Pre 9/11, Pakistan knew a thing or two about private occupation

What a fascinating piece of history, via the Washington Post, and an indication that mercenaries and private contractors have been part of war well before the “war on terror”:

As U.S.-funded Afghan jihadists battled the Soviets in the late 1980s, the unassuming American-run bar in this ancient frontier city bulged with gossiping foreigners. Today, with another Afghan conflict winding down, the watering hole practically echoes with emptiness.

Through it all, Khan Afsar, the Khyber Club’s unlikely bartender, had a front-row seat.

Except Afsar did not actually have a seat in his spot behind the bar, and all the standing recently became too much to bear. So he has stepped down after nearly 25 years of six-day workweeks that he says left him with admiration for Americans, a rare sentiment in Peshawar and in Pakistan at large.

“They are good people” — not to mention good tippers, Afsar said. “They are helping us.”

As a recent Saturday evening shift began, a lone Canadian patron sipped beer at the bar and predicted that the crowd was unlikely to improve. The scene seemed a metaphor for U.S.-Pakistan relations, which boomed with cooperation during the Afghan resistance but now gape with mistrust.

Yet Afsar himself is a symbol of the ground-level relations between Americans and Pakistanis, which, despite the diplomatic tensions, are typically far more amiable than sour. Over the decades, Afsar — a devout Muslim who never tried alcohol — served as a steadfast and good-natured ambassador for Pakistan, building a trail of admirers now scattered around the globe.

“For a modest fellow from a mountain village . . . he supervised and served the foreign lunatics with kindness, merriment and unflappable aplomb,” Stephen Masty, who managed the bar in the early 1990s, wrote in an e-mail.

Things began changing about five years ago, as Islamist militants expanded their reach and launched attacks in northwest Pakistan. Hostility toward Americans rose, and many international organizations withdrew foreign workers to Islamabad, the capital. The club’s security walls multiplied, and more American customers sported beards and tattoos, said Yusuf Ghaznavi, a Pakistani American who has been a fixture at the club for two decades.

“I presume they were contractors,” Ghaznavi said. “Their main concern was A, how soon they are going to get out, and B, how much money they are making.”

As bilateral tensions soared, Pakistan ordered the departure of most U.S. military representatives, many of whom had been based in Peshawar. The American mission in Peshawar now has a skeleton staff whose security guidelines prohibit much movement in the city. 

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