I arrived in Afghanistan in late September 2004. I was part of a group of three sent to work with the Ministry of Interior for the purpose of instituting democratic policing principles into the Afghan National Police (ANP), and build them up from a force of 15,000 to 35,000. There were already fifteen other Americans on the ground doing the same, all of whom had arrived within the past sixty days.
We arrived after a couple of days of travel that included an itinerary of Dulles-Paris-Baku-Dubai (I believe it was Paris, although it could have very well been Brussels or Vienna. Since I can't remember the airline we boarded out of Dulles, I can't very well name the city, although it doesn't really matter).
In Baku we were questioned as to our business and our passports were seized, presumably photocopied and scrutinized by the Azerbaijan intelligence service. No doubt, they suspected we were agents of some USA secret organization. Sorry to disappoint, boys, just a group of former cops looking to make a buck. The passports were returned as we boarded.
If you are ever offered the opportunity to fly on Azerbaijan Air, decline the invitation. I remember the fellow in front of me reclining his seat only to have it collapse into my lap; and when I lowered the food tray from the seat in front of me it fell to the floor. The toilets looked like they had last been scrubbed sometime in the 70's, and of course no soap or water in the lavatory. It was an old Boeing 737, with the fasten seatbelt warning signs on the back of the seat written in English and Spanish. As unsafe as I thought the jet to be, it was only a warmup to what I would experience flying KamAir, the national airline of Afghanistan.
In Dubai our issued duffel bags were seized. It is customary there for luggage to be x-rayed going out of the airport, presumably to detect alcohol or other illegal substances. The customs officials wanted to know why we had pepper spray, handcuffs, and expandable police batons in our gear (I had the same question, actually. None of us ever wore that issued equipment. For God's sake, it was a war zone and we would end up carrying AK-47's, what were we going to do with pepper spray?).
I handed the customs agent a form letter that had been issued to each of us, written in Arabic, which advised that we were employees of the U.S. Department of State on an assignment to assist the Afghan National Police. The letter asked for any and all professional courtesies to be extended. After a brief delay the bags were returned and we proceed to our hotel to spend the night. We would travel early the next day for Kabul via KamAir.
The hotel was a four star American brand, with dual escalators going from street level to the lobby. After getting our rooms we all agreed to shower and meet in the bar downstairs. An hour later I was the first to arrive, and upon stepping up to the bar to order a beer I remember thinking, "Wow, there's a lot of women staying here." Oh, you naive pup, Mr. Lonsway.
I got my bottle of beer and looked around. Tables and tables of women, pretty women, sexy women, Anglo, Asian, Indian, and others, then I realized they were hookers. It's a common double standard in the Middle East, where religion dominates and the evils of alcohol, sex, and any other enjoyable pursuit are openly denounced. The government strictly enforced a policy of no alcohol (accounting for the x-ray of luggage leaving the airport), but sold it openly in bars; a woman could not appear on a beach wearing a bikini, but prostitution was ubiquitous.
I would see more of this in Kabul and, years later, in Beirut, Lebanon (Beirut is where the Arabs go to let their hair down, so to speak, a sort of Middle East Las Vegas. Holy men preach from the pulpit about the weaknesses of the Great Satan because in American culture we openly embrace alcohol and sex. Yet, when the sermon ends these same men hop on a flight to Lebanon so they can drink to excess and fuck their brains out).
My compatriots would not make it down that night, and I got tired of waiting and went to find a restaurant (I will seldom eat in a hotel unless I am desperately hungry and all other options have been exhausted). I found a burger joint, ate, and after leaving came across a man in the parking lot. I asked for directions to some pub, and upon hearing my English wanted to know if I was an American. I replied yes.
"Why does your President Bush hate Arab people?" he exploded, yelling loudly. "Why does he want to bomb and kill us all?"
He was well-dressed in Western clothing, appeared intelligent, and his outburst took me by surprise.
"Let me ask you something," I replied calmly. "In your system of government, whenever your President makes a decision, does he call your house to ask your opinion before he makes a decision?"
"No, of course not," he said.
"Same in my country," I said. "Don't think that when a man elected to office makes a decision that all people living in that country approve of his actions."
"But Americans voted him into office."
"True, he won the election, but he lost the popular vote," I said. "Have you heard of the electoral college?"
"Ah, yes yes yes," he said. "I studied that in school."
I learned a valuable lesson from that encounter. In all future dealings with people in any Arab country, when asked my citizenship, I almost always replied that I was Canadian. Who doesn't like Canadians? (I voted for President Bush the first time he ran; the second time I did not vote as I was in Kosovo).
We flew to Afghanistan the next day, and a team of four Americans that we would work with picked us up at the Kabul airport. It was an introduction into the planning and operations aspect of the unit: they came in a small SUV, and with all our gear piled in there, plus seven people crammed into the vehicle, I ended up sitting on the partition that divides the driver and front passenger seats. And, facing backward to boot. They did not bring us weapons, either.
On the way in, the driver pointed out small black flags flying over certain houses, businesses, etc.
"That means they are Taliban supporters," he said.
As it turns out, that was a horribly incorrect piece of information, but was an introduction to what would be a poorly organized, shoddily run endeavor. I am not speaking of the cops that came to work (we had some exceptional, intelligent, and hard working men there).
Our program was run by a retired Army one-star, who carried the designation of deputy program manager (DPM). He was a sharp man tasked with the responsibility of multiple ongoing projects in-country. Every mission overseas has a DPM and a contingent commander (CC), who is usually a retired cop, but often is a police officer who quit his stateside job because the police advisor positions overseas paid much better.
Our DPM depended on the cop designated as the contingent commander (CC) to do right with the police program, and he was let down.
Unfortunately for all of us, that CC was an untrustworthy, lying, two-faced douche bag with no redeeming qualities as a leader. I was warned about him by friends I had on the ground when I arrived, and their warnings were well-advised.
More on him and the program in the next posting.
By the way, after going weeks of seeing an abundance of plain black banners flying over various residences and businesses in Kabul (along with white flags, which a know-it-all retired military type advised me belonged to "friendlies", as in anti-Taliban), I asked one of our translators about the pro-Taliban black banners. He chuckled.
"Sir," he said, "the black banners are for Sunni Muslims, and the white are for Shia."
He pointed out that if persons residing in Kabul were flying flags to show Taliban or al-Qaeda allegiance, they would certainly be dealt with accordingly by the military.
Know before you go...