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Forget the best and brightest. Why did America send its C team to Afghanistan? An exclusive excerpt from the new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
When Richard Holbrooke became the Obama administration’s Afghanistan point man in January 2009, Summer Coish was keen to join his civilian operation. She had the requisite credentials: a master’s in public health and experience working on foreign development projects. For the previous five years, she had been splitting her time between New York and Kazakhstan, where she and a friend had started a glossy biannual magazine about Central Asia. Although she dug a little deeper into her savings to print each issue of Steppe, the publishing venture had swelled the list of contacts on her mobile phone. She knew more Afghan entrepreneurs — from the founder of the country’s most successful television station to the owner of the largest bottled-drinks company — than anyone else seeking a job with USAID.
Coish, a tall blonde with a fondness for dangle earrings acquired in far-off bazaars, was just the sort of person Holbrooke desired for his Washington team. But she wanted to live in Afghanistan, so he introduced her to Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. He brought her to the swearing-in ceremony for the new USAID director in Kabul, who happened to be an old friend of Coish’s from Kazakhstan. They talked about possible assignments for her and settled on a position in Kabul coordinating donations from other nations. It seemed a good fit with Holbrooke’s goal of increasing international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Coish arrived in Kabul 14 months later. (It took that long for the sclerotic State Department bureaucracy to process her application and provide her a security clearance — a process that required her to list all of her travel outside the United States and every "foreign contact" she had had in the previous eight years.) When she finally got there, she expected to work with a team of fellow Americans committed to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Long gone were the days when the U.S. government had assembled postwar reconstruction teams based on political fidelity, questioning prospective hires about their views on Roe v. Wade and capital punishment, as the Bush administration had during the first year in Iraq. Now, Holbrooke was recruiting the best and brightest in Washington. Coish believed the same standards would apply in Kabul.
Within a day, she saw she’d been dreaming. She divided most of the people she met in the highly fortified embassy and USAID compound into three camps: those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money — with hazard pay and bonuses, some staffers earned as much as $300,000 a year; those who were getting their tickets punched for a promotion or a posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed home, or some other personal calamity. "It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans," she told me after she had been there for a few months.
Everyone seemed bent on departure. One itching-to-go staffer designed an Excel spreadsheet he called the "Circle of Freedom." You entered the date you arrived and the date you were scheduled to leave, and it told you, down to the second, how much time you had left in Kabul. A USAID employee took to listing his time to freedom in the signature line of his email messages.
Set on a closed street off a traffic circle named for the assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the U.S. diplomatic compound in Kabul was ringed by tall walls topped with razor wire. Rifle-toting Nepalese guards — Ghurkas for hire — patrolled the perimeter and manned three separate checkpoints everyone had to pass through before entering the embassy grounds. More than 700 Americans lived and worked on the grounds. Several hundred Afghans joined them during the day to translate, perform administrative functions, and clean the buildings. Employees wore identification badges around their necks. Blue cards were reserved for Americans with security clearances. The Afghan support staff had yellow ones that restricted their movements and subjected them to additional screening. When USAID administrator Rajiv Shah came to Kabul for a visit, he thanked the Afghan staff for their bravery and commitment during a town hall meeting in the embassy atrium. They never heard his words because guards barred yellow-badged Afghan staffers from attending the event.
As far as prisons went, the compound wasn’t all that grim. There were a swimming pool, a bar called the Duck and Cover, and an Afghan-run café that served sandwiches and smoothies. A small convenience store stocked potato chips, candy bars, and lots of alcohol. The senior staff lived in apartments with kitchens, living rooms, and flat-screen televisions. Coish got a "hooch" — a trailer containing a twin bed, a small desk and armoire, a bathroom, and a telephone with a Maryland area code. The trailer was surrounded with sandbags. To accommodate the influx of new civilians, the hooches were stacked on top of each other, with metal ladders and catwalks to access the second story.
Once she started her job, she began to understand why her colleagues had no great love for their work. Meetings consumed much of the day. Her boss expected her to be at her desk until 10 at night to draft memos, cables, and talking points for senior officials to read at meetings with Afghans. Nobody wanted her to go out and talk to her Afghan contacts or to soak up the country. They simply wanted responses to their emails right away. Much of what she was asked to do could have been accomplished back in Washington — at far less cost to American taxpayers. But then she wouldn’t have been counted as part of the State Department’s "civilian surge," which was intended to dramatically increase the ranks of diplomats and USAID personnel in Afghanistan in tandem with the military’s troop surge.
Most of Coish’s colleagues also spent all day in their cubicles, hunched over computers. Embassy rules prevented Americans from leaving the compound unless they had official business — a meeting with an Afghan government official, dinner with a European diplomat, a visit to a U.S.-funded development project — and even then they had to obtain permission from the security office, which allotted the armored cars in the motor pool. Restaurants and offices had to be on a list of approved locations. Staffers had to identify the people with whom they were meeting and then submit reports upon their return to the embassy compound detailing the substance of their discussions with any citizens of countries listed on the State Department’s Security Environment Threat List, which, of course, included Afghanistan. Coish had enough friends outside the embassy to know that the regulations were needlessly onerous. American aid workers and journalists regularly drove around in unarmored Toyota Corollas. Being kidnapped or shot was always a possibility, but Kabul was far safer than Baghdad, especially if you kept a low profile. If it wouldn’t have been a firing offense, she would have summoned a taxi to pick her up from Massoud Circle and take her for a night on the town. Every evening brought another invitation: an exhibition at an art gallery, drinks at a journalist’s house, dinner with an Afghan tycoon, a party hosted by expatriates working for nongovernmental organizations. She figured all of them were places to glean information. She eventually managed to leave nearly every night, but doing so often required creative obfuscation on her security forms to get an exit pass and an embassy vehicle. If her vehicle ever struck pedestrians or another car, the security office did not want her driver to stop and check on those who had been hit. "Attempt to put as much space between yourself and the accident site as possible," the office urged.
The most powerful person on the embassy compound was not the ambassador but the head of the security office. His goal was to ensure that nobody working for the embassy was killed or wounded, which resulted in a near-zero-risk policy that kept diplomats and USAID officers from doing their jobs most effectively. Meetings and trips could be canceled, often with little notice, if the officer deemed the journey too dangerous, even if it was of vital importance. Reward was rarely balanced against risk. To several staffers, it seemed as if those in the security office didn’t share everyone else’s goal of winning the war against the Taliban. The security office "has turned us into women and children on the Titanic," one embassy official groused.
A near-daily flurry of alarmist warnings from the security office sowed fear among embassy staffers: A suicide car bomber was driving around the city looking for Americans to target; a crowd of disabled veterans was protesting in the circle, causing dangerous traffic jams; Afghans posing as visa seekers planned to attack one of the checkpoints. The security office sent embassy-wide emails urging everyone to keep a copy of the DS-3088 Bomb Threat Report Form near their telephones. "In the event that a threatening call is received," the office wrote, the employee "should calmly begin taking notes on the form, obtaining as much information as possible and asking the questions contained therein." Some staffers took to traveling from the embassy to the USAID compound by an underground tunnel, even though the street was blocked off for 200 yards in either direction. Most of Coish’s colleagues assumed that she was risking near-certain death or abduction by hopping the wall every night. An FBI agent whom she met in the dining hall became so concerned about her travels that he eventually grabbed her mobile phone, pulled out the battery, and copied down the serial number — so his buddies could track her if she was kidnapped.
For those who lacked paranoia or Coish’s gift for bending the rules, there were furloughs every few months sponsored by the embassy’s morale officer. The offers came by email.
One began with the tantalizing subject line "Magical Mystery Excursion!" It opened with a picture of a caged dog and two other forlorn mutts.
Do you wonder what Afghanistan is really like?
Worried that you’ll never see anything except the airport?
Are your only photographs of sandbags?
Then respond quickly.
It ended with three photos of frolicking dogs.
There were only 15 spaces. All were claimed within a minute. The destination, it turned out, was the Gardens of Babur, a historic park in Kabul that hundreds of Afghan families strolled through every weekend. The embassy personnel were escorted by Filipino contract security guards.
With off-campus trips a rarity, Coish’s colleagues sought to have fun within the compound. Their email inboxes filled up with announcements of upcoming diversions:
RAMBO IN AFGHANISTAN: A screening of Rambo III at the Duck and Cover. "Wear a headband for $1 off drinks."
FIRST MEETING OF THE KABUL FLY FISHING FORUM: "Preliminary research reveals there are trout fishing opportunities in Afghanistan." [Of course, no embassy staffer was allowed off the compound for a fishing trip.]
WINE & SWINE PARTY: Held at the quarters of the Marines who guarded the embassy, the festivities would begin with afternoon volleyball matches and swimming. They advertised that "North Carolina BBQ experts" would be brought in "to cook these porkers." [Apparently nobody bothered to consider the cultural offense of roasting a pig in a Muslim country.]
HOLIDAY CRAFT MAKING!: "No talent is necessary! Just come and enjoy the day with holiday crafts, music, and sweets! Please bring scissors, tape, and glue sticks if you have them."
The amusements grew tiresome after a while. Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent. The embassy health clinic doled out increasing quantities of antidepressant pills, and when a State Department psychiatrist arrived in February 2010 for a month-long visit, there was a rush to make appointments.
The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover — whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags — was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.
But such nights were tame compared with Mardi Gras in 2010, when the embassy’s social committee threw the party that almost ended all parties. Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. Eikenberry couldn’t do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor’s office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.
Coish may have hated her job, but she was lucky to have a specific assignment before she arrived. Many people who were sent to Afghanistan as part of the civilian surge had no idea what they would be doing until they reached Kabul and waited around, often for a few weeks, for marching orders from supervisors at the embassy or the USAID mission. The allocations were random. People who wanted to work in the field found themselves sitting in a Kabul office, and those who had expected hot showers, air-conditioning, and fresh food wound up in tents on forward operating bases, eating meals out of bags.
The civilian surge was supposed to place more diplomats and USAID officers in southern districts where recently deployed U.S. troops were conducting counterinsurgency operations. But most of the new arrivals wound up staying in Kabul. By late 2010, more than two-thirds of the 1,100 civilian U.S. government employees in Afghanistan were stationed in the capital to feed the mushrooming bureaucracy at the embassy and the USAID mission. Although there were plenty of Afghans in the city with whom to collaborate, most embassy and USAID staffers were required to sit at their desks. When Coish asked to work at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, which was a key player in reconstruction programs, her boss released her for only three days a week, and even that came with a condition — that she come in to the USAID office those evenings to draft memos and proofread cables.
It was the ninth year of America’s war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year, save for the massive expansion of the compound. Most staffers stayed for only a year, and 90 percent of them arrived and departed over the summer — because that’s what Foreign Service officers do everywhere else in the world. By late August, the embassy and USAID mission had a whole new crop of people who lacked institutional memory. To Coish, who arrived in April and witnessed the 2010 summer transition, "It was as if someone had pushed a giant reset button on the entire place."
From the outset, the civilian surge was bedeviled by a lack of initiative and creativity in Washington. Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of President Barack Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options. The personnel office also sought out retirees. A 79-year-old man was sent to the reconstruction team office in Kandahar.
USAID eventually agreed to hire outsiders for yearlong tours in Afghanistan. But the human resources team did not call up experts in private companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations. It waited for résumés to come over the transom. Most were from contractors who had worked in Iraq, often on wasteful projects that had accomplished little.
The result was almost as embarrassing as the first year of the Iraq occupation, when the Coalition Provisional Authority had given a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance the job of reopening Baghdad’s stock exchange. The USAID field officer sent to Musa Qala, in Helmand province, was reassigned after she got into a fight with the Marines because they would not give her an air-conditioned trailer. Nawa, which was one of the safest districts in Helmand, could not hold down a State Department representative. The first one went on leave and never returned. So did the second one, but not before revealing to colleagues that he did not know the term ANSF, the commonly used acronym for the Afghan national security forces. The third one, who had been fired from his previous job as a town manager in Virginia, stayed.
"We’re past the B Team," said Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand. "We’re at Team C."
It was not just rank-and-file civilians who did not acquit themselves well.
During his first meeting with Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, Andrew Haviland, the top State Department official in Kandahar, boasted about how he had forged a close relationship with one of Wesa’s predecessors, the strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, the longtime rival of the Karzai family. A little background reading would have revealed that Wesa hated Sherzai, who was constantly meddling in the province. Then Haviland lectured Wesa about the need to work with powerful tribal chieftains in Kandahar, though many other American officials had been urging the governor to do the opposite. Infuriated, Wesa threw Haviland out of his office. "I never want to see him here again," Wesa subsequently told a one-star Army general in Kandahar.
Haviland then proceeded to demolish his relationship with the military. Prior to his arrival, the top general in Kandahar had removed a chain-link fence between the military and civilian headquarters buildings on the Kandahar Airfield. But when the civilians moved into a new building 50 yards away, the regional security officer at the embassy in Kabul ordered that a new fence be erected. The gates were equipped with combination locks, and military officers on the general’s command staff, who possessed higher-level security clearances than many of the civilians, assumed that they would get the code so they could easily interact with one another. But Haviland refused to divulge it. And he made his subordinates sign nondisclosure agreements subjecting them to sanctions if they shared the numbers. "Forget about everyone working together to fix Afghanistan. He wanted to be separate," one civilian who worked there told me. "It was not just embarrassing. It was idiotic."
In May 2010, I accompanied Chretien on a trip to Marja, the Taliban-controlled enclave that the Marines had invaded with much fanfare three months earlier, to observe how the civilians there were performing. There were five of them — one from State, two from USAID, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, because it was in Helmand, one stabilization advisor from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given the stakes in Marja, they should all have been stars. One of the USAID men, a young New Englander, was indeed a model of dynamism and creativity. But the other USAID staffer seemed lost in the heat and dust. Chretien and I observed him one morning as he woke late and then did his laundry and puttered around. While he wandered the base, we chatted with a stream of residents who had come to see Haji Zahir, the ex-con district governor. One of them was the district health director, whom we peppered with questions about the state of Marja’s clinics. That evening, we told the lost USAID officer about our conversation and asked him for his thoughts about the health director. He sheepishly admitted that he had never met the man. In his three weeks in Marja, he had not yet left the base, even though the Marines were driving and walking around every day.
The USAID officer in Marja left within a few months. And he wasn’t alone. Forty percent of U.S. government civilians who were assigned to Helmand from July 2009 to June 2010 did not last six months. The churn complicated efforts to increase the number of civilians in the field. By late 2010, USAID was hiring 20 new people a month to go to Afghanistan, but it was losing seventeen.
When he returned to Camp Leatherneck, Chretien sent a note to the embassy about the staffing problems in Helmand. "It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days," he wrote. "Or as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here — let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard."