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Weekend Pass

Wild Kabul Nights for Civilian Security

Gregory Warner

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Private security contractor trains Afghans
(Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
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This weekend, we bring you another story in our Weekend Pass series about how military personnel spend their time off. But this week, our story doesn't involve enlisted soldiers but some of the 30,000 private security contractors working in Afghanistan.

Afghan police have started arresting them for carrying guns in public -- part of a growing hostility by the Afghan government to international private security companies. Meanwhile, American aid workers and even U.S. Embassy personnel depend on private guards for their safety.

With tensions escalating, how do these private contractors chill out? We sent reporter Gregory Warner to find out.

Editor's note: An interview subject quoted in this story uses epithet against a minority group.

You might not think of Kabul, Afghanistan, as a party town. But until recently, for some people, it was like a free-for-all.

Ben West: We hired midgets, uh, you know... We got a swimming pool full of Jell-O shots.

Gregory Warner: Wait, I'm sorry -- you hired midgets?

West: Yeah, we hired Afghan midgets. You know, we said: "Does anyone know where we can hire midgets?" Fifty bucks for the night.

That's Ben West, a former British paratrooper. When I met him, he'd been doing private security in Afghanistan for the last three years.

West: And it was a bit of a surprise for everyone to knock on the door and there was two midgets there at the gate.

Warner: Now, was that something you did in parties back home? Hire midgets?

West: No! I... it's... You can get absolutely anything in Kabul. Anything, you can get here.

For a while, it seemed nothing could stop the party -- until a few months ago, back in January. A few days after Ben's 25th birthday, insurgents stormed the only luxury hotel in Kabul.

West: They just went into the gym and started shooting. My girlfriend would have been on the treadmill in the gym 10 minutes later, you know what I mean? And that really took the wind out of everybody's sails.

So these days, if you want to find Ben on his off hours, he's probably here -- running an tattoo parlor out of his bedroom. Which may be Ben's way of having the adventurous life, indoors.

West: (to customer) How long's it been since the last one, mate?

Ben is Kabul's only tattoo artist. His clients include expat men and women, occasionally Afghans.

Steve: Seven years or so.

West: Seven years? That's all right, you're good.

Where Ben lives looks like a mansion turned into a college dorm. The house is huge, with marble floors and green tiled bathrooms. But Ben's bedroom is just a bed in a corner, and some shelves stacked with whey protein. Ben is ripped, by the way.

Steve (in pain): Oh, that's a good one.

Today, Ben's client is another security contractor, an American named Steve. Both of them do jobs here that U.S. soldiers might have once done. Steve guards the U.S. Embassy and some visiting lawyers. Ben trains Afghan police to recognize IEDs, homemade bombs. The tattoo Steve's getting combines his past and his present -- it's a Marine sword with the Afghan word for warrior written over it.

Warner: Do you miss being a warrior?

Steve: I am now! I protect people every day. I look at all the people and wait for something to go boom.

Steve always dreamed of being a Marine. He loved it. Civilian life he was less ready for... Two decades after leaving the military, he wasn't doing well: wracked by debts, working a nothing job in Dallas. Then he flipped on the radio.

Steve: I heard a news story about those Blackwater guys that were killed in '04, in Iraq.

You might remember that attack -- the images of charred bodies broadcast internationally. It was a turning point for U.S. public opinion about the war. For Steve, it was also a turning point, in his career.

Warner: So you saw those guys getting dragged through the mud, and that's what made you wanna apply?

Steve: Yeah. I hadn't been aware of that job market.

So Steve applied for the job.

Ben West: You know, everybody's ex-military, and people find it hard to adapt to civilian life. And so this is sort of an in-between place.

Ben also tried to go straight -- after he left the paratroopers, he took a job as a plumber.

West: I think one day I even told someone "Oh, I'm a plumber." And the conversation ended there. And when you come from being in the military or just being away, and you're used to people showing you respect for you, things like this -- just to be like, nothing... The only reason people speak to you is because they want something.

So Ben and Steve ended up in Afghanistan. The in-between place. Now Ben makes more money than being a plumber and a paratrooper combined.

West: All the guns are stashed away.

Warner: Woah, wait a second -- so you have a secret trap door in your bed?

West: That's right. It's gotta be done. Just in case the police come kick the doors down or whatever.

See, as a military man in Iraq, Ben tells me, he never had to talk to locals, except through a translator, and except when they were doing what he ordered them to do. Now he feels like he actually lives in Kabul -- he has to speak more of the local language, Dari. Tensions between private contractors and the Afghan government have increased.

West: The police stop you all the time. They don't speak a word of English. I speak more Dari now than any other language, simply because I've been dropped in the middle of it.

It's this freedom to live among the locals which the military doesn't prepare you for, Ben says. He can hire little people for parties, but it also means if his gun breaks he has to find an Afghan gunsmith to fix it. There's none of that distance that the military usually provides.

West: There is definitely guys who probably should have stayed in the military as well. When you get to the mercenary side of things, they can't let the military side of things go. They're just rude to people, and it gives us a bad name. You know, the first thing they think of is not the thing that's going to help them get out of the situation.

Warner: So what you're saying is that as a soldier, it's easier to deal with people rudely and brusquely?

West: Yeah, it's definitely -- well, that actually helps you do your job.

West: We just finished tattooing or whatever... It's been a long week! Friday is the only day off. One day weekends suck, but it makes for some interesting Thursday nights.

Tonight's Thursday, the day before the Muslim holy day. Last year, Ben would have stayed out all night at the bars. Now that's off-limits -- his boss says it's not worth a run-in with Afghan police. So we're stuck going to a bar on the military base, NATO headquarters.

West: It's not ideal because it's all soldiers and guys -- but the beer's cheap, and there's a lot of it.

It's a quick ride to the base through the quiet and dark streets.

West: There are no streetlights in Kabul, only floodlights. (laughs)

We pass through a barbed-wire gate and the sounds of karaoke get louder. The on-base bar is called Tora Bora. Hundreds of men -- and a few women -- stand around in camouflage. Ben and his friends stand apart, in T-shirts and jeans. The soldiers don't talk to us.

West: They're not allowed to talk to us! Bad for morale.

Bad for morale if they found his salary, Ben says. And the rest of the night will go like any other for young men in a small town: We'll drink beers, talk about girls. Ben's friend will get a call about a party in a private house.

We'll pile in to the car with bottles of Jack Daniel's stashed beneath the seats. We'll drive off, passing almost nobody on the street, except a few taxis. No one else is out -- either they're not allowed or they can't afford to be.

More stories from our Weekend Pass series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Jeffrey Lockman

    From Chicago, IL, 07/02/2008

    While on a tour to promote "Descent into Chaos" author Ahmad Rashid has been praising the security conditions in Kabul as compared to "far worse" in Peshawar. He choose not to elaborate if he had any comparable statistics on crime rate, violent incidents, or casualty figures from the two cities to make any objective and verifiable claims.

    By maggie o

    From Kabul, CA, 06/21/2008


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