FARAH Province — It’s been an amazing experience out here in western Afghanistan, where I spent the last nine months. I’ve had the opportunity to work with local communicators as a liaison to the local Provincial Reconstruction Team in order to help build capacity at the provincial level within the government and with local journalists. As I head home, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned.
As a public affairs officer, I don’t imagine I’ll have many similar opportunities in the future to directly engage with local leaders and journalists to support capacity building efforts, as most of our job focuses on sharing the Navy and Defense Department story with our key audiences back at home. To be quite honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I got here, as far as non-traditional duties as a liaison were concerned, but nonetheless I was excited to be a part of our team’s mission.
Early on, our commander encouraged us to find non-traditional ways to help support our efforts to build capacity here in Farah. As a Navy public affairs officer, I’m blessed to be a part of a tight-knit community that works together in order to support one another.
Mixing a combination of our commander’s guidance and the knowledge that true capacity building takes time, energy and strong relationships, I set out to work within our public-affairs community to find training materials I could translate through my interpreter and present to local leaders and journalists. Sometimes I initiated the training opportunities with the Farahis and other times they reached out with specific training requests. In either case, the relationships we developed were critical to meeting our shared goals.
In addition to working with my Navy counterparts and interagency partners in theater to provide local training opportunities, I was also able to coordinate with the team at the International Center for Journalists to procure the cameras that are now being used to support local TV and radio programming.
It was an outstanding feeling to wake up early the other day to see the first commercial airline flight land in Farah (truly a milestone here), but the experience was even sweeter as a local reporter here was using one of the cameras ICFJ provided. In that moment it became clear that the drive from Norfolk to Washington, D.C., on R&R to pick up the cameras so I could deliver them to the director of information and culture was worth it.
I was also able to work with a few friends I’ve made through my Navy experience from the Lions Club of New York to get refurbished laptops for the directorate of telecommunications for use in their training center. They provide free Microsoft Office training to government employees and local students in support of capacity building at the provincial level. Despite not being directly related to public affairs or the media, I do know that many of the journalists and government officials I’ve worked with in Farah are beneficiaries of the training they received at the computer center.
In the nine short months we spent here, I’ve had the chance to see some of the training we’ve conducted translate into real world results. I’ve seen an increased number of stories about Farah in Afghan news outlets such as Pahjwok, ToloNews, Khaama Press and Bakhtar News.
I’ve received feedback from local leaders I’ve taught saying that they work more closely with the local media outlets to share their stories and services with the local population. And I’ve also witnessed how the social- media training we conducted translated into greater connectivity with NGOs and government agencies, which has translated into greater exposure for Farah and an increase in resources flowing to the province.
One of my key focuses of late has been working with local communicators to synchronize their communications efforts. Many of them have very strong skills in specific areas such as traditional Afghan forms of communication (local shuras, youth shuras, etc.), external media engagement and radio station use.
But sometimes the message isn’t shared among specific parties. As we’ve worked on this particular initiative, I’ve seen a marked improvement in their willingness to share information with one another and –slow as it can be at times — progress is marked by an increased communication flow to both external and internal Farahi audiences.
While this is certainly an experience I’ll never forget, there are three big takeaways regarding capacity building that I hold dear.
— True capacity-building takes time, effort, energy and a focus on relationships. You have to be willing to put yourself out there to make true progress. I had to meet people where they work and live and acclimate myself to the local culture before anyone here was willing to put in a reciprocal amount of effort. Capacity building is pretty simple…but it isn’t easy.
— Afghans are an incredibly strong and resilient people. The men I’ve worked with receive near constant threats from the enemies of Afghanistan as they work to build a bright future for Farah. In spite of these threats, they continue to put their best foot forward and work to better themselves for the benefit of the people of Farah.
— The resources are there if you really want to find them. Whether it was the Navy’s public affairs team, our interagency partners, Internews, the International Center for Journalists or Lions Club International, there are many people and organizations willing to provide resources if you’re willing to pick up a phone, send an email, or put in the effort to make a difference.
I couldn’t have completed any of my capacity building goals without the help of my interpreter, Ahmadshah Sa’ed. As a 22-year-old Afghan man, he has spent his entire life in a conflict environment.
It stands to reason that he, more than anyone else in Farah perhaps, has benefitted from the training that we’ve done as he has to understand the material intimately before we present it locally. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but not long after the ball really started rolling during deployment, he started receiving threatening text messages from the Taliban.
Not long ago, he and some friends were also enjoying each other’s company and eating watermelon near Faray City. As they finished the food and he went to wash his hands, a car drove by and the group came under gunfire.
One of his friends, a government employee was shot in both arms, and another of his friends was shot in the leg. Thankfully nobody was killed, but it’s indicative of the sacrifices these men and women make each day for the betterment of their city, their province and their people.
All this to say – what an experience.
I am quite proud of the work my Afghan counterparts and I have done together. I’m confident the capacity we have built locally will be lasting.
Matthew Stroup is a U.S. Navy public affairs officer completing an assignment with Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah in western Afghanistan. Following his assignment in Afghanistan he will serve at the Navy Office of Information East in New York City, where he looks forward to spending evenings and weekends with his wife and two small boys.