Guest Post: Rajiv Drinks the Garmsir-Flavored Kool Aid

by Joshua Foust on 8/15/2011 · 9 comments

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?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 9 comments }

Njarl August 16, 2011 at 8:26 am

I’m used to snarky one-upmanship from Registan, but this article is just ridiculous. Is there any point to this? Is there no-one who meets your standards of rectitude, is there anyone involved with Afghanistan who doesn’t deserve to be sneered at? As a second-tour civilian currently working with USAID in southern Afghanistan, I could not care less if Mr. Malkasian gets some publicity for doing a good job, and at least his story illustrates a better way of working, even if it is all far too late now.

Larissa August 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Strongly disagree with your article, which frankly comes off as more of a jealousy rant than providing anything remotely thought-provoking. I worked periodically with Carter Malkasian in Garmsir after I arrived in Helmand in December 2009 (returned April 2011), he is extremely accomplished yet remains a selfless, humble individual. He commands the respect of numerous people, from lance corporals to commanding generals, and cares deeply about the Afghan people. I’ve also spent most of my deployments cycling throughout Helmand and Nimruz provinces, so understand your point about Sangin being a far more dangerous insurgency than Garmsir. However, resolving the political and tribal conflicts that were exploited by the Taliban was not a trivial task (and needs continued support). There were numerous political crises inflicted on Garmsir from Kabul and Lashkar Gah that easily could’ve erupted into violence (the Qu’ran riots being the bloodiest) or destroyed the civil peace of the district, yet Carter and the Marine partners he worked with were able to quell them – a true civ-mil relationship. In all my time in Helmand I have been completely underwhelmed by State Department’s contribution particularly during the surge, the only real support coming from three individuals who themselves complained about lack of support and volunteers from DoS – USAID and USDA were more impressive. The British political and stability advisers had far more to bring to the table in the districts, though few I’ve seen had any of the buy-in, trust, local understanding, or resolve that Carter had. Generally, I agree that civilians are unsung heros in Afghanistan because it’s the job of State, USAID, USDA, etc to be out in the field for long periods of time. The reality is that there are few State personnel who are willing to serve as political advisers where they are needed the most, anyone outside of Kabul will tell you that. I also have seen no other civilians in Helmand or Nimruz who speak Pashto (me being one who does – far worse than Carter, however). Concur with Njarl above, Carter deserves the respect and if nothing else, Rajiv highlighted a far more effective way of serving as a political advisor.

Nick Hanz August 16, 2011 at 6:47 pm

my one question is why is it called an insurgency? There is no legitimate Afghan government in place, especially with the US presence.

It is a resistance. Lets stick to facts rather than trying to paint a picture which does not exist.

Dan August 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Could you please send back Rajiv Chandrasekaran to the provinces? I know quite a few people who do their best and therefore seem to deserve a page in the WP 😉

I think these kinds of articles are part of the NYT Kristoff “whites (or Westerners anyways)- in-shiny-armors” syndrome. Kristoff has been criticised a lot by bloggers focusing on various parts of Africa and defended himself here: http://texasinafrica.blogspot.com/2010/07/white-mans-burden.html

I guess I can see how showing a brave Westerner fighting fate and misery may get the attention of Western readers although it is sad if really it is the only way to have people relate or care – I wish their attention was drawn by clever, documented, nuanced articles about the situation in these various places in the world.

matt August 26, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Just read this post. Wow dude. Tony, are you jealous the WashPost didn’t do a nice story on your work?

Do you know Carter? Ever been to FOB Delhi? Ever worked alongside him? How can you possibly make a judgment like this: “Maybe Malkasian did a great job but I met many others during my year in Afghanistan who were likely doing greater work.” Really? Please tell us how this is so. Would actually be very helpful to see case studies of civ-mil teams in Afghanistan.

Additionally, if there is or can be a real model for a meaningful tactical, civil-military stability operations effort, it’s the model that Carter established with successive Marine battalions in Garmsir. Our lack of continuity throughout Afghanistan has really, really hampered our overall effort there, but in Garmsir, at the very least, Carter provided that continuity as Marine battalions rotated in and out every seven months.

Regardless if Garmsir’s progress is sustained–probably not, unfortunately–the point is that Carter Malkasian worked his ass off there for almost two years. And all you can do is shit all over him.

Lastly, if you read Rajiv’s other story on Garmsir, you would know that he hasn’t, in fact, drank the kool-aid there (which Joshua wrote about on this very blog!): http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/08/01/a-garmsir-retrospective/

Kinda surprised that Joshua Foust and company would allow such a poorly argued post to be published here.

Dan August 27, 2011 at 6:44 am

“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.”

I’d have to disagree here. Yes, that was the concept, but while the Embassy continues to expand, building more buildings and putting in more personnel in Kabul, field locations are either undermanned or inconsistent in their staffing (3 x DoS, to include 3161’s in one location, none in another). I saw similar issues with other donor organizations (USAID, USDA), and the consistent complaint from field personnel was the near total disconnect between their efforts and activities in Kabul.

“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.”

Sir, I would not presume to disparage the learning acquired during your “trips to the field,” but having been an employee of an NGO in a field location and subjected to “trips to the field” from folks in Kabul, my own experience was that people would show up (rarely) so that they could “check the block” on a “field visit,” but any actual information sharing could easily have been accomplished by email. In other words, a “trip” is not the same as spending time in those areas for extended periods of time.

“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.”

Again, I mean no disrespect, and you may be the exception, but time and again my experience and the experience of others who had to deal with a headquarters based in Kabul was that the claims of being “busy” on a regular basis were greatly exaggerated.

Based on observable deliveries of product, or “results,” the actual hours accrued on a weekly basis in most of these bureaucratic positions was part-time at best. However, to justify continued influx of funds, they felt compelled to project an image of activity that rarely achieved actual results.

As to how much leave time he took…taking it at the end likely resulted in greater continuity of effort. Most of the leave allowances for DoS, USAID, and USDA allow for a total of 2 months every year (taking into account all available days), and, broken up over 4 periods, results in a constant stream of “oh, I’m just getting back from leave,” and “oh, I’m just about to go out on leave.”

It’s been my direct experience that the majority of individuals serving in these kinds of positions seem to be here for the vacation packages and salsa nights at the Embassy.

“Maybe Malkasian did a great job but I met many others during my year in Afghanistan who were likely doing greater work.”

I met a great many people who, by their own admission, were doing incredible work. Again, by their own admission. I will grant you that the piece is overly positive…it’s a cheering section for Dr. Malkasian’s work. But, for me it was so startling to actually read about someone who actually wanted to do…their…job.

As to his RSO restrictions, while other international aid workers may tool around in similar fashion, the RSO’s travel bans and security regulations, if followed to the letter, virtually ensure complete isolation from the Afghan people we’re supposed to be working with here. And most people I’ve met here in Kabul working under those restrictions like that just fine. They don’t want to be exposed to Afghans any more than is absolutely necessary.

I hope this doesn’t devolve into a “who’s got the best t-shirt” debate, but your analysis of what Dr. Malkasian was able to accomplish and the way in which he went about it might be better served to take into account the substance of his work, rather than the tone of Rajiv’s piece on the man.
I’ve spent almost 2 years here now, and at some point I’ll need to put down on paper the string of embarrassing failures I’ve seen even at my own fairly micro-level.

Reading about someone who cared enough about the mission to actually work outside the constraints placed on him by his higher headquarters was a refreshing change of pace from yet another story chronicling the running disaster.

Finally, your statement that he’s “not very different from many of the other civilians working in the field in Afghanistan”: I would completely agree.

The key point there is “working in the field.”

Kabul is not the field.

In this line of work, it becomes readily apparent that there are two kinds of development worker: those who love Kabul, and those who can’t wait to get away from it, and out to the field.

Field personnel, in my experience, are, on the whole, a dedicated group of idealists who work very hard to make a difference here. They often don’t last more than a year or two because they get so tired of trying to make a difference, and having those efforts thwarted by the policies and practices being executed by those operating in the vacuum of Kabul.

Kabul staff, on the whole, with the exceptions of those who didn’t sign on for the party, tend to bask in the glow of their own self-congratulation, and spend a great deal of time telling each other what a great job their doing, and not responding to requests for support from field staff. They also tend to stay, for years.

Again, there are exceptions to both, but, across the board, in multiple iterations, my own (admittedly non-scientific) survey of personnel in these categories has borne out that hypothesis.

Ideally, any NGO or development effort should be bottom heavy (i.e., lots of field staff), but in practice, they are generally very top heavy (lots of Kabul staff).

Until this changes, and I’m not hopeful it ever will, the development efforts here will continue to lap the drain.

Dan August 27, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Think I busted the limit on the 5,000 thing. Good times. Math is fun.
Lengthier response than I thought…posted the response over at my blog. Nope, not above a little shameless self-promotion.

Dan August 28, 2011 at 8:40 am

“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.”

That was the concept, but while the Embassy continues to place more personnel in Kabul, field locations are either understaffed, or, at best, inconsistently so (3 x DoS, to include 3161′s in one location, none in another). I saw similar issues with other donor organizations such as USAID, and the running complaint from field personnel was the disconnect between the field and Kabul.

“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.”

I would not presume to disparage your “trips to the field,” but having been an employee of an NGO in a field location and subjected to “trips to the field” by Kabul staff, my experience was that people would show up (rarely) to “check the block” on a “field visit,” but any actual information sharing could easily have been accomplished by email. A “trip” is not the same as spending time in those areas for extended periods.

“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.”

My experience and the experience of others who had to deal with a headquarters based in Kabul was that the claims of being “busy” were greatly exaggerated. However, to justify continued inputs of funds, they felt compelled to project an image of activity that rarely achieved actual results.

As to how much leave time he took…taking it at the end likely resulted in greater continuity of effort. Most of the leave allowances for DoS, USAID, and USDA allow for a total of 2 months every year (taking into account all available days), and, broken up over 4 periods annually, results in a constant stream of “oh, I’m just getting back from leave,” and “oh, I’m just about to go out on leave.”

“Maybe Malkasian did a great job but I met many others during my year in Afghanistan who were likely doing greater work.”

I met many who, by their own admission, were doing “greater work.” I will grant you that the piece is overly positive…it’s a cheering section for Dr. Malkasian’s efforts. But, for me it was startling to read about someone who wanted to do…their…job.

As to RSO restrictions, while other international aid workers may tool around in similar fashion, the RSO’s travel bans and security regulations, if followed to the letter, virtually ensure isolation from the Afghan people we’re supposed to be working with here. And most people I’ve met in Kabul working under those restrictions like that just fine. They don’t want to be exposed to Afghans any more than is necessary.

I’ve spent almost 2 years here now, and at some point I’ll need to put down on paper the string of embarrassing failures I’ve seen even at my own fairly micro-level.

Reading about someone who cared enough about the mission to work outside the constraints placed on him by his superiors was a refreshing change of pace from yet another story chronicling this running disaster.

Finally, your statement that he’s “not very different from many of the other civilians working in the field in Afghanistan”: I would completely agree.

The key point there is “working in the field.” Kabul is not the field.
In this line of work, it becomes readily apparent that there are two kinds of development worker: those who love Kabul, and those who can’t wait to get away from it, out to the field.

Field personnel, in my experience, are, on the whole, a dedicated group of idealists who work very hard to make a difference here. They often don’t last more than a year or two because they get so tired of trying to make a difference, and having those efforts thwarted by the policies and practices being executed by those operating in the vacuum of Kabul.

Kabul staff, on the whole, with the exceptions of those who didn’t sign on for the party, tend to bask in the glow of their own self-congratulation, and spend a great deal of time telling each other what a great job they’re doing, and not responding to requests for support from field staff. They also tend to stay, for years.

Again, there are exceptions to both, but, across the board, in multiple iterations, my own (admittedly non-scientific) survey of personnel in these categories has borne out that hypothesis.

Ideally, any NGO or development effort should be bottom heavy (i.e., lots of field staff), but in practice, they are generally very top heavy (lots of Kabul staff).

Until this changes, and I’m not hopeful it ever will, the development efforts here will continue to lap the drain.

Kathleen September 6, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Josh,

I don’t know anything about Garmser but one thing that might interest you is Malkasian’s participation in “counterinsurgency through the construction of roads.” You wrote about this probably two or three times before in your blog as I recall. Malkasian was working in Kunar as a consultant for the PRT when Kilkullen visited while doing research for The Accident Guerrilla. Whether it was simply a case of group-think or perhaps the desire to announce a big success to Kilkullen, who was something of a big thing in the COIN circles then, the PRT along with Malkasian and the AO battalion essentially claimed that road construction had turned the tide against the Kunar Taliban. It ignored ongoing fighting, the political situation and safehavens across the border (and away from roads) but became a chapter in The Accidental Guerrilla that Kilkullen likely regretted later. I have no idea if the Washington Post journalist was hoodwinked in a similar way in Helmand and in no way wish to disparage any good work that might have been done in Garmser.

Larissa, It’s very admirable of you to defend your friend but the criticisms of the journalism are unfortunately accurate. I will expand on the one about the meaning of the word “sahib” in Afghanistan. The article begins by describing that the State Department official has achieved an amazing status in the local community because the elders are using the word “sahib” when talking with him. Here is the section from the article.

Carter Malkasian, who had been the State Department’s representative in Garmser until last month, is perhaps the only foreign official in the country to have been so widely embraced as a sahib, an Urdu salutation once used to address British colonial officials that Afghans now employ as a term of honor and respect.

The term “sahib” in Afghanistan is actually used widely for both Afghans and foreigners. It is a polite way to refer to someone but has little significance beyond that. The South Asian version translates more to “white man” but in Afghanistan it’s an extremely common way of simply being polite. If someone is an engineer they will often be called “engineer-sahib.” A person who has been on haj will be “haji-sahib.” A US military commander will be called “commandant-sahib.” Interpreters are not very high up on the social ladder but will also often be mentioned with adding sahib to the last name. If an interpreter’s last name is Barakzai, elders might often refer to him as Barakzai-sahib if they want to be polite. It is nothing unusual to have sahib added to your name in a conversation. When the article says “perhaps the only foreign official in the country to have been so widely embraced as a sahib” it is an exaggeration.

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