Johnnie Red in Helmand


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I shouldn’t have been surprised about the Johnnie Walker Red, but I was. Esmarai was nothing if not a character.

It was early 2011 and I had been sent to Gereshk, the district capital of Nahr-e-Saraj, in Helmand province in my capacity as a Human Terrain Team social scientist. I was there to…well, understand the human terrain. The Danish Battlegroup Commander told me: “Counterinsurgency is supposed to be about the population. Gereshk is the largest population center in my district. And I don’t know much about it. And focus on the police.”

My teammate and I, along with our interpreter, spent a couple weeks driving and strolling around Gereshk with the Danish recce (recon) platoon who were charged with security in the city and mentoring its highly corrupt police force. Nahr-e-Saraj was at that time biggest poppy producing district in Helmand, which is the biggest poppy producing province in Afghanistan, which is the biggest poppy producing country in the world. Gereshk was like Chicago in the 1920s. Episodes of The Sopranos helped my Danish comrades understand local politics better than any counterinsurgency manual ever could.

And Esmarai was one of the family bosses. For now. As chief of police, he had his fingers in everything. The line between legality and illegality isn’t just blurry in Helmand – it doesn’t exist. Our research increasingly focused in on him, his motives, his network, his foes, etc. In terms of appearance, he wasn’t what you would expect from a storied Afghan police commander. He was short and pudgy with nervous eyes and an ill-suited mustache.

Before I go on, one amusing story I was told about Esmarai: Members of the Danish press were visiting Nahr-e-Saraj shortly after Esmarai had taken over as chief of police. When a journalist was out on a Potemkin patrol with him, they came under “ambush.” Esmarai bravely picked up a machine gun and fired back, driving away the “enemy.” The attack was, of course, a well-executed sham but, I was told, it made him look like a tough (but still corrupt) guy in the Danish press.

But let’s get back to the booze.

Esmarai invited my teammate and me over for lunch. Accompanied by some of our Danish comrades, we drove to his villa-style compound. Behind the high walls, guarded by Tajik policemen imported from the north (far away from Gereshk’s power struggles), sat Esmarai’s lovely home, painted pink and with a nice swimming pool. Those of you who worked in Helmand can understand just how weird a swimming pool is in that context. It is more out of place than a priest in a bordello.

Once in the house, we sat down on the rug for an extravagant meal, talking politics and history. It was an intimate group, less than ten people. Esmarai’s father had been a communist police commander back during the Soviet-Afghan War. He was murdered, rumor had it, by a local warlord who was still around. The rivalry had been passed down from father to son and still defined the local political dynamics.

That’s when he pulled out a large bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.

Johnnie Walker is, of course, a line of blended whisky. Speaking for myself, I prefer single malts, but I do enjoy their blended cousins from time to time (as fate would have it, I’m sipping Chivas 18 as I write this. It was within reach). When asked what he cannot live without when travelling and what his favorite whisky is, the late Christopher Hitchens responded with tongue just barely in cheek, “I don’t see what the difference is between the two questions.” He continued:

The best blended scotch in the history of the world, which was also the favorite drink of the Iraq Baath Party, as it is still of the Palestinian Authority and the Libyan dictatorship and large branches of the Saudi Arabian royal family – Johnnie Walker Black. Breakfast of champions. Accept no substitutes.

But this wasn’t Black. This was Red. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Johnnie Walker hierarchy, imbibe this image from left to right. Try one day, as a treat, to get your hands on a bottle of Blue and put it on someone else’s tab.)

Regardless, I wasn’t going to say no. For starters, it seemed impolite to decline. It was, I thought (naively), a good way to earn Esmarai’s trust. And I was stressed. So I accepted a small dose. Red isn’t the best of the Johnnies, but it is the original and – the company claims – the bestselling whisky in the world. The district governor was also in attendance and he declined, not wanting to be seen drinking in front of people he didn’t really know, even Westerners. Esmarai was more devil-may-care about that and most other things (propaganda used against him by his political opponents included accusations that he spent his time in his compound getting drunk with foreigners).

Not long after my first sip, an older Afghan ambled in to join the party. Decked out in traditional garb, with a long beard, he sat down. The man motioned for some Johnnie Red and relished his first sip, a satisfied expression on his face. Looking, as he did, more traditional and conservative by appearance, I asked with a smirk on my face – through my interpreter, of course – if he drank often.

He responded, also through my interpreter, “Child, I’ve been drinking since before you were a twinkle in your father’s testicles.”

Touché, old man. Touché.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Mark Stroud