The U.S. war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. The United States struck Taliban strongholds by air as Special Forces joined Northern Alliance fighters and other anti-Taliban groups on the ground. Conventional troops soon arrived and, a few weeks after, U.S. civilian and contractor support followed. All of these elements remain today, 14 years later. This is about some of those people, specifically the volunteers, working to help Afghans help Afghanistan.
Much focus is on the troops, and rightly so; however, there are approximately twice as many contractor and civilian personnel providing critical support in “train, advise, and assist” functions. The ratio of civilians and contractors to military members will increase as a more traditional security cooperation agreement takes hold. Typically, civilians volunteer while uniformed members are largely “ordered” to deploy. Quipped one official, “For military personnel, they are called ‘orders,’ not suggestions.”
So what influences a person to leave a comfortable, Western environment to willingly enter a third-world combat zone?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sara, previously a sergeant in the Army, stated that she wants to see Afghanistan fare better than Iraq. She is part of the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) for Defense Department employees who volunteer to go overseas for specific tasks. She serves in a Resource Management office on a military headquarters providing fiscal accountability of funds to Afghanistan. For her, this is personal. “I had some terrible experiences in Iraq. I actually lost my entire team in an ambush. I would not be here if it weren’t for a few brave people.”
She believes the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should be about the Afghan people. “They are so willing to learn,” she said. But it takes time. “We have to look at where they came from, not compare them directly to us.”
Born in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, Waheed’s family fled to Pakistan where he lived until the age of three, when his family moved to the United States. “I was lucky. I owe Afghanistan this. Coming back was something I knew I needed to do.”
The Resolute Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan is not combat-oriented. In fact, Waheed is a U.S. contractor and advisor to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance. “It’s not about guns and bullets anymore, it’s more macro than that,” he said. “Afghans can fight their own wars, just look at history. However, technical skills and systems are still lacking, and development of these processes will determine sustainability after the Coalition withdraws.”
Technical skills are taught by many, but Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDAs) are select U.S. Defense Department civilians who teach Afghans skills required to sustain the systems and processes we’re helping to build. For one MoDA, a retired U.S. Marine Corp master sergeant, it goes back to Americans injured or killed fighting in the region. “I spent the last 14 years going to Bethesda,” Kerry said. “I’ve seen soldiers and Marines come back injured, missing limbs, with only one desire – to finish what they started. I wanted to make sure this ends differently than Iraq, I want to make sure the wishes of these young men and women are fulfilled.”
As a senior procurement advisor (who holds the civilian equivalent rank of Colonel), Kerry is afforded insight into the Afghan Ministry of Defense and its progress. Nevertheless, he is realistic about how much work lays ahead. “If we left now, Afghanistan might fail. They’re not ready to be on their own. Everyone forgets how hard it was to get here today. I really want to do something good; I want to leave Afghanistan with knowledge that makes an impact.”
In Afghanistan, “work” is compounded by threat streams and possible attacks by a fractured and frustrated insurgency that now includes the Islamic State (IS). Afghanistan itself doesn’t pose a threat. Permitting ungoverned spaces that can become safe havens for terrorists certainly does. Afghanistan cannot return to failed state status. No one knows that more viscerally than the volunteers.
Besides civilians and contractors, there is a military program service members can volunteer for called “AFPAK Hands” (Afghanistan-Pakistan military-trained experts), created about 10 years ago. It spans all services. These positions are “hard-to-fill” because of the four-year commitment requiring two deployments to Afghanistan, as well as language and cultural training. Joel, a Navy commander enrolled in it and working on RS Headquarters, is on his second AFPAK Hands deployment. “I looked forward to this and I am committed to this deployment. This is where we’re needed. This is the real deal.”
In 2011, international donors agreed to “train, equip, and finance” Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) through the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in December 2014. At the start of 2015, the Resolute Support Mission changed focus to “train, advise, and assist.” We are still equipping and certainly financing, but those efforts will move more toward a traditional security cooperation initiative the U.S. has with nations around the world. The RS mission is scheduled to be complete in December 2016.
The ANDSF is almost fully subsidized by the United States and other international partners. More than 93 percent of Afghanistan’s security budget (army, air force, and police) is covered by the international community. The United States provides most of that funding – roughly $4 billion annually.
Kate worked with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). She began as an enlisted Marine Corps accountant more than 20 years ago. As a contractor, she now helps track money spent in-country and works regularly with various financial institutions at very senior levels. “Afghanistan is full circle for me. Here, I ensure accountability of taxpayer dollars,” she said. Kate enjoys what she does. “I like being closer to the actual delivery of the mission.”
This mission isn’t just about tracking funding, she said. “Many people came here with the same kind of desire – looking for a challenge, making a difference, supporting the military.” For her, there is the big picture, too. “This is about empowering a nation to improve living conditions and quality of life.”
Without continued financial and human assistance, Afghanistan risks failure. Organizational structure, processes, qualified manpower are not fully in place yet. Important to remember is just how long it took the United States to develop. This process takes time – a lot of time – and energy.
America’s 14-year stay has been expensive, measured in billions each year and trillions in total. Not to be forgotten are the American men and women volunteering in Afghanistan, and those who have served here already. Surely they demonstrate why it is worthwhile. Some are military, some are civilian, others are contractors; each has multiple reasons for being here, including personal reasons that range from broken homes to a well-paying job. But it is an overall sense of mission to see this fledgling democracy succeed that ties them altogether.
Volunteers are examples to us all. They understand the risk of failure, and the personal risks to themselves. And still they remain committed to helping Afghans help Afghanistan.
Bethany Lerch is a contractor assisting Afghan ministries. Mark Peterson is Resource Management Director for Resolute Support.