(This is the ninth in a series of postings about overseas police work, more commonly referred to as mission work in a position as police advisor).
I recognize a loser when I see one, and a few months in Afghanistan was enough for me to deduce that the efforts being made there to reform the Afghan National Police were fruitless. I can best sum it up in the words of an ANP commander, who made the following statement to an American advisor advisor who was promising him for the umpteenth time that attempts were being made to get the commander and his officers equipment and vehicles:
"When are you Americans going to stop promising and start delivering?"
We were told on a daily basis to ensure the Afghans that resources to accomplish their mission were on the way, but none of that was true. They could read the news just like we could, and it was apparent that the USG was dedicating most of its war budget to Iraq. The Afghans realized that they had been used as a stepping stone to Iraq, and the promised money and resources were window dressing.
I worked a couple of months with General Daoud in Counter-Narcotics and then was assigned as the Pillar Leader for policy & procedure. The move came with a room change that gave me additional security with a basement room in an actual building, along with a shower. The building was several feet from the thin walls of plywood that constituted my previous living quarters.
There was nothing much to the job change. The SOP for the ANP had been written months before and was well composed. My function, working in conjunction with others in the American contingent, was to try and implement the SOP into the ANP through the Ministry of Interior.
The U.S. military wanted to take over the training of the police, and there was significant contentious behavior between the Department of State and Department of Defense over that matter. The military wanted it so badly that they resorted to underhanded maneuvers.
One of my colleagues reported to me that he sat in a meeting with the military. A lieutenant colonel presented one of my colleague's reports and recommendations as his own! The lieutenant colonel, army type, one each, had approached my colleague a couple of weeks before as if he were seeking information on police procedure involving a certain aspect of ANP. My colleague shared his report, a recommendation on policy & procedure, which had not yet been presented to DoS.
There were other problems:
The New York Times was nosing around trying to get information on Dyncorp, and money and equipment that were unaccounted for. An article came out on that in 2006:
They would also do an expose on the fruitlessness of the effort to train ANP by American cops, when in fact the ANP needed to be trained for a counter-insurgency war:
There were other issues, not the least of which centered around personnel.
We had several Americans who were not qualified to be there. They simply lacked the experience and expertise to be in the position of advisor to the Ministry of Interior. They had not finished their police careers, had not held rank, and brought nothing more to the table than being patrol officers. That's okay if the needs of the mission call for the training of patrol officers, as some of the positions did in Kosovo. But what we needed in Afghanistan were retired command-level administrators that knew how to run a police department (there are exceptions to every rule, and one of those was a retired NYPD detective that I worked with in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Haiti. He could write policy & procedure with recommendations tailored for the national police as well as anyone who had attained the rank of captain or deputy chief).
Some of what went on was pure nonsense, too. We had brand new M4 rifles in the armory that were not issued unless the person requesting one was deemed "important." What that meant was never clearly defined to me, but I was obviously not "important" and neither were my colleagues. Those weapons sat in the rack of the armory for months and I think I saw one issued in the time I was there, and that went to an office type who was seldom in the field. The weapon I was issued was a Pakistani knock off of an MP5, which is a magazine-fed 9mm submachine gun. That type of weapon is great for clearing rooms during a building search, but in wide open country like Afghanistan, where snipers can hit you from several hundred yards away, a higher caliber rifle with a heavier bullet is desirable. I eventually got my hands on an AK-47.
We spent a good deal of time on lock down, because the sitrep (situation report) deemed it too dangerous for us to be out and about. I thought that was ridiculous. We signed up for that mission knowing that Afghanistan was a war zone and there was a certain element of risk attached to the assignment. We spent days on end not being able to leave the compound because someone in the embassy had intelligence that the Taliban or al-Qaeda were going to try and kill Americans. Duh. What a waste of time and resources (the price tag on our heads, individually, was twenty-five thousand dollars, which I found insulting because I considered myself worth much, much more).
We had translators, but they weren't the best. In any mission there are interpreters, but the really good ones end up working at the American embassy. The pay is better and so are the working conditions. On the subject of translators, I have to share a story.
We had this one kid, about twenty years of age, and not that great of an interpreter but a nice person. Like so many other translators, he was still learning words and phrases common to American lingo. When the interpreters would hear us talk and not recognize a word, they would immediately ask us what it meant and how to spell it. One afternoon this young translator was in the back seat of our SUV, wedged between me and another cop. We were in a typical Kabul traffic jam, not moving and temperatures sweltering.
I looked at him and said, "This is what we call a clusterfuck. Do you know what a clusterfuck is?"
He shook his head.
"A clusterfuck," I continued, "is a huge disorganized mess. And every clusterfuck has a numbnuts in charge. Do you know what a numbnuts is?"
Again, he shook his head.
"You know what the English word numb means, right?"
"And you know what your nuts are, right?"
God bless him, he actually blushed! Then he nodded his head in affirmation.
"Okay," I continued. "Imagine a guy so stupid that he has no feelings in his nuts."
When we got back to the compound he jumped from the vehicle and literally ran to the translator's office to share that linguistic chestnut.
We had good food and the retired one-star that was in charge allowed alcohol. We had a barbecue every Friday that the general threw for us. The beef and chicken were flown in from Dubai. There were PX's around the city, one run by the Italians and the other by Norwegians. That Italian PX had wine, salami, and other goodies from their home country (there had been PX's in Kosovo also, although the Italians didn't have one in operation when I was in-country. The Norwegians and Swedes did, and a lot of guys bought duty-free expensive watches from them. The UN in Kosovo also had a PX in downtown Pristina. In the winter I bought several pure cashmere neck scarfs for the astounding price of 12 euros).
There was a PX at Bagram Airfield, a U.S. base about a one hour drive from Kabul. It didn't have much outside of essentials: toothpaste, deodorant, pogey bait, some clothing. It was nothing like the U.S. base in Kosovo called Bondsteel. We would travel to Bondsteel from Pristina to eat at the Burger King there, and shop at the PX which carried everything from stereo equipment to cigars (no Cuban cigars, but those were available at the U.N. PX).
I still carry a memory of traveling in an SUV on the road to Bagram on a miserably cold and windy winter day, with dust blowing across the barren plain. It reminded me so much of a typical southern New Mexico duster. As we traveled on the paved highway back to Kabul, a van loaded down with people came at us in the opposite lane. As it approached I could see bodies on top of the vehicle. When it passed I saw that the inside was crammed with men, and the women had been forced to huddle together on the roof, holding on to the chrome luggage bars that extended the length of the van!
Another memory I have is that of a retired Army enlisted shitbird who had something to do with financial operations for Dyncorp. He was driving one afternoon when we made a PX run, and as we departed the PX compound there was an Afghan boy with no legs outside the gate. I guessed his age to be about seven or eight, and he was seated on a skateboard for mobility. The shitbird slowed the vehicle as he saw the extended hand of the boy and held an Afghani note in his hand outside the window. As the boy reached for it, the shitbird jerked his hand upward so that the note was just out of the boy's reach. He continued moving slowly, forcing the boy to propel himself along the street as he lunged again and again for the money. The shitbird took great pleasure in his little game and laughed hysterically before finally dropping the money to the street and speeding away.
That shitbird ended up transferring to company operations in Istanbul. The rumor was that an audit had shown eighty thousand dollars in his budget unaccounted for and they moved him. Was it true? I never found out, but we had a saying that referenced people who arrived in the mission, committed faux pas, and were promoted: Show up, fuck up, move up.
It was the wild west, too. I was sitting "in the well" one day as we drove through Kabul. The "well" was a gunner's position in the back of the SUV in case of attack from the rear. There was no seat, one just assumed a cross-legged sitting position and kept an observant eye out for anyone who looked like a potential threat, which was only about ninety-five percent of the population. Windows were kept rolled up to prevent some opportunistic bastard from tossing a grenade into the vehicle. In the event of an actual shooter it would have been necessary to return fire through glass to hit the assailant. None of our vehicles were armored, so getting him before he could shoot was a necessity since a spraying of AK-47 rounds into the SUV would have done serious damage to any occupants.
So I was in the well and we were driving through a market when I observed two Afghan men wearing traditional garb walking side-by-side, each carrying something that I immediately recognized. I said out loud, "Did I just see one guy carrying a mortar tube and the other guy with the base plate?" The reply came from the front seat: "Yep." Not quite the flea market of hometown America.
There was an uproar caused by an event at the market on Chicken Street, a bustling area of Kabul and a major shopping district. A woman in a burkha was reportedly abducted by ISAF troops (ISAF: International Security Assistance Force). Witnesses saw European army soldiers believed to be from Norway take an Afghan woman into their vehicle and drive away. Further investigation revealed that the woman in the burkha was actually a female Norwegian soldier. She wanted to do some shopping, and to not make herself an obvious target dressed in a burkha. Suicide bombers targeting foreigners were an unfortunate reality in the market, which was why it was off-limits to us.
I learned some lessons in Afghanistan, not the least of which is that the U.S. Department of State was just as much of a red-tape bureaucratic beast as the U.N. had been in Kosovo. Like a lot of people, I'd not been very complimentary on how the U.N. handled certain aspects of the police mission in Kosovo, but after experiencing the DoS operation in Afghanistan I realized that clusterfucks come in all shapes, sizes, and forms of government. That old joke of "We're from the government and we're here to help" rang true so often.
That was fourteen years ago, and we are still propping up a corrupt government in the hopes that we can democratize a people that don't want it. I read an article this morning that three American GI's were killed in a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan. I've said it before, I'll say it again: you cannot dispense democracy out the end of a gun barrel. I don't wish to politicize my articles, but enough with the stupidity of sending American GI's to countries that don't want anything from us but money. We got involved in the fiasco of Vietnam because we absolutely had to stop the spread of communism, and 58,220 deaths and decades later those horrible communists are our trading partners.
Unlike when I left Kosovo and moved to Rome for six months, I came directly back to the states when I departed Kabul. I didn't miss any of it. I was home for a few months and an opportunity arose to work in west Africa, in a country I had to look up on a map to see where it was: Liberia.