Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting Up to Speed

The steep side of the learning curve is a tough place to be.  So much to learn, so little time to learn it before you feel like you're a boat anchor on an otherwise functional organization.  Having been through it so many times before, I know it's only temporary.

You have to learn to speak in acronyms when you're working with the military.  "I'm taking an MRAP to FOB Falcon to meet with the J5 in the MOST about the RSSA.  See you at the DFAC, then we'll RTB by 1730 for the BUA at the COB."  Acronyms have a half-life of about two years before they're overtaken by new ones.  Seems like about half the ones I used in Iraq have been supplanted by new versions, and some of the ones I used now mean something entirely different.  It's like learning a new language.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what it is.

Gradually, though, I'm getting there.  After sitting through six or seven meetings, reading a few hundred emails, and going through a dozen PowerPoint briefing packages, things are starting to make sense.  I'm recognizing terms and concepts and even a few acronyms here and there.  Finally, today I felt like I was starting to make substantive contributions.  I was in a meeting about one of the largest projects in southern Afghanistan.  Most of the discussion had been about typical project management issues: resources, timelines, coordination, and so forth.  All of which was valuable, but at this point in the campaign, the focus is shifting from building stuff for the Afghans to getting the Afghans to support and maintain the projects we've already done.  So I pointed out the new direction and asked how we were going to address it with this project.  Changed the whole focus of the meeting, which went on for another hour and a half.

And this is an important point, one that we've discussed several times over the last few days.  Remember when George Bush said we're not going to do nation-building?  That's pretty much the main thrust of everything we've been doing ever since.  In typical American fashion, our response has been to throw money and people at the problem and hope something happens.  So lots of people, mostly pretty smart and very dedicated, have been giving it their best shot for the past ten years.  And for ten years, we've been on the steep side of the learning curve.  How do you build nations?  Particularly when, as in Iraq, the nation isn't nearly as advanced as it thinks it is?  Or when, as in Afghanistan, it's still a feudal, medieval area that doesn't really have much of a government?

For years, our answer has been to give them things we think they need.  We built schools, but they can't find teachers for it, so they often sit empty.  We built clinics, but there's no electricity for them.  We put in diesel generators, but they can't buy the fuel.  And so on.  That's not to say that what we've done has made no difference: it certainly has.  There are more and more schools opening up every day and villages are recruiting teachers.  Clinics are staffed by people with almost no education (literally) but years of experience.  Businessmen are creating local Chambers of Commerce.  I'm seeing tiny baby steps of progress.

As T.E. Lawrence said, "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than you do it perfectly."  This was true in Iraq as we gradually stepped back and the Iraqis took control of their own country.  It was slow and difficult, but by the time I left in the spring of 2010, they were capable of standing by themselves if they wanted to.  Now we're beginning to do the same thing with the Afghans, only they are starting from a much different base: much lower literacy, no infrastructure to speak of, no real economy, and not much in the way of resources.  And we have a definite timeline: in three years, they will be fully in the driver's seat.  It remains to be seen whether they can do it "tolerably" as a nation.  They're doing it now in some areas of the country, but not here, not yet.

Sure hope I can do something to help them along.

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