those contracts and the State Department requires their prime contractors to operate this way.

Your tax dollars at work - this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American
Your tax dollars at work – this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American contractors and filled with brand new Ford armored trucks. Even the UN is not this lavish in their pursuit of first class health and comfort.   We were supposed to spend billions helping the Afghans but what they got was this – a place where Afghans are not allowed to work or loiter.

Is it stupid? You bet. Is it necessary? Absolutely not and today’s multiple small arm/suicide bomber attack in Kabul doesn’t change my assessment one bit. Is this your government at work? It sure is (if you are American) and the excessive security driven overhead costs is the symptom of a large government machine which is not really serious about the mission in Afghanistan.

15 Replies to “Observations on Kabul and the private security market”

  1. Tim,

    Ah yes, Pecan pie. That is a tasty treat, and especially if it is out of the pie pan and not the pre-packaged slices. But any way it comes, is alright with me. I hope your pecan trend changes for the better. lol
    Excellent points about the state of affairs in Afghanistan right now. You don’t hear much reported about the PSC’s in Afghanistan these days, and it is cool to get a little view of that through your lens.

    That Noveske Krink KX3 Flash Suppressor is interesting. I have never used one, and would be interested to learn more about how that is working out for you? Noveske stuff is the heat, and their barrels are excellent.


    The General story is so classic. The emperor has no clothes….. So when will someone in his protective detail or circle, grow a pair and tell him how dangerous that is? Amazing.

    And finally, tactics need to drive strategy, not the other way around. The Army tactics might work for them on the roads, and that is safe and great, but the overall strategy of winning over hearts and minds in Afghanistan is certainly being lost with that kind of tactic.

    You are right to question the current tactic’s logic. This is not Iraq, it is Afghanistan, and it is a different war. We must be better learning organizations, and find a better way so we can accomplish the mission of protecting the local populations, and making do on our promises. Do we want to join the stack of defeated foreign armies in the history of Afghanistan, or do we want to be the foreign army that people in that country look at and say ‘I am glad they are here, and that was a good idea’.

    I also look at this from a ‘influencer’ point of view (my new favorite book). I think your friends from the Fablab would dig that book as well, and there are some lessons in there that apply to the war effort.


    It is fine and dandy to write all the books in the world about counter-insurgency and warfare, but it takes a strategist that has the ability to influence others that their ideas about the subject are sound. And influencing others means getting them to come to a conclusion that you want them to come to. You can’t tell them to change, but you can certainly show them a better way and help them to come to that conclusion themselves. Sure you can order people to do something different, but are they truly personally sold on the concept and believe in it?
    So the questions that your targeted audience needs to answer, for them to come to their own conclusions, is ‘Can I do this?’, and ‘How will this benefit me?’. In the book influencer, they discuss all the techniques of how to influencers change people minds, and it is all based on in depth study about the subject.This book looks at several influence success stories, including an Indian bank specializing in micro loans, reducing AIDS in Thailand, eradicating the guinea worm, and an environment that changes criminal behavior, and analyzes why it worked. They discuss a multitude of strategies to use, and certainly an excellent book for the idea tool box.

    So how are we doing in convincing the Afghani people, that we are good idea? I would say pretty bad. Are we making do on our promises? Not really, but if we are, we would hear about it from the local populations. Are we defeating the Taliban? Not really, and if we are, we are doing a terrible job of communicating that win to the rest of the world. But most importantly, are the locals able to answer these two basic questions about supporting this strategy and supporting the foreign army–Can I do this? How will this benefit me?

    Also, I am surprised that the strategists of this war, are not paying more attention to the opinion leaders out there. Or you could call them mavens. Whatever we call them, these are folks that know the subject really really well, and they have a following of folks that trust their opinion about the matter. There are opinion leaders within the local populations of Afghanistan, are the Army, or the contracting world, and all over the place. For an idea to spread, and to change minds, an influencer must find these folks and sell them on that idea. Like I said, are we a good idea to the opinion leaders of Afghanistan? Is the war a good idea to the opinion leader journalists covering this war? Is the war being fought well according to the opinion leaders of the military? Are all of these folks able to answer the question–Can we do this? and How will this benefit us?

  2. At 62, I have seen all this before. Same old quack, new set of feathers.
    The thing I don’t understand, is why the behavior patterns of the higher ranks and the unacceptable arrogance of security people is tolerated. Generations of troops have complained and still you have the same self-serving senior nco’s and officers major and above decade after decade. Why does no influential general say “no more”? Where is the Secretary of the Army?
    Decades ago when I was drafted for yet another political miscalculation in a different country, I scored a 96 out of 100 on the army’s afqt something or other. Basicly I was a high rentention person. I was approached to join ocs then later, nco school. I declined both. Why? Not because I didn’t like the low pay and living conditions of the army; it was the behavior of some of the people you describe in your post. And with the expense of training a new soldier vastly greater than in my day, I again ask what is the purpose of this high schoolish behavior? Why is this tolerated?

  3. > National Coordinator of Health Information Technology

    yes, I do know. And they won’t have the authority you suggest. In fact, they probably won’t have any authority at all, given the way Health IT works.

  4. When the UN is doing a better job than the US State Department then you know things are FUBAR. I do hope that the new administration has plans to turn things around but I’m not holding my breath. Thanks for keeping us up to date.

  5. Good stuff. I have to conclude Americans are not really well suited to this kind of warfare, and the strategic big picture–democracy, security, etc.–is constantly undermined by our near-obsession with force-protection. Some people get it, but most don’t, and the political center of gravity at home will not stomach the timelines, investment, or casualties needed to win.

  6. “…we’ve been in Afghanistan for 8 years…one would think maybe we could come up with better techniques.”

    Well, if “we’ve” been there for so long then those techniques obviously have to change since they’ve had so much influence in the past. I’m not at all an advocate for PSC or ISAF rough-housing but maybe, just maybe, the threat level has picked up a bit. On the other hand, posing a menace to Afghani civilians is not the way to help change even though change is not what is needed where Afghanis are concerned…

  7. I agree with a lot that is written in this article. I’m currently in the Kandahar area and I have to say things are very different here, security is different and the need for security is different. I’m interested in communicating with anyone who has the ability to help in a local project to improve in the confidence the Afghani community has in their military. I’m helping a friend with an idea to make a 12 inch tall GI Joe style doll. The idea is to create a figure that looks like an Afghan National Army (ANA) Soldier. We would need someone to build the doll and then create the clothes to be identical as the Soldiers uniform. The dolls would be given out to the children by the ANA, not by coalilition forces. It is a “Afghani for Afghanistan” approach.

    Roshan would be the easiest way to communicate

  8. Tim I must say that I have a strange new perspective I never thought I’d have. This worn out old Marine is some times referred to as “Army Spouse” now. My newest wife (Iam starting a collection) is in the US Army and they do things very differently than us Devil Dogs. I give her more than a ear full about it all of the time. Some things seem more than a little silly and over complicated others force me to make that confussed puppy dog face and think “WTF is wrong with these people?”

    I see these Army officers cruising the Bases in Georgia with their “I love my rank” stickers all over their POVs and think “what dorks”, but to hear of even one flagging a vehicle there really deducts IQ points.
    Of course my wife has a USMC sticker on the front of our vehicle and a US Army sticker on the rear. I guess I have been tagged.

    I love the flash suppressor, looks a bit odd but functionalitly overcomes looks any day of the the week.
    Love to see the kit you guys are using, very cool.

  9. Tim, you are as always, spot on. When I was with the mil on my first tour, our FOB was a safe house, in the middle of nowhere, we did a lot of foot patrols, and were out in the districts regularly. We picked a few bad spots, namely Wardak, and some outer regions of Ghazni, and stayed there. We knew everyone, and ya know, they didn’t come out after us all that much. We eventually found all the weapons/ammo cache’s, and made that a routine thing.

    Now….the uber FOB’s, driving around in “presence patrols” in major urban areas, and accomplishing absolutely nothing. The bad areas are bad because we fly in, get in a fight, and leave three days later…it’s ridiculous. Get the mil off of gate guard duty, and get every single person off the FOB, and into the countryside…and stay there!!!!!

    As much as I like to bash the Brits…ya know, they understand counterinsurgency. When was the last time the Turks got blasted…? That’s right, never. They don’t patrol around looking to get into it. The Germans….they drive around in their great armored vehicles (up north) at night, with the big searchlights on, like they were looking for escapees from Dauchau, irritating everyone in the process.

    Got to the villages, have a shura, drill some wells, get a consensus of what the tribal picture is, and work from there. More importantly…stay there. That’s why they make tents, and MRE’s. Nothing will be accomplished with Cp. Phoenix staff sitting around, writing policy, and only concerned with the proper uniform of the day. I mean c’mon…how many mil persons walk around the base in their PT gear, and rifles with no magazines on their person? Rifles were meant for people to protect themselves and fight, get the hell off the damned FOB, and quit talking about great things being done.

    O.K. my rant for the day.

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