When he awoke every morning in Kabul, the American defense contractor rolled out of bed, logged onto his computer and checked out what he called "the Afghan weather."
He wasn't worried about rain.
Scrolling through a list of intelligence reports, the Nebraska native would try to decipher the day's security situation in and around Afghanistan's capital city.
Not so long ago, Kabul was viewed as a relatively safe sanctuary in the tumult of Afghan war, a city where more than 100,000 American and foreign defense contractors could move freely as they worked on the electric grid or built military housing or worked as bodyguards for Afghan politicians.
But by 2011, when this contractor took a well-paying job in the capital city, even the simplest act of getting to work — the morning commute — had become dangerous.
So he obsessively checked the security forecast: What parts of town seem unstable? What roads should his team avoid? What's the best time to travel today?
And what's Plan B if everything goes wrong and he finds himself alone on the mean streets of a bad neighborhood?
"If you end up on foot, where's the nearest U.S. base? The nearest NATO base? The nearest police station?" says the contractor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. "I'm telling you, nobody should roll out until they are very aware of the whole forecast."
That forecast has grown more perilous for American defense contractors living and working in Afghanistan even though, by the numbers, it has become a little safer for U.S. soldiers, Marines and airmen deployed there.
Last year, 430 employees of U.S. companies were killed in Afghanistan, outpacing for the first time in the war's history the number of American active-duty troops killed, according to two government agencies and first reported by the New York Times.
The toll of contractors killed and wounded — a number compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor — is likely artificially low, experts say, because the deaths of Afghan employees working for American companies often go unreported.
These numbers underscore the danger for two Omaha employers — HDR Inc. and the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies — that are currently working as U.S. government contractors in Afghanistan. Another Omaha company, Burlington Capital Group, has recently done work in Afghanistan but has no employees assigned there.
In interviews, executives for HDR and the Center for Afghanistan Studies described a security situation that was deteriorating even before last week's violent protests over the accidental burning of Korans at a U.S. military air base.
They said the threat of violence had caused them to take extra precautions to protect employees in Afghanistan. In at least one case, those precautions didn't work.
"If you understand the environment ... 99 percent of the problems you can defeat or very much mitigate," says the Nebraska contractor, who works for a company based in another state. But sometimes "it's like getting hit by lightning."
The Center for Afghanistan Studies, run by nationally known Afghan expert Thomas Gouttierre, has long won government contracts to do teacher training and education projects in Afghanistan.
Gouttierre runs a deliberately low-key operation in Kabul staffed almost exclusively by Afghans and overseen in part by Assistant Director Raheem Yaseer, an Afghan-American with a half-century of experience navigating the country's unique political and cultural landscape.
The sign outside the center's Kabul headquarters remains purposely faded and hard to see, because a coat of new paint connotes money and power. The center's employees drive nondescript used cars, not the gleaming SUVs that Afghans equate with American contractors and that suicide bombers sometimes target.
And you won't see guards with machine guns standing watch outside the center's headquarters, printing press or other projects throughout Afghanistan. Any security they have is well-hidden, Gouttierre says.
None of that helped last spring when an Afghan employee of the center had to flee Afghanistan with her family after a series of "night letters" warned she would be hurt or killed if she stayed.
The woman is now safely outside Afghanistan, Gouttierre says, but the incident unsettled the center's staff. It isn't the first time: In 2007, unknown assailants shot and killed Zakiyah Zaki, the headmistress of an girls school and a women's rights advocate in Afghanistan. Zaki had traveled to Nebraska as part of the center's teacher training program and remained close to center employees based in Kabul.
Things started to get worse in Kabul and other previously safe areas in 2006, Gouttierre said, leading the center to pull back on some projects. The center still runs teacher training programs in two Afghan provinces.
"We aren't as confident of our capacity to deliver our resources to many places in Afghanistan," Gouttierre said last week.
Several changes in the Afghanistan War have made attacks on American contractors, as well as the Afghans and foreigners they often employ, more likely in recent years, says the Nebraska contractor.
Paradoxically, U.S. military success in weakening the Taliban and loosely affiliated insurgent groups in southern and eastern Afghanistan might be making life more dangerous in Kabul, he says.
Why? The weakened insurgents, tired of getting rousted by soldiers and Marines, have started seeking big, splashy terrorist attacks designed to cast doubt on the stability of President Hamid Karzai's government.
This puts contractors in danger because the nature of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan — the underlying principle to win the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians — requires them to leave safe military installations and travel all over the city for face-to-face meetings.
Last year, one group of insurgents attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, a famed and seemingly secure hotel that caters to non-Afghans. Another group attempted to attack NATO headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, leading to a nearly daylong standoff before the insurgents were killed.
Dozens of lesser attacks — suicide bombers driving cars, mostly — never made the news, the contractor said. For contractors, they have become part of the daily drumbeat of threatened violence, along with deadly traffic accidents and corrupt Afghan police officers who sometimes set up checkpoints and demand bribes to pass.
The worst days, the contractor said, were when he had to travel the highway that runs east out of Kabul, toward Camp Phoenix — a U.S. and NATO military base — and eventually to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
"I wouldn't want to drive down that road unless I had an MRAP (an armored vehicle) with a .50-cal and had medevac and artillery on call," the Nebraska contractor says.
To guard against the violence, employees of HDR's project in Afghanistan live in a secured compound, work mostly on military bases and are transported — and protected by private security forces — whenever they go off base.
The Omaha-based architecture and engineering firm is in the middle of a three-year Department of Defense construction contract, one that requires HDR to have as many as 125 employees in Afghanistan at a given time, says Tim Connolly, an HDR executive vice president.
A dozen American supervisors, all of whom are military veterans especially hired for the Afghan contract, and more than 100 Afghan and foreign workers supervise the building of new runways, electrical systems and administrative buildings, Connolly says.
It's a tad different from completing a contract in Omaha. Just last week, four HDR senior managers who had flown to Afghanistan to check on the project turned around and flew home because of the threatening atmosphere created by protests over the burning of the Korans.
"This isn't a business line we're looking to expand," said Connolly, who said HDR executives had prolonged internal discussions before agreeing to the contract. "One of the reasons is the concern about employee safety."
Omahan Michael Jung admits a bit of concern when he stepped off a plane and waded into the heavily militarized streets of Kabul just over a year ago.
Jung has been to Nigeria, Liberia and Pakistan as president of Cantera Partners, part of the international division of Omaha-based Burlington Capital Group, the investment powerhouse founded by Michael Yanney.
But Jung hadn't seen anything like this: U.S. troops, NATO troops and private security contractors with weapons wherever he looked.
Jung traveled to Kabul twice to complete the sale of wheat in Afghanistan as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture project that uses crop sales to fund agricultural development in rural parts of the country.
His second trip was marred by several suicide attacks in and around Kabul — violence that made travel in the city much tougher.
But what he remembers best isn't the omnipresent guns or the heightened security; it's the cups of tea he drank in Afghan homes with businessmen he had just met. One minute, they were business acquaintances. The next, they were friends.
It's a sentiment repeated by many of the Nebraskans doing work in Kabul: If you can get past the street-level danger and the fear, what you find is something infinitely warmer.
“It's a wonderful culture, so family focused, people who really want to learn more about you and bring you into their homes,” Jung said. “It may sound bizarre ... but I had a wonderful time.”
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