13 April 2010

Building Capacity, One Citizen at a Time

It is last Friday afternoon, and all the top-ranking people have left just left the classroom. Those that remain are all dirty and smelly, either covered in the fine grey "charcoal" dust of our earlier chemical-decontamination training, or the burning-lemon scent of the industrial-strength wipes we mistakenly used to attempt cleansing ourselves of the charcoal. It is a beautiful Iowa spring day just outside the armory door, and even the brigade S2 (Intelligence) officer giving us the briefing says he can practically smell the beer he has stashed back in his hooch.

We are getting the once-over-the-world counterinsurgency (COIN) brief. The uppity-ups and muckity-mucks got to leave early this training day, but they'll get theirs later, when they attend the full-bore three-days-or-more "COIN Academy."

We few, we happy, non-chai-tea-drinking few, will drink it all in, in less than 60 minutes.

The PowerPoint slides tell of varying levels of insurgency, offering relevant historical examples of each, and relating them to recent (anything in the last 50 years) political situation in Afghanistan. The briefing also heavily quotes U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recent counterinsurgency guidance.

I've got something of a reputation for asking questions. Sometimes, I'm trying to be smart. Other times, I'm trying to get smart.

And then, there are the times that I'm trying to make a point.

A Friday afternoon of an over-long week of training, stuck in a dark room on a beautiful sunny spring day, while swimming in our own lemony-fresh filth is probably not the best time to ask, "Where are the civilians in all this talk?"

I do anyway.

The Junior JAG ("Judge Advocate General"--an Army lawyer) says that the military is there because we're the ones who can secure the environment and set-up civil-structures quickly. "The hippies in the civilian agencies and NGOs [Non-governmental Organizations] take too long to get there," she says. "And after they get there, they want to take 50 years to get things done."

A crusty and wise warrant officer reminds the class that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (P.R.T.) are now under a more-unified command. The 160-person PRT are multi-disciplinary, multi-agency, civil-military units that focus on helping Afghans extend the reach and influence of the central government.

Despite the room's grumpy vibe, I'm able to help steer the conversation back to some brief and pithy points. Granted, what little I know about civil affairs and capacity-building I've learned as a grassroots neighborhood activist. I've also been a homeowners association board member (a suburban jirga!). I also have a little book-learning about consensus-building and community planning from some studies in architecture school.

So, here's a World of COIN According to Sherpa:
1) The "hippies" are right, counselor. Counterinsurgency fights are decades-long.
2) In order for the military to focus on what we do best, we need more civilian experts downrange.
3) We also need to engage more civilians at home, to help bring changes we all desire to Afghanistan and surrounds.
My blogger-buddy Jeff Courter recently attended a Chicago-area fund- and awareness-raiser with "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson. Mortenson, a former mountaineer, started the privately funded Central Asia Institute (CAI) to help build non-religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need more Greg Mortensons.

Through Courter, I've been introduced via e-mail to Dallas-area businessman John Stettler. Stettler's actively supporting a number privately funded efforts aimed at building awareness, capacity building, and helping people. (Check out War Kids Relief site for one example.) Not only that, he's thoughtfully attempted to gather interested parties following this coming Saturday's (17 April 2010) Dallas-Fort-Worth-area World Affairs Conference.

The theme of the 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. symposium is "Afghanistan: The Next Phase." The list of speakers is impressive--and even includes U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, Jr. I just wish any "next phase" discussion would also include the potential and necessity of private, civilian solutions within the COIN fight.

We need to find ways that we can address the political, strategic, humanitarian, and infra-structural problems in and surrounding Afghanistan. We can continue to address them through our military, but this is only a partial and short-term solution. We can address them through our governmental agencies. We can address them as private citizens, through donations, through awareness campaigns, through non-governmental or non-profit organizations.

We build capacity by building relationships. If you'd like to connect with John Stettler regarding this weekend--or taking part in a larger conversation about building positive change in the world--please do so at:

jmplastinc (AT) aol.com

Tell him Sherpa sent you.


  1. So let me guess. The JAG is around 30-something. If she could, she would do to the Afghans what she's going to do when she's outta this military job: bill them for 300 hours, and onto the next client. She won't like Hippies much, until a teenager calls her stodgy and old.

    You're right, and so is everyone else who has echoed this thought. The counselor is very, very wrong.

    Look at Mortenson --he's been setting up schools for what, 2 decades? Look at FabLab, which has done blazes not only in Jalabad, but other countries as well. They're young, but their vision of what they can do will probably played out over decades. Look at groups like Rotary International, which has done great things in J-bad, or Sarah Chayes who set up the Co-op Arghand. There are lots of small groups from around the world doing great things, which includes John Stettler.

    Does the JAG really intend to write them off as hippies, or is it because she wants to get the hell outta there to buy an orange mocha frappucino? Yegads, Charlie, sounds like you guys got the DEREK ZOOLANDER of JAGs.

    COIN, diplomacy, peace corps efforts are decades long. I think it's one reason why so many people aren't on board with COIN. It's a very different tactic, and there isn't an "in-n-out." Tim Lynch pointed out that the Army has a gap between the rhetoric and the actual carrying out of COIN in Afghanistan over on Free Range International. I'm certain the politicians don't really get it either. Like Ms Derek Zoolander, right now they all want out.

    To me, the interesting story is how it was put together, and the group behind it --which was a diverse and unlikely assemblage of pacifists, reporters, NGO types, military, and academics. That's a really great story, and probably the best part of Thos Rick's The Gamble.

  2. Well let's see...it's their country...recon they need to be involved and have a say so? Seems like a good idea to me. Let Afghanistan restore to what ever they want to be, not what America wants them to be.

  3. Sherpa - THANKS for asking a question that I hope will increasingly become part of our national dialogue about Afghanistan!

    Since this war began, seems that one of the biggest issues has been a perceived LACK of involvement by civilians.

    But if civilians really aren't expected to engage, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to discover a disconnect.

    It's encouraging to learn about some non-military initiatives that are making a difference, anyway. Not everyone can be a soldier. But everyone has something to offer.

    As you prepare to go downrange, I hope it brings a bit of comfort to know that some civilian folk (aka Hippies?) are right there with ya. And we're tremendously proud & relieved that soldiers with your kind of heart have got our backs.

    Here's to fighting the good fight!

  4. Quite frankly, when MoveOn came out with that anti-Petraeus ad, they pretty much sidestepped COIN, which if you think about the team who crafted it, fits in perfectly with "liberal" ideals. (Note, liberal does not mean progressive). COIN has never even had a chance to be discussed with the general public.

  5. @ Kanani: Zamfir! And here I thought you'd be all laid back and relaxed from your recent Steinbeckian sabbatical. Of course, I just read your "Kitchen Dispatch" blog post of 12 April. The war is hard to get away from, once you know it's there.

    Your analysis is spot-on, of course--and I love how you're able (both here and on your own blog) to point to practical and concrete examples of people who are making a difference. As the Engineers say, "Essayons."

    Oh, and don't give the Junior JAG too much trouble--I'm pretty sure she had her lawyer's forked tongue planted in her cheek when she used the "hippie" line. And I think that everyone in the room realized that the problems faced by Afghanistan have been decades in the making; it makes sense that it'll take more than a few months to clean it all up.

    @ Coffeypot: You're exactly right about only being able to "restore" the regions within the limitations and aspirations of the people who live there. Of course, many people there apparently just want to be left alone--at an extremely local/tribal/group scale. (Sounds kinda like home, don't it?) There's no tradition of strong central government--one capable of providing services to the least of its citizens, while also securing its borders. We Americans particularly want the latter, of course, because increased stability in the region also means increased safety and stability on a global scale.

    @ KKruse: Roger all that, and to that I'll add this: I've always wished that our national leaders would articulate more of a COIN vision for OEF success, as well as a general call-to-action for citizens of all stripes. People want to help, I'm sure, but aren't sure how. But I suppose that's the citizen in me talking, not the soldier ...


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