Tony Delinsky is an international development professional who has managed agriculture programs in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya, Jordan, and Ethiopia. He hopes to return to Afghanistan next year.
I usually enjoy the work of Rajiv Chandrasekaran but was surprised by his July 31 article on Garmsir that portrayed the district as the center of the Helmand insurgency and a major success now that it is calmer. Garmsir district in the southern Helmand has never been the center of the Helmand insurgency. It has always been on the periphery while the core of the insurgency exists in places like Sangin, Nowzad, Nawa, and Musa Qala. Yes, while there has been fighting in Garmsir it has never been the center of anyone’s attention except perhaps those that live there. It’s down along the Registan desert and will never be as important as a district like Sangin.
But that article was just a warm up for Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s odd August 14 article titled, “In Afghanistan’s Garmser District, Praise for a U.S. Official’s Tireless Work” that shows Rajiv has been drinking a bit too much of the Garmsir-flavored Kool Aid. The article on a US civilian, Carter Malkasian, who worked in Garmsir for 22 months is a fawning piece of nonstop praise that likely impresses someone who has never set foot in Afghanistan but sounds a bit ridiculous to those who have worked there in the field. (I mean no disrespect to Mr. Malkasian for having worked with Rajiv to arrange for a post-deployment PR boost but simply felt the need to respond to some of Rajiv’s claims in the article.)
Malkasian, who was previously mentioned in Bing West’s book The Wrong War, has likely done some good work in Garmsir but the reality is that he is not very different from many of the other civilians working in the field in Afghanistan with the exception that they might be less interested in self-promotion. It’s probably worth mentioning that I worked in Afghanistan for a year for an NGO and my comments are therefore based on personal experience with many US civilians, both government and contractors, during trips to the field from Kabul.
The article struck me the wrong way from the start by proclaiming that Malkasian is possibly the only foreign official to ever be called sahib. While Rajiv states that this is extremely significant because it was used to address British colonial officials, the truth is that calling someone sahib means nothing more than that the person is respected. Hail a rickshaw in Delhi and your driver might call you sahib. I have no doubt that whoever arrived after Malkasian was also quickly called sahib and right from the start began to wonder about where this article was going. Rajiv gets sillier by putting a lot of emphasis on Malkasian’s brave decision that he wanted to work in…. the field. Yes, the place outside the Kabul bubble.
But he was not like most others selected by State and the U.S. Agency for International Development — and that was a big reason he was regarded as so effective by the military and the Afghans. He asked to work in the field, not stay at the comfortable embassy compound in Kabul, which features a bar, a swimming pool and two-bedroom apartments with kitchens.
The journalist was clearly never told that Malkasian’s position, known as a 3161, is almost always in the field and was advertised that way. If Malkasian had shown up after applying for a field position and said that he wanted to stay in Kabul, he would have been terminated sent back to the US so it isn’t very impressive that he went to the field. The civilian surge was all about getting civilians into the field so working in a district as a US government civilian is not that unusual. The temporary positions for State and USAID are for working in districts and provincial centers and that’s the only reason he was hired.
“What really set him apart, however, was his willingness to stay at the district level for two consecutive years — very few State personnel have done that…”
This is something else that is not very unusual. It later says that Carter was a couple months short of two years but anyone who has ever worked in Afghanistan knows that there are plenty of US civilians in Afghanistan with State or USAID (and NGOs) who have done two years. No news here.
He took just 2 1 / 2 months of vacation in the almost two years he spent in Afghanistan, one of which was for the birth of his daughter. The State Department’s leave policy allowed him to take almost twice as many days away, but he deemed it bad form to be gone that long.
Actually the amount of available leave time is based on a two year deployment and according to the article Malkasian left his position over two months before the two year mark. That means that he was away from post just as much as any other civilian deployed for two years. He just took a chunk of leave time at the end of the deployment.
Malkasian’s most striking asset was his skill with Pashto. He took language classes for only two months before deploying — many embassy personnel get far more training. But then he did something that any other civilian could do but precious few have: He spent two hours every morning and an hour every evening studying, and he engaged interpreters on the base in conversation at every opportunity.
There are field personnel who know Afghan languages although most seem to have studied in the US prior to deploying. It is impressive that Carter learned Pashto but the thing that blew me away was that he had two free hours every morning and one hour every evening to work on his Pashto. When I was there it would have been great if there were two free hours every morning to study a language but I wasn’t that lucky because of work. The article is also filled with Malkasian’s bragging about how he broke RSO (Regional Security Officer) regulations regularly by riding around with the Afghan National Police in their vehicle. While it will probably prevent Malkasian from ever working in the field for a US embassy again, it really isn’t anything that shocking. Rajiv should read about Team Canada in Kandahar as there are plenty of international workers in the field in Afghanistan who regularly travel around without humvees and MRAPs.
The cliches, almost taken from an article on Rory Stewart or Greg Mortenson, keep flowing throughout the article and I couldn’t help but wonder about its accuracy. Maybe Malkasian did a great job but I met many others during my year in Afghanistan who were likely doing greater work. Perhaps the oddest part of this article is how it ends with his claim that he did not want to bring much attention to his departure from post. “There’s no need to make a big deal of it,” says Malkasian.
Then why bring a Washington Post journalist to write an article on it?