They called it the “long war” the “global counterinsurgency” the “10-15 year fight” the “great crusade” and the “global war on terror”. They said it would be a global conflict unlike any the world has ever seen. They said it would be fought as much in our cities and towns as on foreign lands. They said that many of our stories of victory would never be told. That there would be no parades, no great homecomings, no “mission accomplished”. They said it would involve not a conflict against a single enemy but a global struggle and restructuring and reworking of world order. They said it would take years of our blood, sweat and tears, but that in the end, what we were doing was right that democracy could save the world and that our values and ideals were untouchable. Yet now, 10 years into this great attempt at rebuilding our world, how much closer have we actually come? And, more importantly, where have we gone wrong and what do we need to rethink about our struggle to ensure that the sacrifices of so many of our brothers and sisters have not been made in vane?
While our ideals may be dead set on fighting this “long fight” I am coming to the understanding that our structures and systems are horribly inadequate and more than a bit antiquated for the work that lies before us. While many of us can dream of building the world our children deserve, the actual mechanics of realizing that dream are much harder than we can bear our present moment in time. Despite our best efforts and our best intentions, we continually find ourselves throwing money and resources at our problems with little foresight and understanding, simply because they are here now and may be gone tomorrow. This process unfortunately ends with the old development community cliché of “slinging shit at the wall hoping it will stick”. But ultimately, as we continue this process we are left with little more than a shitty floor…
The problem with our structures today lies in the middle management. And I am not talking about the people involved for from all the people I have met along my travels, there are very few I would consider to be “bad leaders” or “bad people”. However, there are many that I would consider “bad visionaries”. This is not a fault of their own human failure but more a product of the system they have grown up in and come to inherit at this most demanding of times. While those at the top can dream greater dreams, can see the big picture and how they may be able to affect it, and can allocate resources on a scale of which the world has never seen before and those at the bottom can see the realities on the ground, can affect small, positive increments of change within the realities they have been given, and can develop their communities to grow in their absence, those in the middle are left in the awkward netherworld that exists between resource and reality. They see neither the big nor the small picture but only resources coming in and resources going out. Their directives are often given from above yet their solutions come almost entirely from below. Thus, they are given tasks and expectations which they cannot meet themselves. They see the big picture only through the eyes of their superiors and the smaller picture only through the eyes of their subordinates. And yet the crucial causeway that the form between the two is the most vital for the long-term development and operationalization of this fight…
In the aid, development, and “nation-building” community, the middle management are dealt the burden of accomplishing projects and using resources. Since the resources are often temporary, based on national budget cycles and donor generosity, their time window is often severely limited. They are rated and judged on their ability to spend these resources in a timely manner and producing results regardless of whether they include a school with no teachers, a road to nowhere, a clinic with no doctors or medicine, or a means of economic empowerment without the national structures in place to protect investment and remove barriers to progress. The military community shares the exact same burden where commanders are given a finite timeline (usually a one-year deployment) to show results and “improvements” in the security situation. If they cannot show something during this timeline, they are judged as worthless, inadequate, and incapable. And yet, despite all they end up having to show for their deployment cycles, why is it that so often the security situation is little better when they leave than when they arrive?
At the ground level, we see this dilemma head on for what it is. While we are trying desperately to produce security for our areas of operations we are met with highly restrictive rules of engagement and oversight that prohibits a lot of junior level initiative. While we would like to “take the fight to the enemy” we are forced to operate in an almost “zero risk” environment where the clear message is sent that American lives are simply not worth the cost it would take and that ultimately it is an Afghan fight and we are just here to help. And yet if it is truly an Afghan fight, we beg the question from our level “why are we here at all?” Why send soldiers to fight for security if you are not willing to let them die for it? Why send aid workers to the ass ends of the world if you are not going to provide them with the structures and systems that will make their work sustainable? While so many of us are willing to give up our time, talent, treasure, and even our lives to see our brothers and sisters enjoy a better life, how to we create the results our efforts deserve?
The problems at the top of this cycle will surely not change over-night. While I would like nothing more than to wake up tomorrow and realize that American policy was no longer based on the yearly budget cycle or the bi-annual election cycle I know that that dream will not be realized anytime within my foreseeable future. Resources are always allocated based on perceived need at the time and perceptions are often fleeting, incomplete, and rarely accurate even for our societies greatest minds and thinkers. They are a product of our dynamic times and our dynamic environment and therefore cannot hold the rock-steady policies and direction that we need as we continue to fight the long fight.
And so, the answer is to relearn how to dream, especially for our middle management. Bridging gaps is no easy task and is certainly no easier amid the great disconnect today between top down resources and bottom up results. While few can question the moral character of our many dedicated and career oriented professionals currently working on this problem, I fear that many of them have simply forgotten their ability to dream amid their day to day toil and constant struggles as they are pulled rom both ends. How they see the world is ultimately the way we will develop it and the way our leaders will allocate the resources necessary for us to accomplish our task. And yet, real results in a long fight take time, years if not decades and generations. None of our middle management will see the long-term results of their actions within their professional lives and yet that does not excuse them from their responsibility to set the stage for progress to take its course.
If we are to succeed in this fight, we need to free our middle management up to be the dreamers they began this profession to become. They will surely need guidance and sanity checks from below and we must give them the best advice we can give based on our understanding of the realities they cannot see. And they will surely need to mobilize themselves and call for more sustainable support and better structures for the long work they have ahead. They will need to demand patience from the top, more long-term grand strategies, and a greater sense of continuity for the long work we must do. They will need to allocate their resources not for short-sighted but “measurable” achievements, but for the emplacement of long-term structures and self-sustaining systems of development. Every school they build must be staffed with the proper teachers, books, and students. Every clinic must possess the necessary professionals and medicines. And every road must lead to somewhere and be maintained by somebody. If you can learn to dream it, it can indeed become a reality…just not a quickly as you might hope….
So here’s to the dreamers we still have in this world. May they not be disheartened by the current restrictive systems in place but may they continually strive to teach their skills to others, to pass the dream on both to the top and to the bottom. May they see this long fight for what it is and realize what it can be. And may, by the grace of God, they someday succeed in realizing the true power of their dreams. This long fight is showing no signs of letting up anytime soon. It is truly our global, generational struggle to create the world our children will inherit. May we just not forget the dream of our fathers and protect the dream of our children.
Continue fighting the long fight, my friends. We are all in this one together.
22 AUG 2011, 2245 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan