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Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Shepard in Afghanistan

In a country in need of guidance, Mark Shepard, a graduate of now Tri-County North has been a shepherd of sorts – helping Afghanistan get organized and moving into the right direction. A retired colonel from the military, he had been sent back to the Mideast as a military contractor and is helping the Afghanistan government build a nationwide disaster response organization – sort of like our FEMA. I had lost track of Mark since school – I remember him as a quiet, somber guard on the football team. But we reconnected on facebook and so I was able to find out what he has been up these many years and what he is doing now. Wow has he been busy!
After joining the army he initially underwent training as a combat engineer, learning Demolitions, diving, freefall parachuting, and rappelling from helicopters. During his career he also saw action in the Panama invasion and the first war in Iraq – Desert Storm where he was a scout/sniper platoon leader for the 82nd airborne division. He eventually became a Ranger, an elite unit in the US army and was also a member of the special forces, the Green Beret. He rose thru the ranks, becoming a squad leader, a sergeant, then an officer and finally working his way to colonel. An impressive career for a humble lineman from Lewisburg.

So when we reconnected I asked him what he was doing in Afghanistan. Recent events in Libya and Egypt have overshadowed this war, but I wanted to find out more from someone who was there. Well after retiring from the military he went looking for another job. Turns out that a defense contractor was helping the government of Afghanistan build a FEMA-like organization to be ready for disasters. Things like earthquakes, avalanches(lots of them in the mountains of Afghanistan), fires, and floods. He was helping develop a ‘tashkil’ an afghan term for organizational structure and equipment for the new agency.

Being curious about the country and the culture – I wanted to draw from Mark’s experience to get his thoughts and views since he was living in the country and working with Afghani’s every day. First I asked him to contrast Iraq and Afghanistan. “Iraq and Afghanistan are miles apart. Iraq had an education system and are very much ahead in the areas of infrastructure and public services. Education is the central component that is missing in Afghanistan. There is over a 70% illiteracy rate here. Many people that I work with have very basic reading and writing skills. Some not at all.”

So this could be a problem when working with the officers, “Many of them were mujahedeen fighters that learned to handle a weapon and live in caves or other structures but were never afforded a chance to read or right. Because of their bravery on the battlefield or because of the Afghan Government connections many of the officers have, being illiterate is not necessarily a disqualification and the ministries would rather be interested in ethnic balancing instead of skill sets that will help their ministry.”

Despite obstacles there have been some successes, there had been no nationally organized fire fighting units. Now thanks to equipment being donated, there is a rudimentary fire fighting organization in existence. They are given intensive training and are being deployed as equipment and funding allow.
And the population likes these new firefighters they are seen as hero’s – just like in the US, who doesn’t like a fireman? In contrast, the existing national police force (Afghan National Police) needs some more improvement, an area that is getting attention. Mark noted the ANP are often at road checkpoints asking for bribes to get from truckers and also ask for other “favors” in exchange for “protection”. The corruption is seen as so rampant that the public will rely on the military as a champion of their cause. Since the ANP is an essential part of the disaster response effort, a lot of attention is being focused on changing their ways and thereby changing public attitudes.

There are some aspects of Afghan culture which are puzzling for instance, “The Afghan ethnic wars are things of legend among the Afghan people. Grudges hold for many years and are generational. One tribe may not like another because a great uncle or cousin from 150 years ago may have been killed by another tribe and according to Afghan Custom and law, this act must be endured generationally until some sort of settlement is made”. So getting tribes in the outlying areas to cooperate can be difficult because of this.

To be openly critical of a higher officers plan was unheard of several years earlier but now is tolerated. And being a ‘top down’ sort of culture it is ingrained to respect and listen to your elders – to not question authority. This still proved a problem in a recent exercise where the junior officers knew there was a flaw in the plan but did not question it and of course things went awry. But an avalanche and a plane crash were examples of where the fledgling agency was able to respond effectively. Even coordinating support with the Afghan Commando’s to do high altitude rescues. In a tightly structured country it can be difficult to reach out across departments like this.

So Mark is making progress despite some of the difficulties that he has encountered. We will continue this discussion in part two of ‘A Shepard in Afghanistan’ where we will explore more of Afghanistan and the Middle East thru his eyes.