Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Inspectors on the Frontier

For a career bureaucrat certain words evoke horror, foreboding, even dread: words such as "haircut" used in the sense of "We just got the numbers back from CBO and everybody has to take a ten percent haircut," or "reclama" used in the sense of "You have to cancel your leave and work on a reclama to get back our funding for that critical playground in Zimbabwe," or "Inspectors" used in the sense of "Inspectors!"

As the six or seven regular readers of this blog know, I served in Pakistan back in the long distant early eighties. One of my jobs there involved overseeing our assistance to the Afghan refugees in Pakistan--some 3 million of them had fled the Soviet invasion. That job provided a wonderful opportunity to get out of the office and cover Pakistan from the Chinese border to the Iranian border, and from the Indian border to the Afghan border; I ate a lot of goat, rice, and dust and put a lot of miles on my faithful Suburban.

As the Embassy's refugee guru, I had a large budget and had to make decisions on how to spend it. The Pakistani refugee effort suffered from a shortage of trucks. I thought we could address that, and make an inroad for US-made trucks in the Pakistani truck market then dominated by Japan. We put out a request for bids, went through a long evaluation process, and awarded the contract to the then International Harvester. That company would build several hundred trucks in the US and would make them right-hand drive. They were  the only ones willing to do that. Both GM and Ford had bid on the project but proposed to build their right-hand trucks in factories outside the US. I wanted the work to go to Americans since we would use their tax money to buy the trucks. That turned into a battle with the State bureaucracy which insisted on Japanese trucks since those already dominated the market. They overturned the IH decision and went with Toyota. We quietly got a couple of Congressmen interested, the refugee bureau got overruled, and the contract went back to IH. The trucks got built in the US and exported on US flag ships.

That trucking episode got me on the outs with certain people in the refugee bureau in DC. They got their chance to get "even." My job required interaction with US agencies involved in "other forms" of support to the Afghans. One day in casual conversation a representative of an agency with no name mentioned the difficulty in getting sniper rifles "humanitarian supplies" to a remote part of Pakistan where Afghan mujahedeen charity workers desperately needed them to kill Soviet officers feed hungry children. I told him I had an in with the Colonel running logistics for Pakistan's refugee relief effort since I had just given him a few hundred trucks. I spoke with the man; he didn't ask any questions, and promptly loaned me three of the IH trucks. I passed them to the man from the agency with no name, and the supplies got to where they could do good.

A distorted version of the above story got to certain people who, as noted, saw a chance to get me. They fired off the bureaucrat version of a nuke-tipped missile, i.e., the "inspector." Regardless of what DNA analyses might show, inspectors do not belong to the human race. They often come from the ranks of  frustrated and angry individuals for whom the gods of fruitful careers have not smiled. The bureau sent out two beast-folk straight from the lab of Dr. Moreau. At considerable cost to the taxpayer, they came to Islamabad. I, however, must give them credit: they arrived very early in the morning after a grueling all day flight, went to their hotel, took a shower, and immediately came to the Embassy to interview me. In about five minutes they realized they had come on a fool's errand. I remember one looking at me saying in a voice full of puzzlement, "So the trucks belonged to the Pakistanis not to the State Department?" I nodded. He slammed shut his notebook and said, "Why are we here?" I shrugged, trying not to smile, imagining them on the plane back to DC the next day. The other inspector, the one with whom Dr. Moreau seemed to have had slightly more success in his House of Pain, said, "Well, we're here. Why not have our friend (that's me) take us on a tour of refugee camps and let us see the whole program?" My world came crashing down. I went from a delightful fantasy of getting rid of the beast-folk in record time to contemplating days on the road with them.

I won't bore you with details of days riding through the countryside, stopping at dozens of refugee camps, drinking gallons of sugary tea, eating goat, getting sick in places with no toilet paper or running water, and meeting only Zeus knows how many officials--or when we got "busted" by a military patrol for taking a picture of a bridge that appears on about three million postcards.

We covered the Northwest Frontier Province and then headed to Baluchistan. The less beastly one couldn't get enough. He loved the road, meeting refugees and mujahedeen, visiting the wounded at the Red Cross hospital, etc. He warmed up a bit to me and my weird sense of humor and got me to tell him of my last visit to Baluchistan (which I wrote about here). He wanted to go to Pishin, too, and onward to the wild border crossing at Chaman. The other inspector kept muttering that he had not signed up for this, and that since no official refugee camps existed in either of those towns why go there? He became increasingly grumpy, and on many stops would not get out of the vehicle. He, frankly, appeared annoyed in Chaman, and could not get used to people walking around with all sorts of weapons.

Chaman, at least then, consisted of a hard-to-describe assemblage of mud huts, low houses and buildings made of a variety of materials, run-down government offices that did God knows what, and vast open dirt spaces. Dust, kicked up by a never-ceasing parade of vehicles of all sorts, filled the air. We saw the border crossing: a zig-zag obstacle course of barbed wire, and cement filled barrels.

We visited a mud fort run by, I think, the military or perhaps some provincial Rifles unit. The two inspectors and I stood in the middle of this Beau Geste-type fort's courtyard, talking to an official (I don't remember who) when yelling broke out outside the walls. Some soldiers slammed shut the gates. The official, very agitated, told us to take cover; he ran and threw himself against one of the walls, just under a catwalk with soldiers. We saw him run, so we did not hesitate, either. We got flat against the wall as he instructed. Above us, the soldiers on the catwalk opened fire, to paraphrase Monty Python, in the general direction of Afghanistan with a 12.7mm MG; hot shell casings rained down on us. This was the closest I have been to combat. From that experience, I find the one aspect rarely discussed in books, articles, and films on war is the noise. The sound that comes from modern weapons is not as in the movies, or even on the pistol range; not only loud, it makes your insides vibrate; your head throb. You quickly find yourself disoriented, unable to hear, speak, or make rational decisions. I can't imagine what it must be like in real combat. We had only one heavy machine gun firing, admittedly just above our heads, with some AKs as accompaniment, and I found myself lost, confused, in a fog. I leaned very hard against that wall, hoping it would swallow me. I noticed that my left leg would not stop twitching. Chagrined, I grabbed it with my left hand as tightly as I could, hoping nobody would notice.

The shooting stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I looked up, and saw the ultra beast inspector smiling at me, "With me, it's my right leg." It seemed, after all, that he might have had a bit more human DNA than I had given him credit.


  1. If you were in Pakistan during that period, when the man now calling himself Barack Obama visited, can you confirm that he did so on something other than an American passport?

  2. Noise. It's more a roar than anything. When you have 100+ automatic weapons going and arty or air coming in it's something to hear if you have time to listen.

  3. 1. You get used to it.
    2. Helps if you're 19 years old.
    V/R JWest

  4. I have the greatest respect for those who can function and especially lead others with all that noise. I don't know if could do it . . . plus not to mention stuff coming at you trying to kill you.

  5. Some people are their to collect a paycheck and some people actually work. Sounds like you got one of each at the same time.

  6. "busted" by a military patrol for taking a picture of a bridge which is on about three million postcards - The Attock Bridge I assume. It remains one of my most vivid memories of Pakistan from 1973. Along with the wonderful railway museum, that was Pakistan Railways, and the incongruous sight of mules carrying loads of automobile tires through the Khyber Pass.

  7. There are 10 inspector-general vacancies, including five at Cabinet-level
    agencies. Four of the positions have been vacant for more than three years and
    some, such as the State Department’s, have been led by a deputy inspector general
    for years.
    Is there a advantage to Obama?

  8. I love your stories. Wish I could say why. You bring great reminders of our old life. Ranch life is as exciting as it gets now and I am grateful for that in other ways. Just wish i could bring my husband's heart, which has been crashed since the election, back to life. He feels like he has lost his country, the one he fought and nearly died for.
    Thank you for your stories. They bring hope and good memories.
    E. Tex. Rancher

    1. Thank you. I know how your husband feels. I, too, cannot get my spirits back up.

  9. Stand firm and guard your hearts, hopefully when the US crashes economically the 50% who voted for revenge or handouts or for change will come to their senses.

  10. "I find the one aspect rarely discussed in books"

    Many books, both fiction and nonfiction, on WW1 include the terrible, interminable artillery poundings.

  11. Try to find a couple of old Vietnam vets who have witnessed an ARCLIGHT strike, and have them discuss it. It will still do bodily damage to a person in a foxhole 10 miles from the actual blast. War is noisy, frightening, and demeaning (many soldiers have wet themselves, sometimes even after a half-dozen battles). I have nothing but respect for any soldier that's been in two or more firefights, whether they fired back or not.

    1. 1. Fresh caught, felt the ground shaking and a low growling noise in the distance.
      2. Asked my Sergeant what it was.
      3. Was told it was the B-52's bombing in Laos, 40 miles away.
      4. That was a close as I ever got to air delivered ordinance.
      Thank the Lord.
      5. 82mm mortars and rockets were plenty enough, thank you.
      6. BTW, just about every OFWG in our blessed country shares your misery.
      V/R JWest

  12. Diplomad, add one more to your list of regular readers. Thank you for the stories.

    I'd love to add one more about my Nigeria visits, if anyone cared to hear it.

  13. As the 8th or 9th regular reader of your blog I have to say thank you for staying with it to share your wonderful stories.

    Perhaps if I had lived such an exciting life I would have kept my blog going with tales from it. Alas, in a fit of depression and anger I just deleted all my rants about our pseudo government and pseudo president, and shut it down in July.

    Blessings to you and yours.

  14. From memory, so probably wrong:

    The first words of the first chapter of Star Ship Troopers (Private Juan Rico speaking) "I always get the shakes" (before a combat drop}

    The first words of the last chapter of Star Ship Troopers (Lieutenant Juan Rico speaking, after years of war, and an untold number of combat drops): "I always get the shakes."