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)

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.


  1. Greetings in Afghanistan! I follow your blog diligently and just curious about whether you are on an unaccompanied tour? Are you there for one year or two?

    I'd like to ask for your opinion on something...

    So I'm in the pre-employment pipeline and considering deferring entry to USAID to get my black belt certification (process-improvement/lean six sigma) through a 2-year stint with my employer in the private sector. I'm wondering if having this is a designation that will be of benefit in the foreign service. Is there a culture of process improvement/streamlining processes, improving efficiency & productivity? I am reluctant to postpone pursuing my dream job for another 2 years, but if I can get another tool in my toolkit, I would be willing to do so.

    1. Hi! Sorry for the delay in responding. I'm currently unaccompanied with my wife remaining working in Indonesia, my last post. For a variety of reasons, I decided to be here for two years.

      Honestly, I don't think the black belt certification is worth delaying entrance into the foreign service by two years unless the certification is personal goal of your own. The certification would provide a lot of good knowledge and way of thinking about how things are done, but in terms of immediate benefit to the career, I don't even know if many others in public service understand private sector driven certifications like six sigma.

      In terms of a culture of improvement and streamlining processes, I would say there is to some extent but the enthusiasm for quick change is tempered by the bureaucracy of government regulations and procedures and entrenched ways of doing business.

      USAID development has a particularly regulated way of moving from project design to implementation. Buy-in and consensus building is required throughout the entire process so too drastic change is difficult. But if you're considering a backstop like EXO, managing the HR, travel, and internal processes, I think I could see a lot of use for improving the way things are done, managed, and accounted for.

      Good luck!

  2. It's so nice to hear from you! Thanks as always for your candid feedback and thoughts. I went back to the drawing board and after a former boss didn't feel like I was ready for the black belt role, disappointingly, I decided to settle for an entry level certification instead (green belt), which I can look to taking on my own without corporate sponsorship. I work for a manufacturing concern, and the principles of waste, scrap reduction, quality, improving profitability, etc. are critical in this environment but not necessarily in another. So I see your point.

    All the best in your 2nd year in Afghanistan. Looking forward to reading about your experiences and where the next tour will be.

    P.S.- Of all the blogs out there, I find yours to be the most balanced, and supported with facts and info. that is useful to a prospect like me. Not carrying on and on about what mocha or dinner you had at the corner hole-in the wall restaurant, if you know what I mean.



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