I felt pretty bad leaving again so soon after my last R&R, a feeling that the military seconded and that Commander Killjoy went out of his way to reinforce ("no one is forcing you to go on leave"). But guilty or otherwise, I think passing up 20 days of paid vacation out of some misguided sense of solidarnoszt with my military colleagues would be foolish. And I needed dental work, a fact I clung to defensively as I bought my plane tickets to Bangkok.
But the guilt has lingered, and Ive been working to make up for it. Mostly I'm getting things ready for my departure, organizing the things I need to pass on to my replacement and figuring out how to best do so. Looking back, it seems to me now that State did a terrible job of preparing us for this deployment, and I'm hoping to pass on enough information that the next crop of officers coming in -- probably not my replacement, but the group that follows her -- can hit the ground with a better sense of which way is up than I had when I landed in Farah.
As the ostensible "governance advisor" to the Province, there were things I should have known before my arrival but was never told and had never thought to look up -- I didn't know what questions to be asking, much less where to find the answers. They taught us Farsi, slapped "Governance Advsior" on our business cards, assured us we were experts and then shipped us off to rural Afghanistan without knowing a damn thing about the place. I spent my first few months waiting for someone in the military to call me out on it -- to shriek out that the Emperor has no clothes and to stop inviting me on missions outside the wire. I think we can do better.
There's an Afghan Area Studies course that goes along with language class -- I referred to it lovingly as "Rise and Fall of the Taliban Parts One Through Seventeen" -- but it was taught by an academic, not by a Foreign Service Officer, and was at best tangentially useful. It focused almost exclusively on the modern political history of Afghanistan, a topic that was often interesting but rarely useful. The course lasted a year and was followed by a completely worthless "Introduction to Provincial Reconstruction Teams," taught by a guy who had spent a year in Herat (a city that resembles nowhere else in Afghanistan), and who mostly just focused on his questionably legal business partnership with a Turkmen-owned dairy factory. ("You'll need to be an advocate for companies like these -- and you might end up a partner in the firm, like I did").
Meetings at the Embassy in advance of being shipped ot to the field were more useful, but Kabul is a busy place and the people we met with were understandably strapped for time. We spent a scant 45 minutes with the Embassy's expert on Provincial and District-level political structures, and it was the most useful 45 minutes of my entire training -- but 45 minutes is only enough time for a galloping overview, hardly enough to get one's feet wet. And I was in receive mode -- I again had no idea what questions I should be asking.
And so that's what I've been working on during this trip: I've been sitting at rickety Thai sidewalk cafe tables, sipping Tom Yum soup and fresh squeezed tangerine juice, and coming up with a comprehensive list of questions that people at the Embassy or back in Washington should be able to answer but that field officers on arrival can't -- unless the other field officers were somehow better prepped than me, which I will concede is a possibility.
What is the form and structure of the Provicnial Governor's Office? What is the assigned role of the Deputy Governor, the Provincial Executive Manager and the Administrative Manager? Who controls hiring for those positions, and how much latitude if any does the Governor have in firing them if necessary? Does the Governor's Office receive a budget beyond the U.S.-funded Performance Based Governor's Fund? If so, how much is said budget, what is the process for requesting it and how much latitude does the Governor have in executing it? What are the budgetary reporting requirements? Who compiles said reports, and with what frequency?
It gets pretty thick into the weeds of Afghan rural governance pretty quickly -- but this is the sort of information that field officers should have at their fingertips. To steal a phrase from the military -- we come in without knowing what right looks like.
What is the form and structure of the Provincial Director of Economy's office? What taxes is he legally allowed to collect, and are the revenues from said taxes returned to the Province, or sent directly to the Central Government? What are the obvious avenues for corruption, and what transparency measures if any are in place to prevent said corruption?
I'm not filling in the answers, though at this point I could answer almost all of the two pages worth of questions I've come up with so far. It took a full year of being knee-deep in the politics of Farah province, but at this point I would indeed consider myself an expert on Afghan sub-national governance. Most of my answers to these questions would start with "it is my understanding that...", but that's a facet of having garnered the information from Afghans themselves, and since the Afghan system of Government is obscenely complex (and designed, it seems, to keep power concentrated in the hands of a few), even they are frequently unsure of the answers.
But it's a start. When I finally finish, I'll pass the list of questions on to State's training center and give a copy to the Embassy so they can better prepare field officers who are coming through Kabul en route to their PRTs. I'll walk my replacement through them and make sure she knows at least as much as I do before I leave. I'm not under the impression that my year-long presence in Farah has in any way made a difference ("You need to be prepared to accept 'my province did not get worse' as a measure of success," we were told during one particularly pessimistic training class), but I can at least try to set up future officers for success.
I'm moving to a nickname-only policy in this blog. The following people have been mentioned thus far:
--THE NEW TEAM--
(Second PRT, November 2010-July 2011)
The Godfather -- also known affectionately as Commander Killjoy; the new PRT Commander.
Commander Quixote -- AKA Doc Quixote, the infectiously enthusiastic but somewhat ADHD head of PRT Medical. Hobbies include stargazing, playing the electric cello and tilting at windmills.
Captain Adventure -- the tall and self-assured head of SecFor; the only person thus far allowed to pick his own nickname.
Engineer Lovesalot -- a Navy lieutenant whose geographic separation from the female species appears to be causing him physical pain; Captain Adventure's roommate.
Captain Harmony -- the musically talented, multi-lingual Air Force officer from Public Affairs.
Captain Tomcat -- the laid-back officer from Operations whom I wanted to name "Captain Peachy" for his habit of responding requests with "that's peachy."
Lieutenant ______ -- A Navy Lieutenant who hounded me for months about getting a nickname; I refused -- and continue to refuse -- to bow to that pressure.
Lieutenant Granola -- a midwesterner with a firmly crunchy-granola-esque Seattle mindset.
Lieutenant Dracula -- the officer in charge of Supply whose first name -- Vlad -- was far too Transylvanian not to inspire his nickname.
Warrant Exasperated -- a good-natured but habitually grumpy Warrant Officer from Public Affairs.
Sergeant Major Moralekill -- the Senior Enlisted man from the maneuver unit we share the base with. Had the hoops removed from the basketball court to prevent injury.
Senior Chief Intimidating -- the terrifying Senior Enlisted
First Sergeant McGruff -- The PRT's Rule of Law guy and second highest ranked Enlisted man, a 30-year veteran of the Michigan Police Department with a gruff, no-nonsense attitude.
Chief Blackboard -- the PRT's Communications Officer and Liaison to the Department of Education; an elementary school principal in Oklahoma City.
Chief Hammersmith -- the PRT's Seabee and resident all-around handyman; great with a hammer and a nice guy to boot -- the kind of person you'd kill to have as a neighbor.
Petty Officer Moonshine -- a Navy NCO in Supply who owns a distillery (which I always screw up and call a brewery) in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Sergeant CapsLock -- A sergeant from Civil Affairs whose wife tends to update his Facebook page on his behalf, writing exclusively in caps.
Sergeant DoubleD -- an NCO from SecFor; the DoubleD is for Domestic Dispute, taken from his habit of having protracted fights with his wife in the public arena of Facebook.
Specialist Masai -- a Kenyan-American from SecFor, born and raised on the outskirts of Nairobi.
--THE OLD TEAM--
(First PRT, July-November 2010)
El Comandante -- the Commander of the PRT.
Senior Chief Literal -- the towering Senior Enlisted Advisor who took everything I said at face value, regardless of sarcasm.
Captain Firepower -- the plucky young Captain in charge of ensuring we have enough firepower on our missions.
Lieutenant Moneybags -- the coarse-mouthed First Lieutenant in charge of giving out money.
Ag -- The Department of Agriculture Rep. I recognize that this nickname is hardly creative.
Sergeant Charlie -- a Vietnamese-American who labelled the fridge in his office area with "If you take a water, replace it: Charlie is watching you."
Petty Officer Frying Pan -- Our PRT's culinary specialist, a Johnson and Wales graduate.
Airman Paparazzi -- Our PRT's photographer, an intensely talented Air Force public affairs officer.
RoguePeaceCorps -- a development specialist in Herat, directly embedded with the military.
MREs: A Rank Ordering
Given the new-found frequency of MREs in my diet, the time has come to definitively rank them by deliciousness.
1. Beef Enchillada (comes with a side of refried beans; what's not to love?).
2. Cheese Tortellini (tortellini in a thick, tomato paste-esque sauce. Definitely not bad).
3. Beef Stew (Appeared to made from broken chunks of meatloaf; astoundingly delicious, though I'll concede that my opinion was influenced by the fact that I was starving when I ate it).
4. Maple Sausage (While the main course on this -- a deck of cards-sized brick of sausage oozing a thin maple syrup -- was only ok, the side dishes were so plentiful and delightful (granola with milk and blueberries! A cinnamon scone! A chocolate chip toaster pastry! French Vanilla Cappuccino powder! Crackers and apple butter!) that it significantly boosted the MRE's rating).
5. Meatloaf (delicious, if you can get past the fact that you're clearly eating dog food. Comes with mashed potatoes: bliss).
6. Thai Chicken (shredded chicken, made "Thai" with water chestnuts. Inoffensive).
7. Jambalaya (sausagey, with a shrimpy undertone; ok, but my god the after effects).
8. Omelet with Cheese and Vegetables (Poll any given group of soldiers about what the worst MRE is and Cheese Omelet will almost definitely get named. It's universally loathed. But here's the honest truth of the matter: it's not that bad. It's not good, per se -- just a huge block of sponge-like egg laced with tiny chunkets of jalapeno and chives -- but it's certainly not as awful as the universe makes it out to be).
9. Pork Rib (McRib-esque shaped chopped pork in a ketchupy sauce; only a small step above dog food).
10. Veggie Burger with Barbeque Sauce (You can find a huge number of these left at the bottom of every case of picked-through MREs, abandoned as being the worst. And rightfully so: it's like a sawdust puck, slathered in bad ketchup).