The ongoing transition in Afghanistan is challenging to our national identity as the superpower of our modern world. Our propensity to call this transition a failure and to find blame in past and present presidents and military leaders is misplaced and shortsighted; our withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a gradual and difficult process for several years, guided by several presidents. We have helped Afghanistan move forward, and can only wait and see how the Taliban governs. Be patient and try to understand how complex this transition is. This is my story about Afghanistan.
I was selected to work in Afghanistan by the U.S. Department of State in January 2012 as a field officer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Soon after, my friends, former employers, neighbors and immediate family members were interviewed by the FBI as to my soundness of mind and good character, leading eventually to my receiving mandatory Top Security Clearance.
From mid-March 2012 through the end of April (seven weeks) training in Washington, D.C.. involved extensive background on the USAID and military development efforts in Afghanistan up to that point (2012), as well as traumatic injury recovery, like how to apply a tourniquet on your own leg or arm if blown off and how to talk with Afghan provincial governors and local officials, working though our Afghan interpreters.
Ambassadors, generals, colonels, mission directors and various experts on Iraq and Afghanistan spoke about their experiences in-country, focusing on issues they believed to be critical to our deployment success. We, the new trainees, sat enthralled, absorbing as much insider classified information as we were allowed. Although by May 2012, when we were actually flown to Kabul, we felt like we had truly experienced “Death by Power Point.” We felt as prepared as we ever would be to fulfill our duties.
Some of my colleagues were assigned to the Kabul Embassy as technical advisers. I was among the ones sent to one of the Forward Operating Bases (FOB) located throughout the country.
My assignment was FOB Wardak in the mountains south of Kabul. I was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Primarily, our objectives were to advise provincial and district-level officials with managing development programs, such as setting up farmers cooperatives in which farmers could share the costs of fertilizer, transportation of crops to market, construction of cool/cold storage facilities for produce, apples, cherries, etc.; organizing women’s groups for small business loans.
In general, we called it “stabilization” or SIKA (Stabilization In Key Areas). Essentially, after the military pushed bad guys out of a valley or populated area, we came in to implement development programs to stabilize the area for local folks to live peacefully and resume their traditional ways of making a living — generally farming and raising livestock.
One of the primary goals was to reinstall and protect the local government officials in rural districts who had been kicked out or killed by the Taliban. This was a way to establish a semi-centralized network of government agencies and to build confidence in the government. For example, establishing a coordinated, unified education system, managed through the Ministry of Education in the Kabul capital; or re-establishing district level Agriculture Extension offices managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Similarly, the Ministry of Public Works management of roads, dams, tunnels, and water supply. All of these provincial, district and village level offices were staffed by locally elected or selected men and women, not outside people assigned by coalition forces or external agents. The election and selection process was part of the development process encouraging participation by the local population. It would be misleading to say that these officials were the cream of the crop, or that they were always welcomed by the local population, even though they were nominally selected locally. It was a new thing for the local Afghan population to adopt these new ways, and it would be a stretch to say that these efforts worked as we hoped. In some areas our development efforts were well received, in others not so well. In many areas, the Taliban or the local warlords remained influential, either through intimidation or tradition.
The success of a district school system or Ag Extension programs largely rested in the enthusiasm and competency of the district governor and in his or her (there were several female provincial ministers and governors) ability to motivate and control those working for them.
And as with most political officials, their effectiveness was determined more by their ability to form alliances and influence local leaders; rather than actual management. My job was to help these officials manage the programs we funded to establish sustainable and transparent reporting procedures for expenditures applied directly to program goals, so that when we left, they could continue to receive donor funding, which would happen only if donors received reliable monthly or quarterly reports. More on this later.
Because there isn’t a functioning tax collection system, district governors had no budget other than the money coming from international donors through the central national government offices in Kabul. In any typical year, 95% of the national budget came from international donors. The remaining 5% was from custom fees paid by truckers at border crossings, airport taxes, etc. Some tax revenue was generated through produce sold in local markets, but that generally never made it to Kabul. It could be considered corruption, but I didn’t see any local officials getting rich. Traditional systems of commerce are more fair for some than for others, largely determined by family alliances.
International donors include the United States, European Union, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, etc. And that money came through the Ministry of Finance to all ministries (Education, Defense, Justice, Commerce, Public Works, etc.) for basic operating and overhead costs, and targeted programs (elementary school teacher training, curriculum development, veterinary training, public health, etc.).
In order for the money to keep flowing in, governors and ministry officials were required to report and justify all expenditures, certifying that the money didn’t get into private hands. Donors are more generous when funds are well accounted for and less so when funds go missing. Therefore, one primary effort of all donors is to establish accountability at all levels; much the same in the United States or Germany. This is known as capacity building — which is to say we, the international community of donors, work to build the governing capacity of our counterparts as the primary means of development, not just economic development or educational development.
This does not mean we were developing Afghanistan into a democracy like the United States. All of the enormous expenditure and effort by the community of developed nations is made to bring a country at war up to a minimum level of stability. We, the development community, recognize that every country has their own cultural identity that is fundamental to their national development. Our military effort isn’t to take over any nation, but to stabilize and allow them a peaceful nation from which to develop. Obviously that mission gets complicated at times. More on this later.
Throughout the period between 2005 and 2010, money flowing into a district office for new development programs was relatively huge for these local offices. It would be something like the Yakima city budget going from $100 million one year to $500 million the next year with a few inadequately trained staffers and federal auditors watching all the time.
I don’t know the relative amounts in Wardak Province other than to say that these new development programs were overwhelming for their budget management staff. The international donors were in a hurry for Afghanistan to become minimally competent, not because someone arbitrarily thought this was a good idea to be like us, but because, it was thought, implementing development programs was the best means of stabilizing the rural areas of Afghanistan.
By mid-2012, it was clear that USAID and State Department officers were no longer effective in the field and that we (USAID) would be withdrawing from the field soon. And so most of my time and effort was spent telling the governor and officials that they needed to step up their oversight efforts in order to continue running their programs. It was also clear that our Wardak Province military operations from the FOB were coming to an end. This is not to imply some value of effectiveness of our military. It was a strategic decision country-wide to reduce boots on the ground field presence.
My part in the overall decision-making was zero. I was the equivalent of a soldier for the Department of State, following orders from above. I believed that it was felt that we had done as much as was possible to implement development programs from our field posts and that we could be more effective working from the Kabul Embassy, and I agreed with this.
In May 2013, I was moved from FOB Wardak to the Office of Economic Development and Infrastructure (OEGI) in the USAID office in Kabul Embassy. And because I had, many years before, worked on construction of highways and bridges as a project administrator, and because I had a degree in engineering, I was assigned to the infrastructure department, specifically construction of roads and highways.
Afghanistan is situated at a geographically strategic point in Central Asia. Ancient transportation corridors still exist from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Europe through Afghanistan to India and the Arabian Sea ports in southern Pakistan. A major source of revenue comes from these transportation sources, and it is envisioned that by improving highways through Afghanistan, significant development achievements would be gained by investing in improving the highway system. In addition, Afghanistan has huge undeveloped natural resources and agricultural potential that would flourish if transportation systems were developed. After all, the fundamental goal of development is to create economic sustainability.
In this effort, I became involved in attempting to build the capacity of the Ministry of Public Works to maintain existing roads and highways, as well as be able to solicit bids for new projects and manage their new construction projects using management and accounting practices that would reassure donors and citizens that funds were being used properly.
In addition, I was the Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) on a major highway construction project called the Gardez to Khost Highway. This is a major, all weather, two-lane, paved highway leading from Kabul to Pakistan through a mountain pass almost 10,000 feet in elevation, designed for 3,500 vehicles per day. Included in the contract was winter maintenance to clear snowfall, mud and rockslides and avalanches.
This was built by an Afghan construction company, MECC, one of the best contracting companies in my experience. From my Embassy office we had three Afghan engineers who were the front-line construction managers who corresponded daily with the contractor, handling change orders, monthly progress payment invoices, scheduling and payment approvals, nearly identical to the procedures we use in the United States. I managed the engineering group. In truth, they had been managing road construction projects before I came and required minimal supervision. By using Afghan contractors for all infrastructure projects, we saved taxpayers money, relative to what it would have cost using contractors from the United States. Plus our native contractors were better able to work with the village leaders as the road passed through their local regions.
From each of our Embassy offices, my USAID colleagues held similar missions, to build the capacity of their Afghan counterparts in the Afghan government as a means to building minimal overall capacity to govern this complex country.
The image I am trying to present is that we did make progress. Having been home since September 2015, I see and hear mostly negative news about Afghanistan, although with none of the background information I have been able to gain through personal experience that gives me some optimism for its future. Obviously, having this firsthand experience also gives me a kind of “elephant-in-the-room” presence of mind to recognize how tenuous this current peace is.
It is true that with the rule of the Taliban, the future is unknown and scary and I don’t need to go through the list of potential human rights violations that the Taliban has committed in the past and promise not to do in the future. We can only wait and see. I am confident that this is the moment to hand it off to the people of Afghanistan for better or worse.
However, I think it is worth considering some of the factors that give me hope. First, the Taliban government, like previous Afghan governments need donor funds. And in order to continue receiving donor funds, the Taliban leaders will need to follow strict policies and practices related to their treatment of their citizens and the services they will be required to provide, like food, education, roads, ability to trade with international partners and conduct business. The takeover by the Taliban will apparently bring peace, which is what the majority of Afghans sincerely wish for, regardless of who leads the government. They want peace. If the Taliban reverts to its old ways of terrorizing citizens, I believe the population will revolt this time. Citizen groups are already staging demonstrations in downtown Kabul, which is a good sign that some level of dissidence may be tolerated.
From the news coverage these past few weeks, the focus is on the chaos at the airport; implying, incorrectly, that this is an indication that the Taliban have already begun their reign of terror, and that the decision by the U.S. to withdraw is the cause or that preparation should have been better. We aren’t hearing about the Taliban massacring crowds of people as they move through Kabul. We do hear that ISIS is causing damage, but not the Taliban; not yet at least.
Do I think that American soldiers killed or wounded in Afghanistan have been somehow betrayed by this withdraw? Never! I am proud of the soldiers and officers I knew in Afghanistan. I know their effort was for peace-making, for stabilization of a terrorized country, and I am 100% positive that this prolonged conflict has given the people of Afghanistan a new beginning, and that they will not go back to the bad old days of pre-9/11.
Starting with the Arab Spring in 2011, when dictators were thrown out in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Indonesia, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia, the vast majority of Muslims saw the Jihadist movement as a stain on their otherwise peaceful religious identity. And they saw that their new governments were struggling with how to coalesce democracy with Shari’a Law. That effort will be theirs to determine. Our part is to be patient.
We definitely need to be defensive against extremists and Jihadists. We need to remember our own mistakes, which have led to anger toward the United States and other western countries. We have made a lot of mistakes, but we have tried to help them and we have helped. If we look at our part in modern history, we need to recognize that development is not a linear progression of steady gain, but a series of gains and losses and that progress is toward freedom. Justice is hard earned, but is the natural direction.