Be Awesome

Look, our forefathers died for the "pursuit of happiness," okay? Not for the "sit around and wait of happiness." Now if you want, we can go to the same bar, drink the same beer, talk to the same people every day or you can lick the Liberty Bell. You can grab life by the crack and lick the crap out of it.
--Barney (HIMYM)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In the Moment

Working in Afghanistan, there is a probability you are away from your family and that sucks.  While nothing can replace your family, what I've found is that the community can really pull together and you'll find that you create strong bonds with the colleagues and friends who serve with you.

Over the past couple of months, I'm now settling into the new position at post and enjoying learning things from a more managerial perspective.  Managing multiple American staff has been interesting and work assignments such as staffing, hiring, and more strategic planning has been definitely a change of pace.  But I still remain close to the programs and, while I hold a special fondness for the infrastructure work, I'm branching out to cover areas like agriculture, economic growth, and audits.

I've also started to adapt to the new social groove with all the new people that make up the Mission and the new routines I've established.  It'll be a good year.  Different, but definitely will be alright.

Afghanistan being typically only a one year tour and a less than ideal work/life location, it's easy to always be thinking about the next "thing".  Like the next posting after Afghanistan, the R&R away from post, or maybe even the next big crisis to tackle (there's always something new here!).  But it's also because the time spent in Afghanistan is so short and so the time being with some of the amazing people around is so brief that I must make continual efforts to really appreciate the unique experiences and the people here.

As the holidays quickly approach, I'll anxiously anticipate seeing my family but still look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving here with this amazing cast of characters who make up my other "family".  Happy Thanksgiving!

Carpet Lunch - A favorite Friday activity

Friday, September 25, 2015

Looking Forward to the Next Year

One year down in Afghanistan, one more year to go.  However, I'm optimistic the next year will also be good as there will be a different group of people and a different position in the office for me keeping things interesting fresh.

In the next year, I'll be moving from an operational Contracting Officer covering a specific portfolio to a managerial role supervising others and supporting them in the management of their portfolios.  This will be my first experience managing American career officers versus local national or third country national staff and I am sure I'll learn a grow from this position.

There is also a new group of solid people that have arrived to post.  Several I also knew from Indonesia which is a nice headstart for forming a new social network and it'll be fun to get to know new people.  I was with many great people in the last year at Kabul, I'm sure the next year will be the same.

Other news is that I was successful in my last attempt at the annual evaluation process moving up to the next personal grade in the foreign service from FS-4 to FS-3.  This is a great step up that will help me in being competitive for positions and posting in the future.  Promotions are particularly more difficult due to the hiring surge from 2008-2012 with the DLI program where the Agency doubled in size creating numerous people vying to be ranked for promotions.

The last bit of news is the assignment list for priority bidders (those coming out from countries such as Afghanistan) and I can look forward to going to Thailand for my next posting.  Having this as a next a assignment was a major factor in my decision to stay in Afghanistan a second year as this post will allow both my wife and I to be employed, the city of Bangkok has great medical facilities for if we consider children, and will just be an all-around great place to live.

The adventure continues and I look forward to the what the next year will bring.
Recent event with the Ambassador and other agency heads announcing funding of $200M through NATO channeled through USAID's mechanism with the World Bank for infrastructure.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hard Farewells with the Annual Exodus

The last month was the season I was dreading for months...transfer season.  The whole compound takes a new personality and life as 90% or more of the embassy population changes with people coming and going.

I really do believe it's all about the people you are with in this career.  Moving from place to place, having that foreign service family makes all the difference.  Afghanistan is tough in that you are with people for so short a period of time; however, those times are packed with memories as everyone is in this fishbowl together.

Workplace dynamics are also shifting greatly.  Completely new faces all learning the culture of the compound and the challenges of the work.  Hopefully handovers were all done well, or the best they can be, to keep the pace and momentum for all the things we've labored to date.  As I observe the newcomers to see whom I can reliably work with to get work done and who might be a part of the new social network for the next year, I reflect that perhaps this is similar to what the local staff feel in all posts as the American staff turnover.

I'm going to miss the departing group.  Some go way back to my entry DLI class.  Some were friends and colleagues from Jakarta.  Some I met here.  They were all really great people and I'm glad they were part of my life here.

Looking forward to the new arrivals.  It's a new year and a new life for me here in Kabul.

Plenty more time to buy these!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Makes Afghanistan a Great Post

Afghanistan has a lot of quirks and difficulties.  Challenging and overbearing security environment allowing little movement and next to no engagement, separation from family, and unique political pressures and oversight not found in any other Mission.

However, there are some great aspects to serving here that are difficult to find elsewhere.  In fact, there are people who have been working here for multiple years in the Mission or repeatedly return.  So I felt it due to highlight some of the great aspects I've found to working here in Kabul.

1) Great Camaraderie
Life in the embassy compound will leave little other social opportunities but with your colleagues.  Everyone at post experiences or can relate to similar personal circumstances and work challenges.  This allows for the quick forming close friendships and bonds in an environment that can be compared to being in a small college campus.

The problem is, for most, it’s just a short one-year tour.  Before you know it, you’ll be soon saying goodbye to your newfound circle.

2) Lots of Responsibility and Opportunity to Make a Difference
The work is fast-paced and dynamic with the resources to make a large impact in the lives of the people of Afghanistan.  The challenge is implementing the reconstruction and development projects in a way that is sustainable, necessary, and really yields benefits.  The US’ position as the largest funder of development in Afghanistan also comes with the responsibility to carefully avoid inflating the market or working at cross-purposes with Afghanistan’s own individual growth and capacity.

Taking on a lot of responsibility as a Junior Officer early in the career gives a wide breadth of scenarios and roles to play that wouldn’t be available at other Missions.  Personally, I feel I’ve learned and performed more in half the time I feel I could have done in a traditional post.

3) Less Personal Responsibilities
At post, pretty much everything is provided for you.  Housing, food, laundry facilities, gyms, you name it.  No more grocery shopping or cooking, the office is just a walk next door, and no ability for family responsibilities.  Of course, you can always complain that any of it could be better, but it’s all absolutely free.

As a result, the post has a very lively community of volunteers hosting activities for all tastes.  This includes exercise classes and sports, hobby clubs, board games, and dance parties on a weekly basis.

4) Practical Benefits
From the get go, the post differentials at post will see your income increasing by 70%.  And with few expenses at post (see point 3), you’ll be able to fully invest in savings like the TSP and still have money left over.  If you’re needing to pay off debts, Afghanistan would definitely be a good place to help do that.

5) Travel
Unfortunately, it’s not travel within the country but you’ll get up to 3 trips out of country a year where you can meet up with family and see new places (or home to see each other).  The tickets are paid for (up to a limit) and you just need to pick the destination you’d like to go.  I was able to check off several more countries off the list during my first year in Afghanistan that probably would have been a lot longer to get to unless I were serving here.

Afghanistan is definitely not as bad as I imagined it to be.  There are even some who really enjoy the warzone countries and have worked in them for many years (I’ve met people with 5+ years here).  While not something that I could do, I can understand the appeal.  Working in this type of environment is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and will be a memorable moment in my Foreign Service adventure.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

That time of the year again...Annual Evaluations

...Exceeding all work objectives and demonstrating outstanding performance as a development professional operating at a level far above his current grade....

Each year in April, much attention and focus for FSOs goes to the performance evaluation process to document achievements toward objectives and how we all walked on water.  This is the dreaded Annual Evaluation Form of the AEF season.  The process isn't just a simple evaluation and rating from your supervisor. Rather, it's a time-consuming endeavor of drafting self-assessments (or more often than not, drafting your own evaluation), soliciting and incorporating the perfect 360 input, and then multiple reviews by the assessment committee to finally get that perfect write-up of your work for the year.  Be sure to clearly demonstrate all the Foreign Service Matrix Skills and crosswalk that to include the Agency's core values!

And the fun doesn't end there!  After negotiating and crafting the AEF, next comes the Employee/Personal Statement, often referred to as the "suicide box".  This is the opportunity to mention every other accomplishment (avoiding sounding too arrogant) you did, or bring some personality and humility to the evaluation, or tell a good creative story to attach to your evaluation.

This then gets sent to DC where evaluation boards are formed to review and rank-order all the officers and the line is drawn for who gets promoted.

This annual ritual occurs every April and lasts for 2-3 weeks each year as everyone attempts to documents their work in the best light.  In the end, almost everyone will end up sounding like they are completely saving the world and the boards somehow work to parse fact from fiction.  The system is commonly understood to need improvement but when it comes to actually figuring out how to do it better, it's usually a loss for words.  Trying to evaluate the work equally of Officers across the world, with completely different roles and responsibilities is a pretty difficult endeavor.   It's then back to the daily grind and setting objectives for the next year to come.

Hoping for the best and it's all finished with for this year.  Results come out later around September.  Official policy on the evaluation process located at ADS 462.   But for now, taking a break after 2 1/2 months to see family and take a long belated (honeymoon?) to the Maldives.

Wonder how many snow leopards are out there?

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Sometimes, I feel like the busiest times I had were back in college.  Going to 4 classes a day, going to the gym, organizations and clubs, and countless evenings spending countless hours in the library studying and preparing for the next day.  Work-life for me in Kabul reminds me of those times.  10+ hours in the office each day, working out regularly, and organizations and clubs (mainly Green Team and every other week trivia night).

A common thing between these two experiences for me is that I'm interacting with the same people day-in and day-out throughout every activity of the day.  And living in the "kabubble" as a friend likes to call it, it's similar to a college town.

Separating work from personal life has been challenging, and it all just starts blending together.  After a difficult day at work where I leave the office with hanging problems or decisions to make with no present clear answer, I often find myself laying awake at night pondering the issue and thinking of what discussion needs to be had to find resolution.  This is the same as how I would brainstorm and develop ideas in college thinking of a thesis or topic for the next paper or the solution to some complicated problem.  It's hard to fully disengage.

Stakes can be quite high here.  Government work is not like a commercial activity where each days labor could be easily measured by the revenue or return from the output and it's clear to see the benefit of what your spending your time and money on by the return.  In government work or development, it's much more difficult to ascertain the exact impact you might be having at each particular moment of time.  You could calculate the cost per day of having a contractor on the ground working, or even embassy staff for that matter, but when you think about what exact results you are getting for the resources spent, it can sometimes be easy to become jaded.  Working in infrastructure is a bit easier because a physical structure is the end product and that every day delay carries with it a huge financial impact.   So vigilance is needed to monitor and manage projects to keep things on schedule and budget.

Another thing both similar yet with a marked difference are the people and way discussions are held.  This isn't necessarily specific to just Afghanistan, but the Agency has many intelligent people similar to as you would have a large degree of pretty intelligent people at a university. In a university class, students are typically encouraged to debate and discuss and challenge theories and assumptions with professors.  In the foreign service, there is a much more limited degree of debate and discourse, as challenging one's superior, particularly if at a senior management level, is pretty much not viewed favorably for a career.  But I suppose the same is true no matter where one works.  But in development, there really is no one definitive answer or solution to a problem, so a need for good discussion is essential to find the best solution.

A new change that will further enhance the feel as if going back in time is that I'm moving to an apartment with a roommate, a colleague I had from Indonesia.  What's funny is that we did language training at FSI together and sometimes, they would joke that we'd have to be roommates when we got to post in Jakarta as we were younger and we were entry level junior officers.  Who would have thought we'd actually end up being roommates in Afghanistan?

I think I went little all over the place again in this post.  Perhaps that reflects my attention span these days as I have to switch gears all day from project to project.  Anyway, they say that there exists a foreign service or embassy bubble for every post.  But I'm not sure things can compare to the uniqueness of the kabubble.

Goodbye CHU!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Thoughts on the Kabul Experience

The problem of the day, the next crises, or the past sin to resolve.  Everyday day working here brings new challenges and keeps you on your feet seeking the best solution.

As a second assignment with the Agency, I think it was really one of the best choices for exercising all that I learned of my work in the prior four years.  The responsibility of the portfolios are enormous and the types and degree of problems vary to the extent that one might see more than what many other would see in an entire normal 4 year tour.

"Afghanistan is a great place to learn, but the worst place to train"

This post definitely requires one to know their stuff.  Knowledge of regulations, procedures, development programming, and managing the bureaucracy are paramount to effectively implementing programs.  But with those key fundamentals, one can come and understand the problems and develop a solution.  In infrastructure, for example, no matter how much money was spent for a good design or plan, the conditions on the ground and implementation of the work almost always will experience deviations requiring creative solutions and negotiations to resolve.  Throw in political considerations that may foil the most rational or best business decision, and then you really need to put on your thinking cap and work with the team to keep things moving forward.  I don't think I could have such an interesting work portfolio and thankful for the colleagues and supervisors that make things manageable.

But despite the long days working, you'll meet a lot of people and really form some good friendships.  Plainly, the budget is large and the number of staff is commensurate.  And as people are cycling in and out for one year tours, you'll have met and worked with a good number of people in a short period of time.

In normal posts, everyone has an expiration date as they arrive and then move on to their next assignment.  This system tends to accelerate the pace you get to know people and creates an environment where people are just more friendly as they consistently must work to establish their social network for where they live.  This is especially true in Kabul where you work with the same people whom you'll eat with everyday and with whom you'll hang out with.  It's like a summer camp but for adults.

The makeup of people working here are especially interesting.  There is a wide variety of people with equally varied backgrounds, stories, and motivations for how they come to work in Afghanistan.  That would be an interesting book, I think:  The stories of the people of US Embassy Afghanistan.

I still have a long way to go till finishing my time in Kabul and it gets depressing sometimes thinking about how much longer I have.  I sometimes feel especially jealous of those whom are able to bring their spouses to work at the Mission as they are then able to live a comparatively normal life together vs. those whom are separated.  But all in all, I think this will be valuable experience in the long-run and hopefully I won't have to serve in an assignment like this for long time in the future.

Lots of stream of conscience in this post.  This is really a place one must visit to really understand.

View of Kabul.  A city I've yet to really know.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mabuhay from the Philippines and Whale Sharks - First Kabul R&R Destination

Traveling, sightseeing, and adventuring.  The holidays have been great.

For my first trip outside of Kabul, we made a short Asia tour first to Manila and Cebu in the Philippines, then Jakarta, Indonesia, over to Hong Kong, and an unplanned return to Jakarta (will have to explain this one in a future post).  This may seem like a pretty exhausting trip with this much travel to different places over two weeks, but I think we timed our stays in each destination sufficiently so avoid travel burnout.

My wife had a work meeting in the Philippines so we decided to start my first break out of Kabul in Manila so we could have the chance to explore the country and check it off the list.  Manila, in many ways, reminded me of other Southeast Asian countries we've been too in terms of the look and feel.   However, comparing Manila to places like Jakarta and Bangkok, we never felt quite as safe from things like petty crime that we do in other places.  Poverty is extensive and, similar to other SE Asian countries, there are extensive gaps between the rich and the poor.

My favorite sight of Manila was exploring Fort Santiago in the area within Manila called Intramuros.  We were recommended to do a tour with Carlos Celdran and were very glad we did.  When we travel and sight-see, I've come to more and more often hire tour guides as it provides much more context and information than we would have otherwise and they are usually very inexpensive sometimes only requiring a gratuity at the end.  Carlos' commitment to the development of his country was very evident and his passion for a better Philippines was inspiring.  Through his stores and guided tours, he is able to fund his organization's causes (social entrepreneur), which I think, is the ideal method for sustainable NGOs rather than the seeking of donor and grant money like so many others operate.  I learned a lot about a country I previously knew very little about and hope there are many others in the country working toward a better future for their people.

After just a few days in Manila, we headed to a popular resort island of the the Philippines called Cebu.  We stayed at a very nice resort and spent the time relaxing.  The highlight of the stay was a day trip to the Southern Point of the island to swim with whale sharks!  Whale sharks are huge and having the opportunity to swim with them was simply amazing.  There are though some ethical concerns about the local operators continually feeding the whale sharks to attract them for the tourist business but if the sharks are well cared for, I think it's alright as a tourist destination.  We recently springed for a new GoPro camera so we'd finally have the ability to take pictures underwater and I'm glad we did.  Looking back, we've missed so many great photo opportunities from places we've been to without having one.

That concludes part one of the first R&R.  Next up, Jakarta and Hong Kong.

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