Sunday, August 28, 2011

Training Time

Out of order - but you were warned...

Many of my friends have asked about the training we get before going to Afghanistan - something that I have a neglected to fully report. Before getting to the sexier field training, we have two weeks of more normal classroom fare.

After the first hour or two of class the novelty of talking about going to a conflict zone begins to wear off, and the usual dynamics take over (you start plotting the next cup of coffee, question whether you can get away with a little texting during a boring lecture etc.).  The class members themselves kept the boredom factor to a minimum, as there was a huge array of ages, agencies and ranks represented, with State and DOD being the majority stakeholders. While there was no single stereotype, there were definitely some groupings, including a repeat offender group of civilians who had been to Iraq and or Afghanistan, often several times, then the friendly farmer types (that I'd group myself in) of folks (often from USDA) who were more comfortable in jeans getting their hands dirty than behind a desk, the military of course played to its type, excellent posture, serious demeanor when posing 3 point questions, obligatory jokes about competing services, clearly bemused and sometimes frustrated by their civilian counterparts, but friendly and accessible during breaks.  As different a group as we were, I am convinced that one of our most gung-ho Marine colleagues spoke for the vast majority of the more constrained "suits" when he made an impromptu speech about his conviction that being American meant trying to help this struggling nation.  In short, it was a stirring and comforting feeling to be part of an immensely talented group of people undertaking this mission, and a gratifying but sobering one that the vast majority of speakers began or concluded their presentation by thanking us for our service.

This rousing speech bouyed my spirits until we got to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Mongol Hordes, which is a good thousand years worth of misfortune, exploitation and foreign occupation.  Sadly, the history of this unfortunate country continued in the same vein for another millenia or so, with only short pauses in the nearly constant skirmishing that happened either because of Afghanistans position along major geo-political fault lines (stuck as a buffer between major powers), due to ethnic feuding, or between the "central government" (defined as Kabul) and tribesman when the government attempted to exert real governing control.  Then came recent history - which sounds entirely too much like the old song played in fast forward.

While genuinely disheartening, the history lesson has also proven more useful and relevant than in many past postings.  It also plays a role in why it is so hard to answer questions about whether Afghanistan is advancing/stabilizing/developing (add adjective of choice). It is country that has survived and repelled the invasions of great powers, but which has seldom had governance outside the capital in a form recognizable to most Americans. This makes for big questions, such as how to interact with and support institutions that occupy the political space we instinctively think of as state and local governments, but which have neither a history of performing the function of those entities, nor a clear political mandate or capability to do so.

In discussing my assignment I am often struck by impatience I hear, and the implicit or explicit question of why the Karzai government is as dysfunctional as say, Congress and the President negotiating a budget deal :)  But really, we would do well to remember that the Constitution that we are so (justifiably) proud of and quick to propose as a solution to other countries problems, was ratified thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, and after our first governmental structure (Articles of Confederation) had proven unworkable. I'm not saying that is the case in Afghanistan, I'm just reminding my countrymen that our own history, with armed rebellions against central authority (Shay's Rebellion) suggests that patience is needed in any endeavor of this scope.

OK off the soap box. In short, the training featured an impressive array of speakers with very helpful information, together with the occasional death-by-PowerPoint session.  One of the more memorable segments was done by our medical unit, who noted that the stress, confinement and seperation from family often causes distinctive behavioral patterns. It seems that there are five possible outcomes from an assignment.  One normally becomes one of the following:

(overeating - or eating like you're 25 and exercising 3 hours a day)

(stress relief via vigorous exercise)
(this is what we diplomats would call a "notional" picture)

(letting it all hang out)

(spending all your time hanging out - best I could do...)

(hangin out all alone - which is A-OK when you've just been supplied with an awesome Lego fighter kit!)

I roundly rejected the hypothesis, and have instead become a SCHMONK (it helps that FOB-Tiger is "dry")

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the training program is related to the administrative nightmare that is part of any move/job transfer. Some wise and kind soul had the idea that folks going to Afghanistan, Iraq and similar posts have enough to deal with in preparing for their assignment, getting family established and saying farewell, dealing with shipping cars, pets etc. etc. etc. - and could use a bit of help in dealing with the huge number of additional complications that come with these assignments.  These include extra training, complications with "bidding" (obtaining our next assignment), multiple visa applications, arranging travel to military installations, and a raft of human resources paperwork dealing with everything from "danger pay", to completing a Dept of Defense mandated "Internet Security for Dummies" course - which closely resembles the Dept of State "Internet Security for Over-Educated People who Should Know Better -But Regularly Prove They Do Not" program. 

So - this unsung bureaucrat set up an HR SWAT team that deals with us troublesome "AIP" (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan) folks. We are all assigned a "technician" who responds quickly and in comprehensible english to our key concerns, like whether the ban by the United Arab Emirates on any knives or military-style equipment applies to an heirloom straight edge razor. (not my question if you're wondering). However, the key to the program is an afternoon paperwork blitzkrieg, in which they assemble about 20 of us in a room and hammer out a dozen or so forms that we would normally either deal with ourselves or complete after arriving at post.

What is really remarkable about the program of course, is that it is remarkable, and not a standard way to handle transfers.  Oh well, I'll chalk it up as another perk of the assignment, with a big thanks to my rock star of a tech, who contributed greatly to preventing a case of pre-deployment PTSD.  THANK YOU!


  1. Better to be a schmonk than a schmuck! This was worth the wait to learn what your preparations as an AIP consisted of - nice posting.

  2. What an interesting and eye-opening post. I wish the media would share that perspective more. Thanks for the insight and inspiration!