It was a dry, dusty, sharply cold afternoon in Kabul. The wind carried the faint reek of human excrement from the vegetable and melon fields a few kilometres away. Human waste is widely used in Afghanistan as fertilizer.
I was just about to give up on the rest of the day and call for my driver and head off to the closest foreigners’ market that sold scotch, when downstairs called and said I had two military officers who wanted a meeting.
Some activity that day was better than none, so I told one of my people to get the officers.
As Communications Director for the United Nations Warlord Disarmament Programme, I was used to dealing with just about any requests from outsiders.
(The UN used a different name for the group and also my position but those communicated little to the outside world of what we and I did so I had arbitrarily renamed everything. It really irritated the bureaucrats when I did that.)
I met with most outsiders mainly because the true leaders of the place really had too high a view of their own importance, and quite frankly did not understand everything that they were supposed to.
Two officers walked in and unlike every other officer in Theatre (military speak terminology) at the time they were in full proper uniform. Working officers in the field, or in Theatre, all dressed in combat fatigues done up in a bewildering variety of camouflage styles according to what their home countries thought best.
Since there were some 15 national armies in the Coalition trying to keep the country stable while a new and perhaps better government than the ousted Taliban flailed around trying to learn how to govern, there were a lot of wild and varied camouflage uniforms around.
My deputy, who had gone to meet them at reception, introduced them as captains from the Army of South Korea.
At that I was flummoxed. As far as I knew the South Koreans had shown no interest in being part of the international coalition holding the country together and they supplied none of the humanitarian aid that the country’s millions needed.
It didn’t take long to find out why they were in my office.
They wanted to buy my thousands of tanks, rockets, and other heavy weapons.
The Heavy Weapons Collection Programme was a countrywide effort to collect the thousands of tanks, armed personnel carriers, rockets, anti-aircraft machine guns and other weaponry from the dozens of private armies and warlords throughout Afghanistan. Most were rusted junk, but some of it could still level a city.
“But they are not mine.” I said. “They are part of the United Nations disarmament programme and technically they belong to the Government of Afghanistan.”
Broad smiles all around and knowing nods.
“Yes we know,” said one of the captains. “but we can help by getting them out of the country.”
“Why do you want to buy heavy weapons?” A question that I never got answered during the next half hour of increasingly opaque and twisted conversation.
My Afghan staff took it upon themselves to deliver coffee and tea along with trays of pistachios and Peak Frean cookies. I sighed when they started to bring that stuff in because it meant that I couldn’t just stand up and briskly wish them good luck and lead them out of the door. No, we had to sit there and make small aimless talk.
Part of my problem with their visit was that I was not sure at all that these two were who they said they were. Kabul swarmed with intelligence people. Each nation in the coalition had their uniformed intelligence officers and an unknown number of civilian clothed operatives. The most obvious, in and out of uniform, were always the Americans. For some odd reason they all seemed to think that wearing a dark beard, elaborately pocketed vests, a pair of dark Ray-Bans or Oakleys, and an air of coiled violence made them invisible. True intelligence operatives, and I have known a lot, are as unnoticeable as true ghosts. American spies come across as the comic book Caspar, The Friendly Ghost.
The best invisible spooks were the British. They just seemed to drift aimlessly through the country without drawing attention to themselves. The funniest were the Bulgarian spooks. They all but walked around with a cloak covering their faces as they lurked around corners.
“If you don’t mind, Mr Rick,” said one of the officers. “How many tanks do you have?”
I repeated that they were not mine, and I had no control over them, but I didn’t press the point because they were unfailingly polite and smiling in their disbelief. “About ten thousand in compounds now and another few thousand on their way.”
“Any how many are operational?”
I could only repeat what my bosses had told me over and over, but I had never believed what they said. “None. They have all been demobilized by removing their fuel pumps, coaxial machine guns, and making the breech blocks inoperable.”
“But they can be loaded on truck trailers, no?”
I guessed so. My ignorance of how heavy weapons were handled was vast.
“And the anti-aircraft weapons? The rockets? And so on?”
“Well, I’ve been told that they are also inoperable.” I had my doubts about that. And there was more than one story about how operable air-to-ground Stinger missiles left over from the fight with the Soviets had quietly disappeared from the United Nations collection system and changed hands for huge amounts of money.
“We would very much like to buy as much of the material as we can. I imagine that there are various officials in the government and the United Nations that we would have to negotiate payment with. And of course, we would certainly compensate you well for your help.”
So there it was.
A bald bribe. I knew that they could easily cut a corrupt deal with whatever United Nations and Government of Afghanistan officials they had to, but I had seen the inside of the Pul-e-Sharki prison not five kilometers away and I was far far too much of a coward to ever chance getting sent there.
I also knew the head of the Afghan Secret Police, a terrible alcoholic who I had drunk much scotch with, who had been more than a little too graphic in his description of how the Afghan methods of torture were so much more effective than what the effete Americans did with their silly water-boarding and such.
It took some effort to get them out of my office gracefully, but it had helped that I had been able to get them an interview with a cabinet minister in the government to discuss the matter.
I never heard any more about their weapons buying trip but I heard an odd story about how some tanks and other heavy weapons had been pulled out of secure compounds at night and loaded on flatbed trucks for Pakistan, and presumably the ports.
Perhaps the value of scrap steel was that high, or perhaps the South Koreans, if they were even that and not, let’s say, North Korean, had other plans.
I kept my speculations to myself and watched to see if any of the people I dealt with suddenly could afford six star hotels in Dubai and high end vacations.
I also didn’t mention my meeting with my bosses. When it comes to weapons and money, it is best to keep one’s mouth shut. And, I did not trust them.