Tag Archives: Mazar Hotel

Peter Kaestner: One of World’s Top Birders and Our Man in Northern Afghanistan

– By Domani Spero

We have written previously about the US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in September 2009 (see New US Consulates Opening in Afghanistan), in December 2009 (see US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif Moving Forward) and in May 2012 (See US Consulate Mazar-e-Sharif: $80 Million and Wishful Thinking Down the Drain, and Not a Brake Too Soon).

That $80 million did wonders to the Mazar Hotel, but in 2012, WaPo reported that “American officials say they have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous.”  We sent an inquiry to US Embassy Kabul concerning plans for the consulate but our email got the loud silent treatment that we’ve come to expect from our public affairs professionals there.  We understand from other inside sources that the US Consulate in Mazar is continuing operation in its interim facility with no clear plans on what happens in 2014 in terms of new location, funding or staffing. For now, it appears that the consulate does not have a building to move into or even a website. It does have a Facebook page here. And we have senior diplomat Peter Kaestner as the State Department’s Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan. Correct us if we’re wrong, but if our recollection is right, this position serves as Principal Officer of the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and concurrently as Senior Civilian Representative to the International Security Assistance Force’s Northern Regional Command.

Peter Kaestner, Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan, visited Hairaton bridge on the border with Uzbekistan. During his visit he reviewed the Afghan Border Police barracks that had been renovated with U.S. funding and visited the Afghan side of the bridge to Uzbekistan, which will be renovated with U.S. financial support. (Photo via US Consulate Mazar/FB)

Peter Kaestner, Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan, visited Hairaton bridge on the border with Uzbekistan. During his visit he reviewed the Afghan Border Police barracks that had been renovated with U.S. funding and visited the Afghan side of the bridge to Uzbekistan, which will be renovated with U.S. financial support.
(Photo via US Consulate Mazar/FB)

Besides being a diplomat, Mr. Kaestner is also a world-renowned birder. He has been birding since he was a child and now has one of the top ten world bird lists, having seen 8471 different species. He is recognized as the first person to see all the bird families, and he discovered a new species of bird when he was stationed in Colombia.  In Surfbirds World Bird Species Life List, Mr. Kaestner is ranked #8 and is one of only two Americans in the top 10 ranks. Last year, British birder, Tom Gullick, 81, become the first person in the world to officially see 9,000 species of bird.  For the North American Hollywood version of this competition, see The Big Year with Steve MartinJack Black and Owen Wilson.

Mr. Kaestner has not forgotten his birding even in Northern Afghanistan.  US Consulate Mazar’s FB post says that  in addition to his regular duties, Mr. Kaestner has been busy studying the birds around Mazar-e Sharif and sends out an invitation:  In the coming weeks and months, Peter will be sharing information about the birds that he has seen in Afghanistan. If you have any questions about birds you, please send them to us. If you have a photo, he will be able to help identify the species.

Mr. Kaestner made some quick posts on a few birds (bird emoticons used below are from here):

SCR Kaestner’s birding blog: One of the most characteristic birds of Mazar-e Sharif is the Kabooter Safed, or White Pigeon. Like the Blue Mosque where they live, the White Pigeons of Mazar have been associated with the city since the 12th century. Tradition says that the pigeons are white as a reflection of the peace and purity of the mosque – and that the pigeons that live at the Mosque become pure white. This must be true, because I saw a white pigeon near the Mazar Airport that was not pure white! The white pigeon is descended from the Rock Pigeon, a wild bird that lives in the rocky cliffs in the mountains of Balkh Province.

Image via USConsulate Mazar/FB

Image via USConsulate Mazar/FB

SCR Kaestner’s Birding Blog: One of the most attractive birds around Mazar is one that most people have never seen. The Goldfinch is a widespread bird in the Palearctic faunal zone, and very familiar in Europe. The Central Asian form of the Goldfinch lacks black on the head and has a much longer bill. It is possible that some day our Goldfinch will be recognized as a separate species by taxonomists (scientists who study the classification of living things). Birders appreciate when such changes are made, since it means another bird can be added to their bird total.

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CR Kaestner’s Birding blog: Birds that live near people are often characterized by their adaptability. The starling family has several species that have become familiar around human habitation, especially in cities. The Common Myna is an easy bird to identify, with its bare yellow face and large white wing patches. They often feed on the ground, and will eat most anything. A species of Myna in southern Asia, the Hill Myna, can be trained to talk! This forest species has become rare in some areas because they are trapped to be sold as pets. Birders can only count birds in their native environment, not in cages or zoos.

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SCR Kaestner’s Birding blog: Another family that does well around humans are the crows. The most common corvid in Mazar is the Eurasian Magpie. It is easily identified by its large size, long tail, and white wing feathers. Magpies are omnivorous, meaning that they eat a variety of things. Members of the crow family are renowned for their intelligence – a trait not usually associated with birds. Indeed, one crow (in New Caledonia) uses tools in nature, and has been shown to solve complex tasks. We’ll discuss crows and ravens later.

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More on Afghanistan birds here and here.  In 2009, researchers for the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered the breeding area of the large-billed reed warbler—dubbed in 2007 as “the world’s least known bird species”—in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan. According to WCS, the first specimen of the large-billed reed warbler was discovered in India in 1867; the next was not spotted until 2006, in Thailand. Isn’t it interesting that the bird that has been spotted just twice previously in over 100 years was found breeding in Afghanistan?

In June this year, BBC News reported that Afghanistan’s Environment Protection Agency, Mustafa Zahir, told a local TV news channel that nearly 5,000 birds are smuggled out of the country every year.  The birds include falcons and Houbara Bustards - the latter apparently, widely prized as quarry by hunters in the Gulf.

For some bird photos, see Afghanistan Birds on Pinterest, that European Bee Eater is  one showy and gorgeous bird!

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US Consulate Mazar-e-Sharif: $80 Million and Wishful Thinking Down the Drain, and Not a Brake Too Soon

We have written previously about the US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in September 2009 (see New US Consulates Opening in Afghanistan) and December 2009 (see US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif Moving Forward)


Also read The Skeptical Bureaucrat post in December 2009 (see DIY Home Renovation Opportunity in Mazar-e-Sharif) with photos. He described the Mazar Hotel as a “bit of a fixer-upper, but $26 million in U.S. taxpayer’s money ought to do wonders for the place.” He added that “The hotel’s pool is a big selling point. Full disclosure: the pool has no filter or purification system, so the water has to be changed every few days.”

It turns out that $26 million plus much more, now at $80 million did wonders for the place, but now WaPo is reporting that “American officials say they have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous.”

Pardon us, but, but — who said that?

Excerpt below from Ernesto Londoño’s piece from WP, May 5:

“After signing a 10-year lease and spending more than $80 million on a site envisioned as the United States’ diplomatic hub in northern Afghanistan, American officials say they have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous.

Eager to raise an American flag and open a consulate in a bustling downtown district of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, officials in 2009 sought waivers to stringent State Department building rules and overlooked significant security problems at the site, documents show. The problems included relying on local building techniques that made the compound vulnerable to a car bombing, according to an assessment by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that was obtained by The Washington Post.”

We imagine that Diplomatic Security will soon have another task added to its investigations – in addition to who leak the Eikenberry cables, then the Crocker cable — now, who leaked the US Consulate Mazar assessment by an acting management counselor out of the embassy in Kabul?

Wishful thinking down the drain-

The plan for the Mazar-e Sharif consulate, as laid out in a previously undisclosed diplomatic memorandum, is a cautionary tale of wishful thinking, poor planning and the type of stark choices the U.S. government will have to make in coming years as it tries to wind down its role in the war.

In March 2009, Richard C. Holbrooke, who had recently been appointed President Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, lobbied for the establishment of a consulate in Mazar-e Sharif within 60 days, according to the memo.
[...]
“At the time, [Holbrooke] pushed hard to identify property and stand up an interim consulate, on a very tight timeline, to signal our commitment to the Afghan people,” according to the January memo by Martin Kelly, the acting management counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
[...]
The embassy memo says the facility was far from ideal from the start. The compound, which housed a hotel when the Americans took it on, shared a wall with local shopkeepers. The space between the outer perimeter wall and buildings inside — a distance known as “setback” in war zone construction — was not up to U.S. diplomatic standards set by the State Department’s Overseas Security Policy Board. The complex was surrounded by several tall buildings from which an attack could easily be launched.
[...]
“The Department nonetheless granted exceptions to standards to move forward quickly, establish an interim presence and raise the flag,” Kelly wrote.

Cutting corners in a war zone = presumably deadly consequences, if you work there

“Among the corners cut in the interest of expediency, the memo says, was failing to assess how well the facility could withstand a car bombing, a task normally carried out by the department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.
[...]
Responding effectively to an emergency at the consulate would be next to impossible, Kelly noted, because the facility does not have space for a Black Hawk helicopter to land. It would take a military emergency response team 11 / 2 to 2 hours to reach the site “under good conditions,” he said.”

Then there is the embarrassing part – they know what you’re up to –

“In December, embassy officials began exploring alternative short-term sites for their diplomatic staff in northern Afghanistan. A Western diplomat familiar with the situation said the United States has sought, so far in vain, to persuade the German and Swedish governments to sublet it. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said European diplomats have found the prospect laughable.”

Read the full piece here.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his wife Ching, along with a delegation of U.S. Embassy staff took a trip to Mazar-e-Sharif and met with Afghan officials. While there they visited the future site of a new U.S. consulate – 30 Mar 2011.
(Photo from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr)

Photo from State Magazine

A quick search online indicate that the U.S. Embassy Mazar Consulate Project had a project date of Jan-2010 to Mar-2011.  Below is a description of the project posted online by Elite Construction:

“The scope of this project consisted of converting an existing Hotel structure to accommodate the U.S. Consulate in Mazar. This included the replacement of all infrastructure including water, sewer, electrical and communications facilities while maintaining the Architectural and structural systems of the building in accordance with U.S. Building Codes.”

Of course, while it is being built, there is also a need for a Temporary US Consulate, that contract apparently is held by JF Jones Company. (Correction: The Mazar Hotel is the temp Consulate, not sure who gets what of the pieces of this pie. A permanent consulate is on the design/build docket reportedly for 2017).

Then there are other companies doing the food and life support for consulate staff, security, concrete operation (photo), etc. They all add up.

Photo from State Magazine

A few thoughts occurred to us, some totally jaded:

1. Did anybody pause and thought, wait a minute, cutting corners in a war zone sounds totally loony? Right.

2. Did anyone write a dissent cable after building rule waivers were sought and granted? Yes? No? Good luck digging that up?

3. Perhaps a troubled conscience made somebody leaked this document to the Washington Post? Albeit too late to shave and save a few millions from the $80 million tab. But let’s give credit where credit is due, no one has died yet at the old Mazar Hotel, now new US Consulate and soon to be known as Holbrooke’s Folly, Eikenberry’s Folly, Clinton’s Folly, etc, but perhaps not Crocker’s Folly.

4. The report says that “After Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker arrived in Kabul in July, officials asked the bureau to conduct a blast assessment.”  Who were these officials? Were they newly arrived officials who were shocked out of their eyeballs when they saw the project?  Why did embassy officials not ask the bureau to conduct the assessment during Ambassador Eikenberry’s tenure, before the renovation got to the $80 million figure? What, no balls? Pardon me? Oh, no one wants to rock the boat?

5. $80 million is a lot of money; money that could build a school or two elsewhere in the United States, fund policemen, firemen, and teachers in some communities hurting across America.  It could feed our hungry kids, too, no kidding. Or it could also buy a lot of properties on the Monopoly board.

6. The raise the flag consulate as a signal to the Afghan people was more important than the safety of diplomatic personnel, in no less than a war zone? The same folks given a few hours of target practice at home and then sent off to the war zone equipped with thumbs and forefingers as guns.

7. Motive. Motive. Motive. Every leak has a motive, and that’s missing from the WaPo report.  And to borrow a quote from good old Sherlock, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” Holmes — there has to be a naked truth hiding behind this $80 million scratch off leak. Why was this leaked now? It’s not to save $80 million dollars.  Someone ought to complete Mr. Londoño’s piece, and answer the “Why?”

Domani Spero

Update: You may also want to read The Skeptical Bureaucrat’s Mazar-e-Sharif – The Mud, The Manure, And The Money and Peter Van Buren’s Wishful Thinking and Poor Planning: State Department Wastes $80 Million in Afghanistan over at HuffPo.

 

 

 

 

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