This Is War: How USAID workers are trained for work and danger in Afghanistan

As a civilian USAID worker in Afghanistan, you can expect tough negotiations with tribal leaders, anger from villagers and constant enemy fire. And that's before you actually get there.
By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, July 4, 2010

The two-story yellow-brick building had seen better days.

Laura Mendelson followed the American soldiers guarding her and the rest of the team of U.S. government employees up the crumbling concrete steps. The dimly lighted lobby was loud with the strident voices of a crowd of women in headscarves and long tunics. They shouted for the team's attention. They wanted something.

"Don't stop," said the soldiers. "Keep moving."

Mendelson wished she could make out what the women were shouting. Through the rush and commotion, she could tell they were speaking Dari and not Pashto, two of the most common languages in southern Afghanistan, but not much more. Forty-eight hours ago, she'd been in Washington getting ready for this. She's with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, part of the State Department. She's a trained Arabic speaker. But in the push to deploy, no one on the team had had time for more than a couple of hours of Dari and Pashto instruction.

Mendelson and the team entering the building represent what military and civilian experts alike have called "the way out" of Afghanistan: a civilian surge, on par with the military surge, to help the country rebuild itself. More than a year after President Obama called for such action, this is what that way out looks like.

Down a quiet hall, the women's voices were a distant echo as Velcro tore apart and body armor came off the civilian team. Mendelson removed her helmet and adjusted her peach-colored head scarf. She'd never had to wear a scarf with a helmet before. She took a seat at one end of a battered table.

The far end was crowded with Afghan men: the police chief in his gray uniform; the other provincial officials and a mullah in the traditional outfit of tunic and baggy trousers known as salwar-kameez. They all wore jackets and shawls against the old building's unheated chill. A portrait of Afghan President Hamid Karzai hung on a wall that was flaking paint.

The provincial governor began with a long list of problems. The women begging for help in the lobby; a lack of fertilizer; a central government that coughed up only half of the promised budget; a police force with no training, gasoline or radios; a new road so poorly built that only goats and drug smugglers used it; broken promises from Americans who had come before. A young man in a prayer cap shuffled around the table serving tea. The mullah fingered his prayer beads.

Despite the overwhelming list of needs, it seemed to Mendelson that the meeting was going well. Her USAID colleague Adam Schumacher had volunteered to take the lead at this first meet-and-greet, and he was saying all the right things. He avoided offering to do for the Afghans what they could do for themselves. He deftly steered them toward resources within their own government. He made no promises he couldn't keep.


He was gathering useful information. Then the governor brought up the accidental bombing of a village a month ago.

"The Americans make mistakes and make problems for the government," he said through the interpreter. "Six innocent people were killed."

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