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Entries in Afghanistan (21)

Monday
Jun112012

Afghanistan Country Study & Stakeholder Groups

Here’s the paper I promised on Afghanistan.  It’s a sort of “diagnostic” on the country that provides a snapshot of its current social and economic status and the major underlying issues (security & legitimacy) affecting Afghan governance. 


Afghanistan Case Study

 

This next paper is really short and looks simply at four stakeholders of the Afghan conflict, in general terms.  Obviously there are more and their interests are a lot more complex, but for this assignment I was limited in terms of the number of stakeholders I could cover and the number of pages, so it is what it is.  I have one more Afghanistan paper that I did for class which I might publish, but half of it deals with a different topic, so I may just chop it in have, do a little revision, and use the Afghan part as a blog post.


Afghanistan Stakeholder Groups

 

Monday
Jun042012

U.S. Policy in Afghanistan Since 2001

On Friday I covered some of the past month’s big news on Afghanistan.  Today, I’m posting a briefing I gave and a paper I wrote on U.S. policy in Afghanistan since 9/11.  Next week I’ll post another paper I wrote that serves as a sort of country study.


I spent five years in Iraq and not once did I read a book on Afghanistan or learn much about it.  Iraq was so complex a case, and a personal one, that I figured I should focus my limited time doing my best to become an expert on that situation, especially since I wanted (and still want) to write a book about America’s experience there.     


It has only been the last year that I began to reorient my readings toward Afghanistan in preparation for heading there sometime after I graduate in December.  To this end, while staying current on what’s happening in Iraq, I began to make a point of writing all my grad school papers on what’s happening in Afghanistan (minus those I couldn’t tie into the place).


The paper and PowerPoint presentation below represent one of those efforts.   These products were prepared for my National Security Policy class at Duke.  If you’re looking for a quick review of the last ten years of U.S. policy and some considerations impacting future policy, then you might want to look at them.  The brief simply summarizes the paper.

 

U.S. Policy in Afghanistan Since 2001

 

 
Friday
Jun012012

On Afghanistan: May 2012 Review

Today begins a new month in Afghanistan.  Quite a bit happened in May. 


  • This past Friday it was announced that by the end of September U.S. troop strength in country will drop by about 23,000 from the 88,000 there now.  This represents the end of the Afghan “surge” that began in 2010. 

 

 

  • France’s new President Hollande said all of France’s troops will be gone by the end of this year. This is the first major troop contributing to country to announce it is leaving and when.

 

  • President Obama visited Kabul on the one year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden and signed a Security agreement with Afghanistan (text here), which the Afghan parliament later approved

 

So what does the future look like?


We could probably expect many of the other countries to announce and begin making their exits sometime soon.  As it stands now the mission of the International Security Forces for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led NATO alliance operating in the country, isn’t supposed to end until December 31, 2014. 


The questions then become:


  • How many troop contributing countries will stay until December 31, 2014?

 

  • What do their timelines look like?

 

  • Will they remove their civilian personnel too?

 

  • What effect their exits will have on the situation on the ground?

 

  • Will any stay beyond 2014?

 

The above is all unknown and will have to be managed for their impact on security and government capacity-building efforts currently underway.


What we do know, based upon the recent security agreement, is that the U.S. has agreed to play a role in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  The agreement will cover 2014-2024, and while light on specifics, calls for continued U.S. engagement and financial support, though without any explicit troop commitment.


Whether or not U.S. troops will remain will be a key question.  The U.S. tried negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq but was unable to do so, resulting in the U.S. military leaving last year, minus a small group embedded in the Embassy.   The U.S. will try and negotiate a SOFA with Afghanistan, but how many troops, and whether or not the Afghan government will agree to our requirements for keeping them there, (like retaining authority to try war crimes violators in U.S. military courts as opposed to the Afghan judicial system), will remain unknown until a SOFA is announced or it is publically stated that negotiations have been given up on.


For what it’s worth, I think a SOFA will be agreed to in the next two years.  Afghanistan is a lot different than Iraq.  For one, it doesn’t have the infrastructure, state institutions, or military capabilities that Iraq has, and would be worse off with a military pullout, perhaps even inviting state collapse.  Second, its populace and political leaders seem to be a lot more favorable towards a continued U.S. presence.  As this poll from the Brooking Institution’s Afghan Index makes clear, most Afghans, despite the security issues, see themselves as better off than when under the Taliban, believe the country is generally headed in the right direction, and even more importantly, view the Taliban as an alternative that is far worse than the current government (see pages 28-33). 


The fact of the matter is that Afghans have a lot to lose if the U.S. leaves the country for good, and they know this.

 

Tuesday
May292012

Is Counterinsurgency Doctrine "Dividing" West Point?

Yesterday the New York Times published the sort of poorly written news article that is all too common in journalism today in that it invents “news” out of thin air. 

 

It starts by suggesting that America’s premier military institution, West Point, is somehow engaged in an “existential” debate.  The term, of course, pertains to how an individual or organization conceives of its own existence, so we are led to believe the school (and by extension the Army) is somehow questioning its raison d'être.

 

But in reality, the piece is simply about two professors with supposedly different views as to the efficacy of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.  To support this argument Elisabeth Bumiller, the writer, marshals all of THREE professors, (one of whom doesn’t even talk about COIN), and claims they represent a “divided” faculty at West Point.  While it is possible the professors there are separating into opposing ideological camps and getting ready to have an intellectual throw down over the topic of counterinsurgency, the case certainly isn’t made when all you can do quote a couple people from the staff, neither of whom talks about the institution or professors being “divided.” 

 

(BTW, West Point isn’t questioning its existence or purpose, which is and probably always will be, to educate and train military officers to fight and win our nation’s wars.) 

 

Perhaps worse than the existential bit, however, is that the article really doesn’t address the disagreements surrounding counterinsurgency, and the two professors taken to represent opposite camps don’t really seem to be that much in disagreement with each other.  Here’s the part from the article covering the supposed professorial divide:

 

Colonel Gentile’s argument is that the United States pursued a narrow policy goal in Afghanistan — defeating Al Qaeda there and keeping it from using the country as a base — with what he called “a maximalist operational” approach. “Strategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent,” he said.


Counterinsurgency could ultimately work in Afghanistan, he said, if the United States were willing to stay there for generations. “I’m talking 70, 80, 90 years,” he said.


Colonel Gentile, who has photographs in his office of five young soldiers in his battalion killed in the 2006 bloodshed in Baghdad, acknowledged that it was difficult to question the wars in the face of the losses.


“But war ultimately is a political act, and I take comfort and pride that we as a military organization, myself as a commander of those soldiers who died, the others who were wounded and I think the American Army writ large, that we did our duty,” he said. “And there is honor in itself of doing your duty. I mean you could probably push back on me and say you’re still saying the war’s not worth it. But I’m a soldier, and I go where I’m told to go, and I do my duty as best I can.”

 

Here we have Gentile, a well-known critic of those with the COIN fetish, stating that war is a political act.  And that COIN could work, though only over a long time period.  Just that most of what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have been successful or worth the price in lives and money, and the time frame required for it to be so doesn’t fit with what we’re willing to sacrifice.


Now here is his antagonist:

 

Colonel Meese’s opposing argument is that warfare cannot be divorced from its political, economic and psychological dimensions — the view advanced in the bible of counterinsurgents, the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual that was revised under General Petraeus in 2006. Hailed as a new way of warfare (although drawing on counterinsurgencies fought by the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, among others), the manual promoted the protection of civilian populations, reconstruction and development aid.


“Warfare in a dangerous environment is ultimately a human endeavor, and engaging with the population is something that has to be done in order to try to influence their trajectory,” Colonel Meese said.

 

Reading this, it doesn’t seem like Gentile and Meese are very far apart on the notion that war is a political act.  I'm not sure there is a military officer who even thinks that it isn't.  And it’s hard to believe that Gentile, a published author and professor at West Point who gets quoted regularly as an expert on military affairs, doesn’t think that war also includes economic and psychological factors.  Nor does it seem he would disagree that war occurs in a dangerous context or that you have to engage with the population and influence them.  And I doubt that Meese would disagree with Gentile’s comment that “[s]trategy should employ resources of a state to achieve policy aims with the least amount of blood and treasure spent.”

 

The bottom line is there is not a whole lot of disagreement between the two, certainly nothing "existential."  Meaning there doesn’t appear to be a “divided” faculty at West Point.

 

This whole article misses the boat about what the disagreements of COIN are about, which essentially deal with whether or not it is an appropriate doctrine for accomplishing America’s national security objectives.  In other words, has it been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is it a model to use in future operations?  Gentile thinks not, and we know this from his previous writings.  Meese, we should assume (though don’t know for sure because the article doesn’t make it clear), probably does.  Yet this topic isn’t really covered at all in the article, save Meese’s dubious claim that it was the doctrine that was responsible for the decline in violence in Iraq, an argument Douglas Ollivant  critiques pretty well here.

 

It’s too bad the article isn’t better written.  A good piece in the New York Times that goes in-depth into what counterinsurgency is, what critics say, and whether or not it has been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have brought more value to readers.  Even better would have been some inside knowledge on the rewrite of the COIN manual that is currently taking place.  Unfortunately, this one is so broad and convoluted it reads like a pastiche of others stories the author was writing and decided to cobble together for a Memorial Day special.

 

There’s really only one thing newsworthy in it, namely,  that Gentile has a book coming out. Gentile is the COINdinistas gadfly, and opposing views like his are always useful for avoiding groupthink when big issues are at stake.  It’s called: Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace With Counterinsurgency.   Based on his previous work I’m pretty sure I’m going to buy it.  


Saturday
Feb202010

D3 Weekly Link Roundup

The always informative Eeben Barlow on the difference between parastatal and privatized military companies.


Volunteering in Haiti for Spring Break might not be the great idea you think it is.

 

Peacebuilding versus Al-Qaeda.

 

There was a coup in Niger.  Even so, the Center for Global Development argues against withdrawing development assistance (the U.S. suspended all non-humanitarian aid programs).  

 

Kings of War have a useful rundown on the militarization of foreign policy while Dan Gerstle over at War and Peace covers a UN report criticizing the militarization of aid in Afghanistan.

 

Prism, the journal of the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations (read post-conflict stabilization and state-building), releases its second issue (you can download the first one here).

 

Reach 364 (a U.S. Air Force officer studying Arabic in Amman and with a smarter head on his shoulders than your average flyboy) writes a good post over at his Building Peace blog on cross-cultural learning and the dangers of overconfidence when working in foreign countries. 

 

U.S. troop presence dropped below 100K in Iraq this week and thoughts on the drama in Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

 

Tough times for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (unlike USAID, they focus on middle-income countries). 

 

The World Bank’s Conflict and Development blog has a set of online video interviews with leaders from conflict-affected countries about overcoming conflict, building institutions, confidence building, and the role of the international community can play in addressing these issues.  You view them here and here.

 

Why disaster response will always be insufficient.

 

A great piece by Joshua Foust on why the media can’t get it right in Afghanistan.

 

Saundra over at Good Intentions are Not Enough explains the importance of needs assessments before designing/initiating any assistance programs.

 

USAID and the U.S. military’s SOUTHCOM team up to help with Haiti’s long-term reconstruction.

 

Finally, some cool pictures of goats.  (Hat tip to Chris Blattman).


Friday
Feb122010

D3 Weekly Link Roundup

The other Super Bowl.

 

The ultimate development essay question:  “Is Africa to development was Mars is to NASA?” And is there a fifth poverty trap for Africa?  (Paul Collier in The Bottom Billion counts four).

 

Transparency International releases a practical guide for combating corruption in humanitarian relief and reconstruction.

 

Executive Outcomes founder Eeben Barlow challenges the prevailing wisdom on COIN and provides some useful info on the development of conflict in an African context. 

 

Meanwhile, Tom Ricks starts a series on COIN Metrics that he cribs from a paper by David Kilcullen.

 

BTW, the Russians had some kick-ass COIN All-stars too.

 

The State Department readies for a larger role in Iraq. 

 

Great non-profits need a better rating system, according to Full Contact Philanthropy.

 

Using General McChrystal’s own words, Harvard professor and Foreign Policy magazine blogger Stephen Walt suggests we shouldn't believe anything he says in regards to Afghanistan. 

 

In Mesopotamia, Musings on Iraq reports that a slim majority of Iraqis are optimistic about the future and that U.S. media coverage is way down and “almost out.”

 

Glenn Greenwald pens an excellent piece on the true scope of our wrongdoing when it comes to the Iraq War.

 

Want up to $250K for your individual community service project or favorite non-profit?  Via Pulling for the Underdog, we learn that Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything” initiative is giving out up to $1.3 million a month for US-based individuals and community groups interested in positive change.  It’s been called a “pathbreaking” corporate social responsibility initiative.  (Click here for an insider’s view on how it works).

 

Online courses on designing and funding sustainable development projects.

 

Owen Barder discusses aid, income and “Dutch Disease.”

 

Myth and realities regarding Chinese aid to Africa.

 

Haiti, anarchy, and the collapse of societies.

 

Daniel Gerstle over at Change.org’s War and Peace blog on how disaster preparedness and peace-building can save money and lives over the long-run.

 

A review by the Kings of War on John Mackinlay’s book The Insurgent Archipelago.

 

The mad scientists at DARPA move beyond planet hacking and into making the earth transparent.

 

The gents over at On Violence discuss what U.S. Army physical fitness training has to do with losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Finally, Joseph Collins on civil-military relations (my comments here).

 

Tuesday
Feb092010

Tourism in Iraq 

About two years ago during a 4th of July event at a local hotel here in Erbil with the America-Kurdistan Friendship Association, I met an American guy who had ridden his motorcycle from Turkey into Iraq.  After a few months teaching English, (there are a fair number of young expats teaching here, and if you’re interested, this place is hiring), he intended to ride down to Baghdad and Basra before heading northeast into Iran.  He told me his plans, I advised him it would be safer to skip Baghdad and Basra and just go straight into Iran via Kurdistan, and then never heard from him again. 

 

Then last month I was having lunch at a military dining facility in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit with a fellow Georgetown grad when I told the story.  My lunch partner, a governance officer at a PRT in Diyala Province, said he knew this guy.  It seems he made it all the way to Baquba before being arrested by the city’s police who turned him over to the local military unit for DWA—Driving While American.  The Colonel commanding the brigade he was handed over to said he was going to put him on a helicopter and fly him back up to Erbil, but the guy (whose name I don't remember) said no way, he’s not leaving his bike.  So after a couple days trying to figure out what to do, the military had him sign a release form saying their offer to help him leave Iraq was rejected.  And then they finally let him go, after which he rode off and headed south toward Baghdad. 

 

While there are obvious dangers traveling as an American in certain parts Iraq where Al-Qaida and other insurgent groups have a presence, I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we hear about him having made it to Iran safely with some great stories to tell.  I’ve found Iraqis to be an incredibly friendly and giving people, especially to guests, and those individuals who are in the most danger of kidnapping are either rich, politically valuable, or associated with the U.S. occupation.  So there is a good chance he made it, especially since he hasn’t popped up yet in an orange jumpsuit in some jihadist video. 

 

Despite assumptions to the contrary, Iraq has a thriving tourism industry, and it’s safer than you think.  While most tourists are Shiite pilgrims who visit Islamic shrines in Najaf and Karbala, for Westerners, there are still opportunities to see most of the country

 


The most sensible thing to do is probably spend all your time in the Kurdistan Region, which is the only place in Iraq where no American soldiers have died as a result of hostile actions and where Westerners are able to move about freely without any security.  And there’s some great historical sites here, like the Erbil Citadel, Shanidar Cave, or the fortress city of Amedi.  People are friendly (unlike a lot folks in the Arab parts of Iraq, Kurds love Americans, who’ve been a presence here since Operation Provide Comfort began in 1991).  Also, the scenery is beautiful and the food is good (try the sarope).


There are a couple Kurdistan-focused tourism companies you can use, such as Babel Tours, and The Other Iraq Tours, the latter of which is owned by a former U.S. Army Civil Affairs officer who returned to live spending time deployed here in 2003, but doesn't seem to have done anything recently.  Or you can just come on your own, but check out the government’s official Kurdistan Tourism page before you do.

 

If you want see the rest of Iraq, then Hinterland Travel might be what you’re looking for (they also do tours to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Burma).  I first read about them in this New York Times article from last year and have considered taking the trip myself.

 

I’ve traveled to 35 countries at this point and before I croak would like to hit 35 more.  I’ll be visiting Jordan and Israel for about 8-10 days each starting in March, and then once I leave my current job in May, plan on traveling through Greece and Turkey and back down into Iraq.  I hope to return here in June/early July so I can experience the culture as a tourist, since right now I'm required to take armed security wherever I go and along with the rest of my team am limited to traveling to sites for official business only. 

 

I’ll be sticking to the Kurdistan Region on this trip, but I plan to come back one day and see the rest of Iraq too.  While in Baghdad with the military in 2003 I was lucky to see up close much of the city and visit with Baghdadis in their homes and some local restaurants, but once the insurgency heated up in the summer and fall of 2003, it become more difficult.  It is my hope than one day I can go back along with my old translator Ali who I continue to stay in touch with, go revisit some of those old neighborhoods I used to patrol in, tour some of the museums, eat Masgouf and drink beer in a nightclub on Abu Nuwas.

 

(Disclaimer:  The U.S. Department of State maintains a travel warning for Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region.  You venture out at your own risk.  This post is not an endorsement of any of the travel companies listed above.) 


Monday
Feb082010

How to Get a Job with the United Nations

Okay, so this will be the last job post for awhile.

 

For work reasons I have had to deal with the UN Mission in Iraq on several occasions, and along with having partied with them at their Erbil compound, have for personal reasons asked the question: “So, what’s the best way to get hired?” And each every time I’ve been told there’s no secret code, you just have to apply.  And get lucky, because there are a hell of a lot of people from around the world who are applying too. 

 

This page and this one both have the most comprehensive set of links for the career pages of the numerous organizations within the UN system.  But the website UN Jobs (which includes positions with other international organizations like the World Bank) is easier to sort by country, and has over 2000 positions listed in over 221 different locations (interesting note: there are 88 vacancies currently listed in the USA).  For jobs with the UN Development Program, click here.  And if you’re interested in working on a UN Peace Support Mission, click here

 

If you’re under 32, you may want to consider taking one of the competitive exams so you can be hired as a career bureaucrat in the NYC-based UN Secretariat.  

 

You can also click here for jobs available with the UN missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Be advised that for most people a UN job will be out of immediate reach unless you’re already working within the UN system or have several years experience in the development or humanitarian aid communities.  So if you’re in college or just looking for a career change, there is a good chance you’re going to have to start at the bottom and work your way into a position.  The good news is that there are tons of openings, so it’s not impossible.

 

Some other advice:  Whatever country you want to work in, it’s a good idea to already know the local language and/or have a lot of experience in country.  Most UN hires will be locals or returnees with experience in the language and culture.  If you’re a foreign expat with this experience, your chances of being hired increase considerably.  (Note that fluency in at least two of the six official languages of the UN is a huge plus for any job you’re applying to).  Also, if you don’t have relevant language skills, you better make sure you have special skills and experiences that your average applicant won’t have . . .  like having worked before with the UN or an international organization, some form of training  in UN operations, or technical expertise in a particular subject area that takes years to become a specialist in (like water sanitation, assisting internally displaced people and refugees, or food security, to name just a few).  In many cases, prior experience as a diplomat, military officer, or government official also helps.

 

Finally, consider becoming a UN Volunteer.  As with UN internships or the Peace Corps, it is a great way get some much needed on-the-ground experience in development assistance or humanitarian aid and peacekeeping operations.   You must be willing to commit at least six months or a year, but you’ll get a living allowance to cover basic living expenses, free travel on appointment and at the end of assignment, and life, health and permanent disability insurance.  There’s also annual leave given and a resettlement allowance for when you return.  But the greatest benefit will be the skills and job experience you will acquire, which can otherwise be incredibly hard to get.  And who knows, you may be able to network way into a paid position with the UN mission or program in the country where you’re working.  After all, you’ll already know the local culture and have an understanding of how the mission there operates.



Friday
Feb052010

D3 Weekly Link Roundup

Baba Tim over at Free Range International properly eviscerates 60 Minutes and Lara Logan for a lame ass piece of reporting on Special Forces (who don’t come out looking too hot themselves) in Afghanistan.

 

DOD releases the Quadrennial Defense Review.  The Atlantic Council has an analysis.

 

Republicans take on the Military over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen (who was nice enough to once give me a coin) is an American Hero.

 

Foreign Affairs has a nice compendium on what to read on foreign aid along with a breakdown of the three main competing approaches to foreign assistance.

 

State & USAID’s FY11 Budget Request is released, increasing the size of both organizations and expanding the foreign assistance budget.  The folks at the Center for Global Development see it as a strong signal for development.   Some in Congress fear that with 10% employment and other urgent issues here at home, it will face a “difficult political environment.”

 

The Economist reviews the Bill Gates’ 2010 Annual Letter on development.

 

The State Department’s dueling Twitterati.

 

Henry Kissinger pens an op-ed in the Washington Post advising the Obama Administration to focus his Iraq policy on more than just troop withdrawals.  

 

John Robb on a “Byzantine”  grand strategy for American foreign policy. (Hint:  Avoid COIN like the plague). 

 

Some Haitians want the U.S. to take over.  Also, who’s paying for Haiti?

 

Mountain Runner who is a must read for all things related to public diplomacy highlights an article by former U.S. Information Agency Associate Director Walter Yates entitled: “The Voice of America: Origin and Recollections.”

 

And finally, the proposed Pakistani Ambassador to Saudi Arabia is rejected because his name when translated into Arabic means “biggest dick.” 

 

Thursday
Feb042010

How to Get a Job Working in Development or Humanitarian Aid

If you lack the experience and qualifications necessary to get hired on by the federal government for a position in Iraq or Afghanistan (and you don’t want to be a contractor handling logistics or life support), you may want to consider working for an NGO doing development or aid work.  There are generally more of these jobs available, however, the applicant pool is a lot larger because you are not only competing with individuals who don’t want to work for the U.S. government, but also with all of those who can’t get a federal job because they lack U.S. citizenship or the ability to get a security clearance.

 

The best place to look is on Relief Web, where you can information on hundreds of openings, training opportunities, and reams of documents on best practices in conflict mitigation, humanitarian aid and development.  It’s free and you can query by location and job type.  (Check out the training courses and see if you can take any of them . . . a great way to build your skill set and increase your chances of being hired, not to mention the opportunity to do a little networking).  Another site to get some great information on breaking into the business is Aid Workers.net, though they don’t list any job openings.

 

If you’re willing to pay a membership fee, you can also join DEVEX.  I don’t know if it’s worth joining as a paid “premium” member, but at the very least you can sign-up and create a free profile with your work experience, expertise and career objectives, which is searchable by recruiters and potential business contacts from development agencies, non-profits, and private sector companies in the development business.  DEVEX also claims a network of over 100,000 development & aid professionals and over 1,500 job openings, most of which aren’t accessible unless you have the paid membership.   I find DEVEX useful for the career advice it provides and the regular updates on what’s going on in the world of development and humanitarian aid via their free weekly Global Development Briefing newsletter.  

 

If you have little to no experience in development or aid work and don’t have any special skills that would help get your foot in the door, you may want to consider working as a volunteer or intern.  I’ve know quite a few people who started out working for free and after several months, once they had proven themselves, were hired on into paid positions.  One of my friends from college who had no experience in development or aid work ended up doing this and several years later became the Country Director for a large NGO operating in Iraq.   If you feel you need to be paid (and you’re a U.S. citizen), then join the Peace Corps.  You’ll get the experience you need and some new language skills, as well a paycheck. 

 

Finally, don’t forget to constantly network, network, and then network some more.  If you’re in the DC or New York area, (or London or Paris or just about any other major city), there’s going to be fundraisers, conferences, and speaking events at NGO headquarters, think tanks, and universities where you can meet like-minded people who will be able to steer you in the right direction and help give you a shot at the job you want.  Just remember that even after you get hired you need to keep networking.   Doing so will make it easier for you to move on if your job isn’t working out, or move up the ladder once you build up the necessary experience and skill sets.

 

Good luck.



Tuesday
Feb022010

Soldiers with X-Ray Vision

Back in 2003 when I was an Infantry platoon leader I would patrol with my men the streets of Baghdad, sometimes using night vision goggles to penetrate the darkness.  Most of the time street lamps or the moon provided enough light, so we usually only used them when looking down dark alleys or into empty homes and abandoned buildings.  I would later learn that many Iraqis thought these devices also provided us with x-ray vision which they thought we were using to check out the naked bodies of their women.  As a result, it was claimed, some of them began attacking U.S. troops to reclaim their lost honor.   I was also told by many Iraqis that they thought the heavy body armor we wore was air-conditioned.  Now it seems, troops in Afghanistan will see through walls in 2010.



Monday
Feb012010

The Difference between Contractors and Mercenaries

One of my pet peeves is when people bandy about the words “mercenaries” or “private armies” without any understanding of what the terms actually mean. 

 

A mercenary can be defined two ways: either as an individual who soldiers in a foreign military, or someone who works solely for profit.  In the former case it can be one who doesn’t care at all about a paycheck but happens to believe in the cause of another nation and goes abroad to fight for it (like those who joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War) while in the latter case one’s loyalty is solely tied to the money he or she earns, regardless of the job they do. 

 

A mercenary is not a U.S. citizen who provides personal protection services to U.S. government officials and plays purely a defensive role (i.e. responding with lethal force only when attacked or when he believes an attack is imminent).  A Sri Lankan who handles chow at a dining facility, or the KBR manager from Texas who oversees him, are not part of some private army.  Nor is the Iraqi or Afghani who provides perimeter security or translator services at U.S. military bases.  These people are all contractors.  They work for the U.S. government as private citizens.  They don’t initiate offensive actions against enemy forces.  They are not enlisted or commissioned members of any "private army," nor are their counterparts who do similar jobs back in the States.

 

U.S. contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan do not work for a foreign military. I would suspect the percentage that do their jobs solely for the pay and benefits is not much different from the number of people who join the military for the same reason.   

 

By the way, the next time you’re in DC, visit Lafayette Park which lies right outside the White House’s front entrance, and check out of the statues of Lafayette (France), Baron von Steuben (Prussia), Tadeusz Kościuszko (Poland), and Rochambeau (also France), who stand on each of the four corners of the park.  All four men helped in achieving American independence.  Lafayette and von Steuben were particularly crucial to the effort.  Rochambeau fought as head of a French sponsored military force known as the Expédition Particulière.   The other three came on their own, because they either believed in the cause (Lafayette & Kościuszko) or were looking for work (von Steuben, and many others who don't have statutes). 

 

In other words, they served as mercenaries, and America honors them for their service. 



Friday
Jan292010

Why Contractors are Important

In addition to the time I’ve spent in Iraq with the U.S. Army and State Department, I’ve also worked as a contractor with a private military company.  I served as a force protection officer (security in military-speak) and Iraqi Army Advisor.  The firm, MPRI, has several contracts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, to provide Foreign Internal Defense (FID) training and other services.  My experience with them and other contracting outfits has been overwhelmingly positive.  In many instances, I’ve found contractors to be more competent and productive than many military or civilian U.S. government employees.

 

Often maligned as mercenaries by demagogues unfamiliar with the correct meaning of the term, contractors are essential for the simple reason that the U.S. government does not have the internal capacity necessary to accomplish the many missions and tasks it takes on.  Like most U.S. military personnel and federal civilians employees, the vast majority of contractors have served honorably and performed admirably.  Anyone who has been in Iraq or Afghanistan knows this is true. 


Out of ignorance, I initially despised contractors while stationed in Baghdad in 2003.  Then they showed up at our base and the lives of my fellow soldiers and I improved considerably.  The local national translators they manage are essential to supporting the mission.  And after your fourth straight month of MREs and chemically saturated T-Rats, the fresh fruit, salads, and American cooking you find in a KBR dining facility is a godsend.  So are the shower and bathroom units they bring and service, the PXs they setup, and the Morale, Welfare, and Recreations facilities they run. 

 

When leading men and women in dangerous, stressful, complex, and fast-paced environments over significant periods of time, one of the most important tasks of a leader is taking proper care of your people.  Early on in Iraq I saw a case where some soldiers from another platoon in my old unit took their frustrations out on the Iraqis they met on the streets.  The event occurred in part because the soldiers involved no longer gave a damn, with one of the reasons for this being that their quality of life sucked.  Of course, there is no excuse for such behavior, but the reality is such events do occur.  Having contractors in place to take care of tasks like protecting convoys, setting up chow halls, and building decent living accommodations reduces stress on the force, allows them to focus on other more essential tasks, and is necessary if any multi-year post-conflict stabilization or state-building mission is to succeed.

 

There are many types of contractors in war zones, not just those who provide support to the military or U.S. government.  Whether they admit to it or not, many non-government organizations that do humanitarian aid and development work are also contractors, though they don’t like to think of themselves as such.  For many NGOs, the money they receive from governments dwarfs that from any other source. 

 

Government officials spend this money not out of the kindness of their hearts, but to achieve a particular political end, particularly when done in a war zone.  NGOs know this and go where the money is, the only difference being that shareholders aren’t reaping dividends.  Many of those in the aid community also make bank.  One of my housemates from college was the Country Director for a major NGO in Iraq, and the amount of cash he pulled was several times more than your average military officer.  Plus, he got a hell of a lot more time off.

 

The bottom line is contractors provide a valuable service. The contracting system isn’t perfect and requires greater oversight and management by government officials, but for the most part it provides a net benefit when it comes to supporting America’s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Without contractors, the U.S. military and civilian agencies would have drastically reduced levels of effectiveness.



Thursday
Jan282010

Karzai Speaks the Truth

There's a big 70-nation conference going on in London right now over what to do in Afghanistan, and in his opening address, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai gives the longest time frame I've ever seen anyone give concerning what it really takes if you want build from scratch a new government and put in place a security force to protect it . . .


Via Agence France-Presse . . .

 

The NATO-led force fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is due to rise to 150,000 by the end of the year, but Karzai said earlier Thursday his country would need international help for at least another decade.


"With regard to training and equipping the Afghan security forces, five to 10 years will be enough," he told BBC radio.


"With regard to sustaining them until Afghanistan is financially able to provide for our forces, the time will be extended to 10 to 15 years."

 

Two truths about state-building:  You can't do it quickly, and you can't do it on the cheap.

 

It will be interesting to see how the US political establishment and citizenry react to those numbers.


Wednesday
Jan272010

How to Get a Job in Iraq or Afghanistan as a Contractor

For each company mentioned, you can click on the link and go directly to their career page/job listings.

 

There are essentially three types of contractors working in war zones . . .

 

First, there are those providing security for individuals and convoys (known as personnel security details, hereafter PSDs), like Xe (formerly Blackwater; click here for the PSD-specific jobs), Triple Canopy, or Aegis.  If you have prior military experience, particularly in the infantry or military police branches, or if you’re a former police officer and have a background in personal protection, you stand a chance working for one of the PSD companies that escort diplomats and most other civilian expats in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the military uses private security too).  The easiest way to get hired is of course to know someone who knows someone and get your job that way.  Most of the PSDs I’ve talked to knew somebody in the business from their time in the military or while a police officer and were hired on through a personal connection.  Failing that, you just have to apply to individual company websites and hope for the best.

 

If you really want to do security you can bolster your credentials by taking some private training courses in executive protection and high risk security operations, or learning some advanced weapons skills.  Designated Marksmen (snipers) are in particular demand.  So are EMT-certified medics.  Xe has a training center were you can go to improve your skills and make contacts.   At a minimum though, you need a few years experience in a U.S. military combat arms branch or a U.S. police force to get hired.

 

Then there are jobs performing quasi-military services like intelligence collection, analysis, interrogation, interpreter support, or security force training, and include firms such as CACI and MPRI.  If you have relevant language skills and can score a Secret-level security clearance, you can be hired on as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, which has contracted recruitment out to Worldwide Language Resources.  While WLR will be signing your paychecks, you’ll be stationed on a Forward Operating Base, living with a military unit, and be going outside the wire as needed.  WLR also has positions available for human intelligence collectors and analysts.   Global Linguist Solutions, which the Marines use, also has positions available for translators who want to work in Afghanistan.

 

If you’re former military or police and don’t want to do security but are comfortable working as an advisor or trainer in what's known as Security Sector Reform, then your best off with a company like MPRI or DynCorps, which train Iraqi and Afghani security forces (both the police and military).  If you have experience in international development, RTI has advisory positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries emerging from conflict.  These are USAID or DOS contracts, and involve building public sector institutional capacity, generating economic growth, or improving basic municipal services (water, electricity, etc), by advising local officials.

 

Finally, there firms whose job it is to service the logistical and life support demands of the military, such as Kellogg Brown Root and Agility Logistics.  The vast majority of war zone contracting consists of this latter type, and most of the individuals who work for these firms are not even Americans but locals or third-country nationals from places like Africa or the Asian sub-continent, and who are hired because they’re a lot cheaper in pay and room & board than even your lowest ranking enlisted man.  If you’re a U.S. citizen and want to get hired, you’ll need to have experience in managing large staffs, logistics and/or life support, and facility operations (such as generator maintenance or water purification).   

 

For those of you who pay attention to the news, you know that your best bet for any of these jobs for the next few years will be in Afghanistan.  The Iraq mission is downsizing and I recommend applying for the Afghanistan positions first to increase your chance of being hired.  They'll also likely last longer.

 

When I left the Army in 2006 I applied to over 50 different positions with NGOs and the USG to do development or aid work but only received one response for a stateside position I didn't want.  The last thing I wanted to do was go back to Iraq with a private military company doing security work.  But after about a month and a half without a job, I bit the bullet and started applying to private military companies. 

 

I used the site Danger Zone Jobs and at the time paid about $40 to gain access to list of companies working in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to some advice on how to get increase my chances of getting hired.  About two weeks later MPRI offered me a position to be an Iraqi Army Advisor. 

 

According to the team that runs Danger Zone Jobs, as of January 8th there were 168 companies listed on the site, of which 108 had job openings posted on their corporate sites for places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other high risk countries.   I’m not affiliated in any way with the site, but it worked for me, provided some useful advice, and saved a lot of time tracking down companies with gigs in Iraq, which is where I wanted to work.



UPDATE:  A good friend in the PMC business tells me that Mission Essential Personnel hires a large number of interpreters for the military in Afghanistan.  Check them out.