Flinn Scholars

The direction of our daily and nightly work

March 2, 2010

By Flinn Foundation

1999 Flinn Scholar Jon Gandomi works for the U.S. Department of State in Kabul, Afghanistan


Around this time of year in 1999, Jon Gandomi was a Mesa Dobson High School senior, about to interview for the Flinn Scholarship. Now he is a career employee of the U.S. Department of State, living in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is a “secondee” to the United Nations Development Programme.

Below is a letter Jon recently wrote describing some of his experiences and observations after several months in Afghanistan.

Jon is the first Flinn Scholar to serve in Afghanistan. Scholar alum Jonathan Rovey (’99), a member of the Arizona National Guard, is currently stationed in Iraq. David Ng (’94) was stationed in Baghdad for a year as a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service.


27 February 2010

Dear Friends and Family,

I started out here in Afghanistan with optimistic intentions to write updates every week or two.  Since arriving to Kabul in early October I’ve completed only two, including this one.  So much for keeping a good diary.  My brother and sister have both encouraged me to use Twitter so they can follow what’s going on here.  It’s hard to explain how tweets can be a security liability when your actions and movements are publicly available: “Today I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the first of several morning meetings I’ll have there this week.”  Not that I actually think someone hostile would monitor me on Twitter, but you get the idea.

The Kabul winter appears to be ending early.  About a month ago, many were worried that the weather hadn’t gotten cold enough or wet enough to pack enough snow on the mountains to sustain the farmers and their crops over the course of the spring and summer.  We got a few good snow dumps here earlier this month, but now the weather is warming so farmers might be in for some sort of water shortage later on.  And Washington, D.C. got six feet of snow over the same period – too bad there aren’t pomegranate farmers in Arlington.

Weather aside, I arrived in Afghanistan last fall at the start of a series of key events.  First, there was the protracted elections crisis, which ended with President Karzai’s main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, pulling out before a second round could be held.  This was after the elections commission decided that too many of Karzai’s votes in the first round had been forged in order to hand him an outright victory.  

Then there was the tragic attack on a UN guest house, which led to deaths of a number of UN election workers. This sparked what appeared to be the large-scale evacuation of a number of UN workers, when the UN security team realized it had too many guest houses to protect adequately from similar attacks.  They decided the best solution was to get people out of the country while they figured out how to rearrange people in the limited housing that they could actually secure.  Combined with the debacle of the UN-run elections, the fall ended up being a pretty bruising season for the UN mission.  I had a front seat to all the internal commotion as one of two secondees from the U.S. Embassy to the UN Development Programme, working on the Afghanistan National Development Strategy for the Ministry of Finance.  Since my colleague and I live in the U.S. Embassy and thus stayed in Kabul after the attacks, most folks who remained at the UN thought we were essential personnel.  We also liked to imagine that we were essential, though reality may be something different.  The morning of the attacks I remember waking up thinking how beautiful a day it was – amazing how wrong I would be.

Both before and after the elections, the Obama administration was taking pains to define its strategy for Afghanistan.  Having a (more-or-less) reliable government as a partner is a cornerstone to any counter-insurgency strategy.  From this perspective, it made sense to see how the elections would play out before making this determination.  Vote-rigging aside, it is hard to see how Karzai would have lost the election, since voting rates were much lower in the Pashtun areas that were his natural support base.  Meaning, if security had been better in the south, he would have won by a more significant margin.  Thus, the rampant fraud only served to weaken him significantly in the eyes of the international community and, worse still, in the minds of his own people.  But somehow he and Abdullah agreed to pre-empt a run-off.  That left the international community in the awkward position of deciding, as bad as it all appeared, they may as well move forward.

This allowed President Obama to then appear at West Point and announce to cadets that 30,000 of their fellow servicemen and women would be sent to Afghanistan to try to deal a final blow to Al-Qaeda and the insurgency.  As you all know, there was much controversy over this decision, including between Embassy Kabul and NATO/ISAF.  Though the two compounds are separated by just a few hundred yards, there was a world of difference in opinion among senior leaders when it came to this key decision.  As everyone now knows, thanks to the New York Times and the help of some official on the inside who wanted to establish a “historical record” of this debate, the Embassy did not concur with the decision to send more troops, though Ambassador Eikenberry went to great lengths to present a unified front while testifying in Congress later on.  

As is now publicly available on the NYT website, the classified Embassy cable questioned whether more troops could achieve a mission in which military force would not play the decisive role in the outcome of the nine-year engagement here.  If the Afghan Government was not prepared to make a respectable effort at good governance, then what permanence (and prudence) would there be in spilling American lives and tax dollars to support what some called a “criminal syndicate” masquerading as a government?  Moreover, why was Congress so quick to approve a military mission that would cost tens of billons each month when it used a thick red pen to pore over civilian requests, which amounted to only $2.5 billion for 2011 for governance and development assistance funds?  

On the ISAF side, they believed gains were possible because they were observed in specific pockets when certain amounts of pressure were applied.  Gen. McChrystal was confident his population-centric counter-insurgency strategy would work, as he had tried the “hunt and kill” approach while leading special operations in Afghanistan for several years and found it to lack lasting results.  Afghans respected and believed Gen. McChrystal to be sincere in his desire to minimize civilian casualties, so no wonder ISAF concluded they had finally achieved some momentum.  After all, if the arrival of 40,000 new troops, the number originally requested, would shift the psychology of both the insurgents and villagers in the rural areas, making support for the government a more rationale choice, then they could achieve peace by force without actually doing a lot of fighting.  As the operation in Marja ensues, time will tell how this works out.  I’ll refrain from expressing a view myself; however, I can say that on the ground there was a feeling of great anticipation to see which direction U.S. policy would turn on what was already the key foreign-policy issue of the new administration.   

Due to the protracted resolution on the elections, Karzai didn’t get around to appointing members of his Cabinet until late December, after which the Afghan Parliament, in an act intended to demonstrate their budding independence, decided to reject all but 7 of the 25 nominees.  After the elections crisis, most international eyes were on the quality of his ministerial picks.  Nominating former mujahideen leaders and other political allies who served him well during the elections – but were not serious candidates – would be interpreted as a sign that Karzai was not serious about good governance.  On the other hand, appointing technocrats who were as adept at administration as they were at Afghan politics would erase some of the stain of the elections and provide the international community with some confidence that they had a partner with whom they could work.

The conclusion is… still uncertain.  Karzai appointed or retained some great ministers, while handing out favors to others who had no business running an institution that was actually expected to do something.  Still, only half the ministries have an appointed and approved minister, which does not bode well for making the kind of quick progress needed for an on-time departure of troops in 2011.  However, not all ministries are created equal, and most of the “essential ministries” do have leaders with respectable backgrounds and track records.  It is far more important to have a good minister running the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock than it is for the Ministry of Refugees.

Of course, there are many ways to cut the Afghan pie.  I’m more focused on the ministries because I work from one every day.  The Ministry of Finance (MoF) is called the “spinal cord” for the other ministries, and thus coordinates the development strategy for the rest of the government.  This is one of the reasons why the MoF was targeted in a January attack on the Presidential Palace and several other government offices.  While I was largely unaware of the fall attack on the UN guest house when it occurred, the attack on government offices and a shopping mall was a four-hour ordeal which I heard from the relative safety of a bunker at UNDP, where we were working that morning.  

It’s not uncommon to hear an explosion in the city every few weeks here – oftentimes it is loud but not particularly devastating.  When the explosions and gunshots started on the morning of January 18th, my colleague and I realized this was no ordinary incident, but most people kept on working.  When the gunshots started sounded crisper, and thus closer, we looked up from our laptops and wondered what exactly was going on.  The Afghan security forces performed well and mostly contained what could have otherwise been a disastrous event (think Mumbai).  But our office at the Ministry of Finance was partially destroyed by a rocket-propelled grenade.  We would have been there had it all started an hour later – good thing we weren’t.  A number of kids from the nearby nursery were also in the UN bunker with us, and they remained surprisingly calm and collected during the whole event.  The Afghan media was quick to the scene, so while the rest of the adults watched events unfold on TV and listened to gunshots and explosions in surround sound (both on TV and outside the bunker), the kids mostly sat around and ate snacks.  That’s both remarkable and disturbing.  

So what’s my tiny role in the massive U.S. mission in Afghanistan?  As an advisor in the Ministry of Finance, my colleague and I are helping to prioritize and focus the national development strategy – formally called the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS).  It’s a challenge when from one day to the next when we aren’t sure what kind of partner we’ll be working with, or we don’t know who will be appointed to the various ministries.  However, I do get to drink a lot of tea with Afghan colleagues while we ponder the direction of our daily and nightly work.  

In all seriousness, it’s a rare treat to work among Afghans in one of their more functional institutions, some of whom are really talented, bright, energetic, and believe strongly in the future of their country.  Working with them is nothing short of inspiring, though I know they are in the minority among many others who do nothing at all, or – even worse – undermine these same institutions by acts of favoritism, corruption, and power politics.  But the landscape is far too complicated and nuanced to paint it any one color.  I’d reject claims that the entire government is corrupt (a “criminal syndicate”), as there are pockets of real excellence that do deliver for the Afghan people – the National Solidarity Program being the best of a number of examples.  But I’d also reject the notion that we can accelerate progress based on our own timetable by simply dumping in a specific amount of people or resources. “You can not grow a baby in just one month,” an Indian technical advisor in one ministry often tells me.  

He’s right, but it underscores a constant tension here: the counter-insurgency operation in which force does create openings, and daily decisions downrange can be both persuasive and game-changing; and the development mission, which is constantly reminded of the immense challenges of making even incremental progress in a country devastated by more than 30 years of conflict.  

There are pros and cons to both approaches – though perhaps it will come down to implementation.  Can the military really adopt a population-centric approach that focuses more on protecting the population than hunting down the bad guys?  Can the diplomatic community insert the right amount of pressure without being offensively heavy-handed to produce some progress in good governance?  Can development experts design and fund the right programs to assist – not replace – the government in delivering services across the country’s nearly 400 districts and 40,000 villages?  And will the Afghan government step up to the challenge in what may now be their best opportunity to leverage the world’s attention and resources to end the conflict and pull itself from the bottom of nearly every social and economic indicator?  

Or will neighboring countries continue to meddle and undermine, will the Afghan forces fail to stand up quickly enough or remain exploitive to the people they are supposed to protect, will highly paid consultants deliver solutions ill-suited to Afghanistan’s context (it’s not Iraq!), and will the international community simply run out of steam and focus while the Afghan government continues to serve itself before its people?

Many of us have strong opinions about each one of these questions.  2010 will give us a good indication of what the answers will be, so we’ll have to stay tuned…

–Jon Gandomi