Analysis Military

Afghanistan Weekly: Russian Roulette in Kabul

The flurry of bad news coming out of Afghanistan last month included a Taliban attack on the Private Military Corporation (PMC) G4S. G4S is headquartered in London and is the world’s largest security company (by revenue) with operations in over 90 countries. One of its more interesting contracts they currently hold is the security for Area 51 in Nevada.

The G4S compound was in the old ANA base named Anjuman which was off the Kabul – Jalalabad road a few miles east of downtown. Six people, including a British national, were killed in the attack and 32 more were injured. The targeting choice isn’t a surprise, as contractors working outside the wire are easy pickings for the Taliban; one of the mysteries of Afghanistan is why they haven’t been targeted more often.

Camp Anjuman after the Taliban attack last month. Photo: Hedyatullah Amid/EPA

That attack reminded me of another story regarding Nepalese security contractors guarding the Canadian embassy who had been wounded in 2016. The Nepalese had been working for Sabre International, which is another large British security firm. Apparently Sabre screwed them paying out just $30,000 in medical insurance benefits when their employment  contracts said they carried $300,000 in permanent disability insurance. That level of disability insurance is required in bids for embassy guard contracts specifically to avoid stories like this appearing in the international press. The five surviving Nepalese guards are now suing the Canadian government and they have a good case.

In June of 2016, the Nepalese guards were being transported to work from their safe-house to the Canadian embassy in a regular unarmored bus. They were hit by a VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) which killed 15 men and leaving 5 badly wounded survivors. They moved at the same time every day, used the same route everyday .just like every other security guard working for western embassies in Kabul. Keep in mind the guard forces had been doing this since 2005. The American guard force had been hit the previous January; shortly after the attack a Canadian spokeswoman said  “…she could not comment on specific security measures at the mission. She said the agency took the safety of its personnel seriously and did continuous, rigorous reviews of risk”. That’s going to be hard to prove in court.

The common perception of outside the wire contractors working Kabul is they are making big bucks. They are not, the competitive nature of the international security market have driven the pay down to a fraction of what the market tolerated ten years ago. Yet as the daily rate has continued to drop the risks to internationals working outside the wire in Kabul has increased by orders of magnitude. Anyone working those contracts today is playing Russian Roulette.

The American embassy has, after several attacks targeting their security contractors, moved them onto the embassy compound. That guard force had started out in a super crappy man camp just off the Kabul – Jalalabad road which was 2 1/2 miles east of the American embassy. I was the project manager for the guard force when we took over from the Marines at the Kabul embassy in 2005. The Marines had been deploying a reinforced rifle or weapons company to the embassy every six months for years and could no longer spare the manpower which they needed in Iraq. The Marine embassy detachment was there but they guard sensitive spaces, not the embassy proper.

Image 12-15-18 at 7.15 AM
The rear entrance to the embassy today – the expat guards are in the bullet proof guard shack to the rear

Kabul was a different city back then; there were dozens of bars that catered to the hundreds of westerners who had flooded the city looking to get in on the security/reconstruction action. There were dozens of Chinese “restaurants” (a polite name for whorehouse) which spawned the common joke “and they serve food too”. Kabul was a crazy place which turned into a crazy dangerous place in the ensuing years.

eric allen and Martin
The rear gate to the American embassy in 2005. The ISAF headquarters is to the left of the guys on post.  In this picture are plank-owners Dave Taylor and Eric Allen, both from the UK, Dave perished in an airplane accident in Afghanistan in May of 2010.

When we took over the embassy contract the Marines we replaced were living on the embassy grounds where their life support was provided by the embassy. We were forced to live in a small, dilapidated compound that had been rented to Global by a pair of Lebanese brothers who were originally from Liberia. On a positive note we did have our own bar and multiple vehicles that allowed the guards to go out on the town on their nights off. They could also take day trips to Bagram where our embassy ID allowed us on base to shop at the exchange, use the barber and stuff like that.

Camp Happy Bks
Camp Cholera barracks on day one of the contract. The building would not be finished for another month and was built out with two floors and multiple rooms using 2x4s and plywood. It was a death trap which we remedied by forcing the contractors to create large fire exits at the end of every hallway

The barracks, chow hall, showers and heads were atrocious and our camp, being just feet off the main road, was impossible to harden, but we accepted the risk which we assessed as reasonable. Kabul was a target rich environment with all the brand new armored SUV’s driving around and lots of military convoys. The military started getting targeted by VBIEDs (vehicle borne improvised explosive devices) in November of 2005. VBIED attacks started to increase in 2006 but targeted ISAF targets, Western embassies or high-profile Kabul government targets. International security contractors working for western governments commuted to work in local buses with the traffic and avoided attention from the Taliban for years.

In 2005 conditions on embassy security contracts varied widely. I had been on an identical contract at the American embassy in Baghdad in 2004.  We lived inside the Green Zone on a firm camp that was plugged into the same KBR DFAC system supplying the  embassy and military. There was no reason for the guard force to leave the Green Zone so the only real threat were from rockets that targeted the area on a semi regular basis.

In Kabul our life support was marginal, and had been subcontracted out to local companies with limited to zero experience.  Th contract required intensive weapons training so the guards could pass the State Department pistol, AK-47, Squad Automatic Weapon, and shotgun qualifications. The contract in Baghdad had not required similar weapons certifications. Our Nepalese, who comprised most of the watch standers, were late arriving but we were lucky with the expat contingent. The contract required the entire guard force show up and pass the qualification test at the start of the contract. That was problematic because it screwed with the rotation schedule but it was non-negotiable.

The Expats showed up on a charter flight were mostly South African and Brits with a handful of Canadians and Americans. All of them were prior service and with the entire compliment there we organized like an infantry battalion with an operations section, dedicated range training section headed by a former British SgtMaj (who was excellent), we appointed dedicated admin and supply guys, a project XO and medical team headed by a licensed Physician Assistant who had served in the British Army. Most of the guys were returning to Afghanistan after completing a UN sponsored voter registration contract and although that contract did not come with arming authority the teams had been armed and stashed their weapons with friends in case they were needed when they returned. They were needed.

The regular embassy guard contract would include M4’s, M -240 machineguns and sniper rifles but the bridge contract only allowed us to draw the Glock pistols, shotguns and SAW’s for training and to man the posts. We had to come up with our own rifles which cost a few training days as we sent teams of expats all over the country to  recover weapons and to buy as much ammo as they could find. Back in 2005 there were no problems driving around Afghanistan. Trying to drive through the Helmand or Oruzgan provinces were a no go but driving to Kandahar or any place up north or to the east was no problem.

range training
I taught the initial 4-day combat pistol course. I had worked at the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute for a few years and had the four day pistol syllabus down.
Range 3
We added the speed rock at the end of the pistol qualification. A speed rock is engaging the target when you are toe to toe with it and requires you to shoot from the hip as soon as the muzzle clears the holster. Guys from Europe and Oz who had not trained with pistols much were apprehensive when they saw this drill demonstrated but super stoked after they did it.

On a contract that has a crappy camp, long mostly boring shifts, and limited entertainment options during off duty hours there are few positive options; sucking it up while enjoying the comrade generated by shared misery is always the best option and we were able to do that. We were fortunate to have experienced and mostly older (35 and above) guys on the contract who were all about not spending money while in country. Restaurants and night clubs in Kabul were expensive.

The only security companies who could handle the embassy guard contract would were Blackwater or Triple Canopy. They had the ranges, weapons, and staff to do all the training and testing stateside prior to flying the guard force into Afghanistan. We were able to get the guard force certified while losing less than a dozen who proved incapable of qualifying with the weapons and knew we would be on that contract for a long time. Blackwater and Triple Canopy would have to factor in the costs of pre-deployment weapons training and their bids would be way too high. The winner would need to hire the current guard force or risk getting a new guard force through the weapons qualification.

That State Department built a man camp for the security force next to the airport and the Global guard force occupied it after the first firm to win the regular contract showed up with a Peruvian guards who couldn’t speak English and Namibian tribesmen with South African passports filling the role as senior guards. English was maybe their fifth of sixth language and they weren’t that proficient. Neither set of guards passed any of the weapons qualifications so they were sent home, the Global guards issued the M4’s and the entire force moved out to Camp Sullivan.

Camp Sullivan was a huge step up from Camp Cholera.

I had left the contract by the time the force moved into Camp Sullivan — named after a State Department Diplomatic Security Agent, Tim Sullivan who was killed in Ramadi, Iraq. He was a former Marine who had been in the Kabul RSO shop when we started the contract and was a really good dude.

Eventually another company won the contract by hiring the guard force but wages started to drop. The new camp was nice but lacked a bar or decent common area. Added to that Kabul had started to be problematic so the guards could no longer check out a vehicle and drive out to dinner or take a road trip to Bagram to hit the exchanges. They were restricted to the camp, drinking became a problem which exploded into scandal involving excessive inebriation and all sorts of weird hazing.

We would have weekly Jeopardy matches inside the bar that was part of Camp Cholera. When the booze was consumed in public we had very few problems. When it goes inside the barracks you have problems.

These days in Kabul there is no way for international security companies to move guard forces around without attracting unwanted attention. Kabul was no longer a target rich environment; international security contractors are too easy to spot and simple to attack. I don’t think there will be too many G4S camp attacks in the future because there just aren’t going to be any left outside the wire of the diplomatic missions or military camps. If the Taliban don’t drive the remaining outside the wire security guys back in from the cold their insurance companies will.

As bad as things are in Kabul they are going to get worse before any reasonable end will surface on the horizon. The PMC market may try to hang on a little longer but they are accepting a level of risk that will be tough to defend in court when the inevitable casualties are sustained. When the PMC’s do pull back behind the wire it will be one more step towards the endgame. That endgame seems to be a long way off, making predictions about its nature is difficult. There are only a few ways things could end well in Afghanistan and a multitude of ways they could end poorly.

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2 years ago

Excellent article. Sounds to me like a lot of risk and increasing risks with decreasing rewards. I get that some veterans return to what they know. There needs to be a way to increase security, and provide the highest quality training.

Thomas Eric Allen
Thomas Eric Allen
2 years ago

What a fantastic time we had great bonding great friends wouldn’t of chanced it for anything

2 years ago

Thanks Tim, more insight and knowledge.

2 years ago

You need to check some facts on this article, mainly the first picture. That is not Camp Anjuman after the attack. I should know, I was based at Anjuman and involved in the attack.

2 years ago

Tim, I enjoyed this article for all it’s great information. If, in fact, we do pull a mass of troops out of Afghanistan in the near future, what is your assessment of the pros and cons for us as well as for the Afghan people? And how do you think our troops and our allied troops will feel about it? (Not their governments but rather the troops themselves.) None of this changes the sympathy I feel for those citizens of Afghanistan that just want to raise their kids, earn their livings, and live in peace.

2 years ago

We did get the Namibians qualified in the shotguns, but yeah nothing else.

2 years ago

Dear Tim good read. I was deployed to US Embassy Kabul with 4th MEB (AT) TF KABUL, being RNLMC LNO, early 2003. Our RSO was late Tony Diebler, awesome guy! Good time and so different from now, being the RSO at the EU Embassy 15 years later. S/|f

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