Quickie: Trained for Work and Danger in Afghanistan

Kristin Henderson, the author of “While They’re at War” has a lengthy piece on USAID training for assignments in Afghanistan, This Is War: How USAID workers are trained for work and danger in Afghanistan.  Excerpt: 

Finding civilians with the appropriate skills who were willing to leave home for a year or more of grueling days doing difficult work in a dangerous place, often while living in primitive conditions, has not been easy. Finding those civilians fast has been impossible. The initial goal was to boost the number of American USAID staffers from 85 to 333, but after more than a year, that increase hasn’t been achieved. As Mendelson was completing her training in May, she was one of 271, according to Charles North, senior deputy director of USAID’s Afghanistan-Pakistan task force. The goal now is 377 by year’s end, he says.

At first, in the push to get people in the field, the main qualification for new hires seemed to be a simple willingness to go. Now, USAID targets people with expertise in agriculture, infrastructure, private enterprise, education, health care and good governance.

Hiring the right people, though, has been only half the battle. For years, civilians were shipped off to Afghanistan with, at most, a few days of training. It was as if “you add civilians and water, and get instant development,” Cordesman says. Just adding more unprepared civilians to the mix wasn’t going to solve that problem. So a year ago, as the surge got underway, State Department leaders made training mandatory.

USAID’s new hires now spend a week in the Ronald Reagan Building’s basement learning how to operate within the agency’s bureaucracy. For two weeks, they commute to the campus of the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in Arlington for a crash course in provincial reconstruction teams; U.S. military and political strategy; and Afghan culture, history, politics, geography and religion. They trek to the West Virginia woods for a “crash-bang” course: how to drive their way out of an ambush, how to fire a weapon. They learn combat lifesaving techniques and countersurveillance — spotting a tail and shaking it. And they spend a week at the Indiana National Guard’s Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.

But with training time at a premium, stabilization and development experts complain that the crash-bang course and countersurveillance instruction is a waste of time for people who will be traveling only in military convoys. In-depth strategic training is still missing. “And they’re still not learning how to build capacity in their Afghan counterparts,” adds Lauren Van Metre, who specializes in education and training at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

However, none of the experts interviewed for this article disputes the value of the day-to-day tactical skills taught at Muscatatuck. Those skills are critical for USAID especially, because the majority of USAID’s people in Afghanistan are now working out in the field, not holed up in Kabul.

Continue reading, This Is War: How USAID workers are trained for work and danger in Afghanistan.