That August morning was like any other in Kabul, quiet and sultry with nothing but my overworked air-conditioner complaining through the thick, dark stillness.
The morning call to prayer interrupted my thoughts at precisely 4:53am, this varied by a few minutes daily but was unfailingly reliable.
The rooming house lacked definable architecture, it was plain and undistinguished, like most things in this tired, war-torn city of 4.6 million souls
My room was on the third floor, no elevator, three sets of stairs justified by the only room in the house with a private bath, I would have climbed five sets for that.
Each room had a galley kitchen; sink, refrigerator, hot plate, and microwave not fancy but serviceable. There was a sitting area with a couch, dining table, desk, and chair. The bedroom was not describable, plain, small, single bed, table, and dresser with a threadbare Afghan rug that slipped on the stained linoleum floor. There was a closet, but the door was missing.
The window views were chaotic, the drabness of a dirty street punctuated by scurrying black burqas dodging the indiscriminate trucks and bikes carrying mountains of stuff known only to the consignee and consignor.
The street scene was like the view inside of a monochromatic kaleidoscope that had been twisted one too many times.
I accepted this assignment in spite of my family intervention, Sarah and the kids were dead-set against it and begged me to turn down the recruiter. I listened to them and nodded when I was supposed too but the base pay plus a hazardous duty bonus was catnip to an old capitalist like myself.
My name is John Carlisle, people call me Jack. This was to be my last hurrah, my final act in a 50-year career of managing and consulting. I had spent the last 24 of those years doing economic development work in the emerging markets of a dangerous world in Central and SE Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
I’d become immune to the dangers once I arrived in-country and found myself working and socializing with the locals who were unfailingly kind and appreciative.
That is until now, Afghanistan is not your typical developing world hot-spot.
This beleaguered country has endured terrorism, war, occupation, and reoccupation for over 2000 years by global players intent upon taming her wild culture and religious zealotry.
It hasn’t worked, time after time invaders have been repelled and left with their tails between their legs in an embarrassing retreat.
The US is only the latest to test their resolve, the Taliban and Al-Qaida have dominated the geography outside of the capital city of Kabul and government troops with US support have tried but failed to gain a foothold.
I’m here to convince local farmers that cotton production can compete with opium, the ubiquitous cash crop demanded by the Bad Guys, as the ex-pats liked to call the terrorists. Both crops thrive in this dry hot climate, albeit opium is easier and cheaper to grow with a ready market. A dangerous assignment, you bet your ass, but it’s about the bonus and the $1 million life insurance policy I demanded for Sarah and the kids.
Our first day on the job was devoted to orientation conducted by UN and US security personnel.
Don’t look locals in the eye, never make a pass or even show curiosity about local women, you’d break the honor code and lose your head, figuratively and literally. Remain in the designated green zone, that protected perimeter around the US Embassy and ex-pat housing. While “the zone” provides all the services you need and safe entertainment, curiosity killed the mouse and for energetic young ex-pats life beyond the zone becomes irresistible.
Working with farmers was considered the most dangerous assignment in Afg, requiring travel outside of the zone into isolated communities and dealing with men who owed their livelihood, if not their lives to the bad guys. Like trying to convince Starbucks to delete coffee from their menu and replace it with Gatorade.