Why I created SPIDER
In 2011, I returned to Kabul for a brief TDY mission where I was managing a national health facility survey. Pretty standard stuff, were it not in the “Graveyard of Empires”. I was admittedly a bit apprehensive since my previous visit, in 2009, included a stint in the company’s basement safe-room listening to the muffled sounds of gunfire, and fumbling around with an ill-fitting brain bucket, as Taliban attacked a nearby UN guesthouse.
But all the while, I had faith in the security detail assigned to watch over me. That faith was not entirely blind, it was earned by the men who demonstrated their professionalism and knowledge from the moment I stepped off the plane in Kabul, until the time Safi Air delivered me back to Dubai.
But throughout this particular trip I had no such confidence. Once again, the scene was set the moment I arrived into, what is now called, the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
As a non-military, non-combatant, staff, I arrived alone, without so much as a cell phone. I was entering one of the most dangerous places in the world armed with good intentions and hoping for the best. And, as I’ve since learned, this was apparently mine, and others organizations, personal security plan as well. Hope for the best.
After retrieving my bag and gear, I left the terminal and to my surprise, and contrary to my expectation, there was nobody waiting for me. It was then I remembered some guidance provided in a one minute hallway conversation before I left: “by the way, if you don’t see a friendly, it might mean they were prevented from accessing the ‘arrivals’ area”. He also mentioned something about a bus and a recommendation to “borrow someone’s phone if I get into any trouble.
Three hours, two bus rides, and some very uncomfortable conversations later I met my connection. I did, in fact, have to borrow some very surprised person’s cell phone. That in itself turned out to be a useless endeavor since the phone number I was given was for somebody who had left the organization years before. And so the mission began…
I’ve worked in over 35 countries and rarely do I speak the local language. I welcome the challenge of connecting with staff who are always eager to practice English and I’ve become adept at using body language. As SPIDER course stress, local Intel provided by drivers and other staff (wittingly or otherwise) is invaluable.
However, when you’re safety is on the line, it’s no time to be playing charades.
As none of my Afghan <see footnote below> drivers or security detail spoke English, it was difficult to communicate security protocols, establish what the security situation was, or provide the details needed to keep each other safe.
SPIDER, as a concept, was born in what turned out to be a scary, but ultimately benign moment created by my inability (or refusal) to communicate clearly.
Downtown Kabul – with the security detail in the front of the Land Cruiser, the driver pulled off the road without saying a word and an Afghan man wearing old army fatigues under Pashtun dress quickly opened the door next to me. Was this a friend? Were we giving him a ride? Was I being kidnapped? I had seconds to decide… I froze.
I was lucky. The man, turned out was one of the company’s bodyguards and we were picking him and taking him to work. I know this because after coming “unfroze” and practically taking someone’s head off, they quickly said, “he’s my boss! He’s my boss!”
On the drive home I questioned everything I knew about operating in such an environment, and by the time I returned home, SPIDER was born.
Note: “The citizens of Afghanistan are Afghans. Similarly, it’s Afghan food, Afghan politics, and Afghan afghans. The only time to use ‘Afghani’ is in reference to the unit of Afghan currency by that name. Afghans spend Afghanis.” https://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/afghan.html