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Afghanistan-Bound, Americans Pretend To Be There

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Afghanistan-Bound, Americans Pretend To Be There

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Afghanistan-Bound, Americans Pretend To Be There

Afghanistan-Bound, Americans Pretend To Be There

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While President Obama weighs his options on Afghanistan, one thing is clear: The U.S. is beefing up its civilian presence there. The aid effort has been hobbled from the start, and many experts consider it a weak link in the struggle to build a stable society in the conflicted country. Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew insists that the U.S. is now recruiting the right kind of people, but before those people head to Afghanistan, they get trained to work with the military at a base in Indiana.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

While President Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan, the U.S. is already beefing up its civilian presence there. Many experts have said that the aid effort has been a weak link. But Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew says he's recruiting the right kind of people now.

NPR's Michele Kelemen traveled with him to a base in southern Indiana to see how the civilians are trained.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

MICHELE KELEMEN: It's just a short helicopter ride from Indianapolis to Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck, where some of the rundown buildings are now adorned with Afghan flags and pictures of President Hamid Karzai. The military and the State Department trainers are trying to make this base, which used to house a mental institution, look and feel like Afghanistan.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: In this role-playing exercise, an Afghan man recites a verse from the Quran while another pours tea. A former Afghan diplomat, speaking through an interpreter, plays the role of a regional governor who needs the Americans to help mediate a tribal dispute over a dam project.

Unidentified Man #2: You are the peacemaker of Afghanistan�

KELEMEN: The U.S. officials didn't resolve the dispute in this exercise, but one of them, Kathy Gunderson(ph), said she's been getting a lot out of this training program. During a lunch break, she said she's feeling more confident about how to work alongside the U.S. military and going to meetings in a flak jacket.

Ms. KATHY GUNDERSON: And it's a safe setting for us but it's so realistic that when they set off a mortar round, your heart is just pounding. But you've had the training; you know exactly what to do.

KELEMEN: Gunderson has a background in livestock and agriculture, and she's taking an assignment in Afghanistan because she's been reading a lot about the high malnutrition rates among Afghan children.

Ms. GUNDERSON: I grew up in Appalachia, as poor as you can be. My mother made our clothes out of flour sacks, but we didn't know that we were poor because we had food, we grew food. And that's what I want to do.

KELEMEN: Afghanistan will be a big change for her. She's only ever traveled to Canada before.

Another student, 56-year-old David Danes(ph) of Utah, spent years in Guatemala and Haiti in the agro business. He calls himself an optimist, and says he hopes he can make some difference in Afghanistan.

Mr. DAVID DANES: One thing that's brought me to this, that's new this year, is my son has joined the Marine Corps. So I think maybe if I can do something over there to help things improve, he won't have to face the same level of risks that he would otherwise.

KELEMEN: In his role-playing exercise, Danes visited a pretend Afghan clinic and was tipped off that the hospital director was siphoning off supplies. A former Afghan lawyer, Ahmed Zia Falzada(ph), who took part in the vignette, says he became a trainer for one reason.

Mr. AHMED ZIA FALZADA (Trainer): I would like to tell them the way to stop the corruption in Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: By most accounts, this training has improved, and the Obama administration is on target to increase the number of U.S. government aid workers in Afghanistan to close to a thousand. But an expert on post-conflict stabilization, Ruben Briggardie(ph), is still waiting to see a real development plan.

Mr. RUBEN BRIGGARDIE: You can't think solely about the number. You have to ask what's the civilian strategy, and then you have to sort of program people and resources against that strategy. So while it's nice we're going to have a thousand civilians, I would ask the question first: What exactly are they going to do, and how do we know they're going to be successful?

KELEMEN: That's one of the many questions facing Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew.

Deputy Secretary JACK LEW (Department of State): You know, we'll know it's working in some areas when we see that Afghans are able to do things that we go there to help them with, without us being there to help them.

KELEMEN: Lew says the administration is still considering requests from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul to send several hundred more civilians. And he says he's kept up the recruiting efforts while he waits to see what the president ultimately decides about the overall U.S. presence and strategy in Afghanistan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News.

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