By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, July 4, 2010; W22
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."
Mendelson exchanged glances with the State Department representative beside her. Six deaths? They'd been aware of only one. Compensation had been paid. They'd thought the problem had been handled. Apparently, it hadn't. Mendelson was filled with guilty relief that Schumacher was the one in the hot seat. She was 51, 10 years older than Schumacher, but she was new to USAID. She'd spent 3 years in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser to the Army, but that work had all been done at a safe emotional distance -- reading reports, writing assessments. She'd rarely left the base.
Schumacher, on the other hand, had been a USAID foreign service officer for five years; Afghanistan was his third overseas posting. But it was his first posting in a war zone. This time, to these Afghans, he was the American representative -- the face not just of USAID but also the U.S. military, and that was outside his comfort zone.
Schumacher tried to get clarification on the number of casualties. He tried to connect. He said he understood the pain caused by these deaths because many Americans had died in Afghanistan, as well.
That didn't go over well. At all. The Afghans objected that this was not the same, that the American military dead weren't members of Schumacher's family. One man's face grew red. The governor concluded: "I invite all of you to come to the village. We will invite the media. And you can apologize to the villagers who were bombed."
As the meeting was breaking up, another American standing by the wall stepped forward and said loudly: "Okay, if everyone will just keep their seats, we'll do the hot wash right here. First, let's find out how the Afghans think it went."
Although this rundown building might have felt as if it was in the Third World, it wasn't. Outside the dusty windows lay not the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan, but the rolling green fields of an Indiana National Guard training facility. Half a dozen trainers wearing armbands were watching from the edges of the room. The Afghans at the table were all immigrants with recent experience back home. This was a training exercise, and the role-playing was over. Now it was time for the critique.
A week from now, ready or not, Mendelson, Schumacher and most of the other Americans at the table would be leaving for Afghanistan. That was why, when the bombing issue came up, Schumacher had decided to experiment with a response he wasn't sure would work.
The feedback confirmed that it probably wouldn't. "I knew I was going out on a limb, tying their sorrow with my sorrow," he said later. "But that's what made it valuable. I came here to test limits, to find out what works and what doesn't. If you come to this training with any ego, you're not going to get anything out of it."
Tomorrow, it would be Mendelson's turn in the hot seat.
The civilian surge includes USAID development specialists, State Department diplomats, Justice Department lawyers, Agriculture Department agronomists, and experts from Treasury, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration, among others. The reason Obama called for more of these people is because at that point, eight years into the war, the civilian effort was even more understaffed than the military effort. USAID, for instance, had 85 people in-country, most of them hunkered down inside a walled compound in Kabul.
"That's the first thing about USAID," says Robert Perito, a post-conflict stability expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a research and training institution established by Congress. "There's nobody at USAID." It wasn't always that way.
"USAID was a repository of expertise and knowledge about development ... that would result in the improvement of societies around the world and, by the way, serve the interests of the United States," recalls George Moose, a former assistant secretary of state. He's talking about USAID's heyday, the 1960s, when the agency fielded more people in Vietnam alone than the 1,569 it fields today worldwide.
After the Vietnam War, America turned inward. USAID and the State Department watched their budgets and staffs steadily shrink. "In the absence of other resources, there was an increasing readiness to rely on military commands to try to fill the gap," says Moose, who recently testified before Congress on the role of civilian and military agencies.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, tested the military's ability to do it all -- fight wars and rebuild the nations it invaded. Provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, were set up in key Afghan provinces in 2002. The American teams consisted of military civil affairs soldiers, National Guard members and a few civilians.
The civilian effort had no consistency, according to Perito's surveys of civilians returning from the PRTs. "One person is an expert in tribal structures, and the next person is interested in building roads," Perito says. They came and went without overlapping each other. "No one gave the PRT leadership any overarching goals or strategic guidance. The teams were left to work it out on their own on the ground."
The lack of civilian focus and resources, combined with the inadequate military presence, disillusioned the Afghan population and contributed to the insurgency taking root and eventually threatening the whole country. "When you talk about a baseline, after nine years of war, of less than 100 people in the field doing [development] work for a country of 29 million, you realize some of the forces that led to this," says Anthony Cordesman, a national security scholar with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) who has advised the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
The effort lost even more focus and resources when U.S. attention shifted to Iraq. "[The Iraq experience] reinforced the recognition that the military can't do this on its own," says Stephanie Sanok, a former Iraq policy specialist who served in the Baghdad embassy. "It's the Department of Defense, not the Department of Defense and Much, Much More."
The "more" includes economic development, reconstruction and improving the ability of the Afghan government to meet its people's needs, a process known as "capacity building." Sanok, now with the CSIS, says, "In order to work yourself out of a job and depart a nation in a responsible way, you are going to have to transition programs and projects to local authorities, and you're going to need civilian trainers to build that capacity."
By the time the Obama administration took over running the war in Afghanistan, it was clear that both the military and its civilian partners needed more boots on the ground, and fast. But whereas the Pentagon could call up reservists and the National Guard to supplement its active-duty service members, neglected civilian institutions such as USAID had to build up their workforces from scratch.
Finding civilians with the appropriate skills who were willing to leave home for a year or more of grueling days doing difficult work in a dangerous place, often while living in primitive conditions, has not been easy. Finding those civilians fast has been impossible. The initial goal was to boost the number of American USAID staffers from 85 to 333, but after more than a year, that increase hasn't been achieved. As Mendelson was completing her training in May, she was one of 271, according to Charles North, senior deputy director of USAID's Afghanistan-Pakistan task force. The goal now is 377 by year's end, he says.
At first, in the push to get people in the field, the main qualification for new hires seemed to be a simple willingness to go. Now, USAID targets people with expertise in agriculture, infrastructure, private enterprise, education, health care and good governance.
Hiring the right people, though, has been only half the battle. For years, civilians were shipped off to Afghanistan with, at most, a few days of training. It was as if "you add civilians and water, and get instant development," Cordesman says. Just adding more unprepared civilians to the mix wasn't going to solve that problem. So a year ago, as the surge got underway, State Department leaders made training mandatory.
USAID's new hires now spend a week in the Ronald Reagan Building's basement learning how to operate within the agency's bureaucracy. For two weeks, they commute to the campus of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute in Arlington for a crash course in provincial reconstruction teams; U.S. military and political strategy; and Afghan culture, history, politics, geography and religion. They trek to the West Virginia woods for a "crash-bang" course: how to drive their way out of an ambush, how to fire a weapon. They learn combat lifesaving techniques and countersurveillance -- spotting a tail and shaking it. And they spend a week at the Indiana National Guard's Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
But with training time at a premium, stabilization and development experts complain that the crash-bang course and countersurveillance instruction is a waste of time for people who will be traveling only in military convoys. In-depth strategic training is still missing. "And they're still not learning how to build capacity in their Afghan counterparts," adds Lauren Van Metre, who specializes in education and training at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
However, none of the experts interviewed for this article disputes the value of the day-to-day tactical skills taught at Muscatatuck. Those skills are critical for USAID especially, because the majority of USAID's people in Afghanistan are now working out in the field, not holed up in Kabul. At Muscatatuck, the civilians train alongside the National Guard on the grounds of what was once a sprawling institution for the mentally handicapped. Among dozens of spooky, abandoned buildings, and a mocked-up marketplace, prison and cemetery, civilians are plunged into a military environment, many of them for the first time.
The grazing cows ignored the convoy of Humvees as it rumbled past. From a back seat, Mendelson caught glimpses of frame farmhouses and silos. She and a trainee from the Treasury Department chatted with the Indiana National Guard soldiers in the driver's seat and the turret. Water dripped from the Humvee's ceiling. Mendelson was nervous. They were on their way to another role-play, a meeting on women's affairs, and it was Mendelson's turn to take the lead.
The turret gunner, Spec. Joshua Diaz, sat on a strap slung below an opening in the roof, his upper body in the turret, his boots on the platform between the back seats. The soldier shouted down to Mendelson over the engine, "What's your specialty?"
"Anticorruption," Mendelson shouted back, laughing, "so this is kind of a stretch." She tended to smile when she talked. It made her sound enthusiastic, even after staying up late with Schumacher, blearily running through all the questions, solutions and pitfalls they could think of. "How do you feel about the training?" she asked. "Does it seem realistic to you?"
"Yeah, it seems pretty real. But what you guys are doing is new to us." Diaz and the driver, Sgt. Kenneth Arnett, were both in their mid-20s. Both had already done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they were not just props for the civilians' training vignettes. They were here to train, too.
The National Guard provides security to all the American provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan. It guards the PRT compounds and protects the teams anytime they go outside the wire. Before this combined training began at Muscatatuck, Guard members had had no practice operating with civilians in tow and little sense of why the civilians were there in the first place. So, in addition to sharpening their convoy and security skills, they were learning how to work with civilians. Unlike soldiers, civilians tended to respond to orders with "Why?" instead of a salute, and they had the nerve-racking habit of veering away from their security detail if they spotted someone they needed to talk to.
Beyond the Humvee's small windows, thick, hazy and bulletproof, the Indiana countryside rolled by, tranquil and green. Mendelson adjusted her helmet over her bulky headscarf. Her boyfriend, a British Royal Marine, had worn the scarf in the Persian Gulf War, official military issue. For combat wear, its peachy hue was an odd touch. She called it her superhero cloak. It had gotten her boyfriend safely through. Now, she was counting on it to do the same for her.
Up ahead through the windshield, a field of jumbled, broken concrete loomed. They were coming up on the border between Indiana and Afghanistan. Here at Muscatatuck, the Afghan landscape was represented by crumbling buildings, forsaken construction sites, a mobile home graveyard, wrecked and rusted cars, and piles of concrete.
Mendelson pointed to a car parked out of the way at the rubble's edge. "Wherever we went in Afghanistan, if there was a car sitting over there, we'd be real careful now." What was simply a parked car in Indiana could be a spotter in Afghanistan, calling ahead to insurgents lying in wait that a target was on its way.
The road led into the rubble, piles of it on both sides. Muffled pops erupted, sudden and startling. "Fire!" Mendelson shouted. She strained to spot the source, saw the muzzle of a weapon sticking out from behind a rock. She shouted again, and the Treasury trainee did, too, both of them shouting out the location of the danger the way they'd been trained: "Fire at one o'clock!"
The volume of pops grew louder until it was drowned out by a steady string of bangs from the turret -- Diaz, firing back. His boots shuffled on the platform next to Mendelson as he turned the turret to fire at more pops from the other side of the road. The sharp smell of cordite filled the cab. Mendelson knew all the weapons were firing blanks, but she couldn't help ducking. With a boom, an explosion spouted up next to the road, a thin plume of smoke and dirt. It was a pale imitation of an improvised explosive device, an IED, but still a reminder of the No. 1 cause of death and injury in Afghanistan.
Then the convoy lumbered out of the rubble, and the ambush was over. It had lasted 20 seconds. The Humvees drove on, their pace unchanged.
At the wheel, Arnett made a leisurely turn and said, "Last time in Iraq, I got hit by an IED, and all I heard was my ears ringing."
A sense of adventure is one thing most people who sign up for this work have in common. While studying agriculture at the University of Arizona in the 1970s, Mendelson's adventurousness prompted the native New Yorker to drop out, jump in a pickup and drive across America with a Saint Bernard, headed for Alaska. She worked in a bar, waited for the salmon run in Montana, got tired of waiting and picked apples in Washington state.
She never made it to Alaska. Instead, she milked cows on a kibbutz in Israel, studied Arabic in Egypt and joined archeological digs in Turkey. After waitressing her way through a Georgetown MBA and working summers at the Commerce Department's Mideast-North Africa Desk, she joined the Washington office of Arthur Andersen and served as a business consultant to the Palestinian Authority.
She carries all of the important things in her life in an oversized backpack. When she hoists it onto her back, she looks like a little turtle. She's fond of saying: "Life is like a pinball game. It doesn't just go in one direction."
Mendelson was in Flint, Mich., representing Arthur Andersen at a meeting with city officials, when the planes flew into the twin towers. That day, she decided: "I have to figure out how to help. I have to help my home town. I have to help my country." She joined the New York City Police Department as its first civilian analyst, dispensing advice based on her unique combination of knowledge and experience. When she was offered a contractor job doing the same thing for the Army in Afghanistan, she grabbed it. She told her sisters it was a chance to get closer to the fight.
Three and a half years later, she made the switch to USAID. On a Friday afternoon a few weeks into the training, she hurried to Union Station and took Amtrak to New York to say goodbye.
It was a cold, rainy weekend. Mendelson spent Saturday afternoon at a high school baseball game, huddled under a wool blanket with her older sister Lisa and Lisa's teenage daughter Katie, watching Katie's brother at bat. An American flag was next to the scoreboard. Lisa and the other parents in the concrete bleachers talked about upcoming birthdays, player injuries, the PSAT, golf.
"When did you become such a big golfer?" Mendelson asked Lisa, amused.
"When I couldn't stand watching any more baseball," Lisa said.
Mendelson and Katie wandered around the edge of the baseball diamond to the refreshment stand. They sipped hot chocolate and talked about boyfriends, the kind of trivial talk that made Mendelson angry the first time she came home from Afghanistan three years ago. People there were fighting and dying, and people here were talking about boyfriends and golf. Eventually, though, she decided this was exactly what she was working so hard to protect -- this ordinary, unfearful life.
During Mendelson's time working for the Army, she shared an eight-person plywood hut on Bagram Airfield, just north of Kabul. In a cubicle in a cavernous old hangar, she pored over reports from the field. Back when she was advising distressed cities such as Flint for Arthur Andersen, one of the things she'd focused on was corruption. According to some development experts, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Mendelson had figured that out for herself from the reports she was reading. "The corruption was just obvious from the start," she recalls. The military began taking steps to combat it, but only at the tactical level. She was frustrated by the lack of a broader strategy.
Then last fall, during a week of meetings in and around the embassy in Kabul, she had an epiphany: "Okay, this is where the policy and strategy happen, this is where it makes sense to happen -- the civilian side." While briefing incoming USAID staffers, she thought, I want to be them.
Talking with her sister Lisa, she debated the pros and cons of a job based out of an embassy instead of a large, secure military base, a job that would require her to "get out in the mix" more. Pros: better food; interesting people to work with. Con: more likely to get blown up. The pros won.
Day Three of training at Muscatatuck, and so far, so good. Mendelson's role play meeting with the director of women's affairs had gone so well that one trainer told another it was the best he'd ever seen. When Mendelson and her teammate Adam Schumacher heard that, they did a little jig.
After the meeting, the convoy loaded up and moved out. The road wound into the woods, where a onetime Girl Scout camp had been transformed into a forward operating base. FOBs are generally smaller and closer to population centers than the big airfields. The convoy pulled in through the FOB's guarded gate for lunch.
Inside the rustic wooden dining hall, the education continued. "Body armor," a civil affairs soldier advised two USAID trainees over steak salad and potatoes, "is like putting on a layer of distrust between you and the other person. Taking off the armor says, 'I trust you,' and that creates an obligation." Among older people in southern Afghanistan, he explained, the traditional honor code of Pashtunwali still means something.
Across the rows of rough-hewn tables, a training exercise was underway. Mendelson and half a dozen other trainees watched as a soldier playing the role of the FOB commander tried to convince two trainees playing visiting USAID officers that his district needed more civilian support. Wrapping up his pitch, he leaned forward with an eager salesman's grin. "So, shall we clear some cots off for you and move you in?"
Mendelson and the other trainees burst out laughing.
One of the faux USAID officers said dryly, "We'll get back to you."
After lunch, the convoy rolled on to another role-play, this one involving Afghans. The training program at Muscatatuck wouldn't be possible without them. That's true of USAID's programs in Afghanistan, too. In the past year, in addition to hiring more Americans, USAID has hired more Afghans in Afghanistan. Local staffers speak the language and can usually get around safely in cars or on motorbikes instead of the military convoys required to move Americans around. But not always. While USAID hasn't lost any Americans, 77 non-American staffers and contractors, mostly Afghans, have been killed as of May 31, according to the American Embassy in Kabul.
Among the role-players at Muscatatuck are those who have fled the violence. Some arrived so recently they speak almost no English. For each training session, 20 to 40 Afghans with recent Afghanistan experience are recruited from around the United States by McKellar Corp., the training and policy analysis firm that runs the training. Some once worked for the Afghan government, others for nongovernmental organizations. Some were police officers or soldiers. "Many," writes McKellar curriculum developer Lisa Backstrom in an e-mail, "have experienced life under the Taliban and/or the realities of life in a war-torn and under-developed country."
You can see it in the role-plays.
After acting their way through another meeting, a parade of Afghan officials, elders and American government civilians, flanked by soldiers carrying M-16s and led by a Humvee with a gunner in the turret, set off down the street. They trudged past a burned-out house. Beside it lay a heap of rubble.
The Americans carried boxes hand-labeled in black marker: Water, Blankets, and 12 Man Tents. One person carried a big stuffed cream-colored puppy labeled Sheep. These were "gheramat" gifts, compensation for the victims of the accidental American bombing of this ersatz village. As the man playing the governor had suggested in that first role-play meeting that Schumacher had led, the Americans had come to apologize.
The men playing villagers waited for them on carpets and tarps laid out under a tree. Off to the side two women in burqas huddled like lonely blue ghosts. Mendelson and a 25-year-old State Department trainee named Jacklyn Palme were led to the women by a man who said he was a cousin. Mendelson and Palme took off their helmets and knelt.
One of the women slowly rocked.
"We're so sorry," said Palme, her brows pulling together. "We're deeply sorry for your loss."
"I'm a medic," Mendelson said. That was her assigned role this time. "I would like to offer my services to you, if you have women or children who've been wounded."
From within the slowly rocking burqa came a small voice. The male cousin translated: "Treatment would not bring my son back. Can you bring him back?"
From the group of men behind them, a wail went up. An older man wrapped in a brown shawl wailed again and slapped the carpet. He clambered to his feet and shouted in a hoarse, broken voice. The villagers and officials jumped up and crowded around him. The American men sat very still.
The other woman spoke up firmly from inside her burqa. Once again, the cousin translated: "What kind of help can you offer?"
"We have brought engineers with us today to help rebuild," Mendelson said.
Behind her, the wailing man quieted and sank to the carpet.
Before her, the rocking woman murmured plaintively through the cousin: "I wish you could bring my son back."
"I'm sorry." Mendelson put her hand over her heart. "I can't bring your son back. But maybe I can help save other children in the village from disease or illness."
"You can rebuild my house, but my soul is gone, my heart is burning. I hope you never see such a sorrow as I saw."
Mendelson's eyes reddened. In a situation that wasn't real, she hadn't expected to react like this. Yet a feeling of loss rushed over her. She knew about loss, not violently, not as a mother, but as a daughter. During her time in Afghanistan, she had unexpectedly lost her mother, then her father. "I'm sorry," she said again, quietly. "There is nothing we can do to heal your pain. Only time will heal your pain."
The woman's hands pressed themselves to her burqa-covered face, and she rocked.
At the end of the week, Mendelson and the rest of the civilian trainees boarded a bus and left behind the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center's staged violence and destruction, its recitations of frustration and despair. The road took them through a quiet Midwestern town with wide streets lined with old brick storefronts, fast food chains, plastic signs, a Wal-Mart.
For a moment, looking at the faces around her on the bus, Mendelson suddenly feared for them, even as she joined them in talking about their plans and hopes for the work that lay ahead. The town gave way to peaceful green fields. Farmhouses slipped past, a pickup in the drive, a swing set next to the barn.
On the bus, they cracked jokes. They told stories such as the one the Treasury trainee told on himself: Two Afghan role-players came to him about a clinic that needed repairs; he asked if they had any photographs; they gave him a funny look because "apparently," he mocked himself, "local, poor Afghan villagers don't own digital cameras."
After an hour and a half, the trainees reached the Indianapolis airport. In a few days, they would board planes in Washington. They would make their way east, over the Atlantic, across Europe, to Dubai. And from there, waiting over the horizon, would be Afghanistan, where everything is real.
Kristin Henderson is the author of "While They're at War" and a regular contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.