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A Pivotal Period for Afghanistan: Interview with Larry Sampler, assistant to the USAID Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan

In advance of the Afghan Presidential election run-off scheduled for June 14, Larry Sampler, assistant to the USAID Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan join me on The Business of Government to explore how USAID has sought to promote stability and order in Afghanistan and what is USAID’s three-fold transition strategy. The following is an excerpt of our discussion on The Business of Government Hour.

Over the last 12 years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has played an integral role in efforts to build a secure and stable Afghanistan. It has sought to do this with programs in agriculture, governance, economics, education, energy, health, and infrastructure providing Afghans with the tools, technical support, capacity building and institutions that are the foundation for stability, development and security. Promoting stability and order brings with it significant challenges many of which are heightened especially during this delicate transition period as the president announced that U.S. combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Weaning Afghanistan from unsustainable levels of assistance is necessary for us, and essential for them. It is a pivotal time and for those dedicated to this mission — ensuring that the development progress in Afghanistan is maintained and made durable involves constant vigilance at this juncture.

  • How has USAID sought to promote stability and order in Afghanistan?
  • What is USAID’s three-fold transition strategy?

In advance of the Afghan Presidential election run-off, I explored these questions and so much more with Larry Sampler, Assistant to the Administrator & Director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs within the USAID. The following is an excerpt of a fuller discussion on The Business of Government Hour.

Larry, would you provide a brief overview of the history and evolving mission of the U.S. Agency for International Development and its Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs?

Let me put this in the context of Dr. Shah’s new mission statement. USAID has been in existence for decades, but Dr. Shah has evolved a mission statement: “USAID partners to end extreme poverty and to support democratic societies while pursuing America’s security and prosperity.”

We partner because USAID can’t do this alone and shouldn’t do this alone. This is something where we’ll take an intellectual leadership role to the degree that it is appropriate but we are only as strong as our partners.

My particular engagement is more along the lines of the promoting resilient democratic societies. Afghanistan certainly was not that thirteen years ago when I first went there. I think with the elections and as Afghans continues to move from one democratically elected president to a second democratically elected president, it seems pretty obvious that USAID’s contributions to a resilient democratic society is bearing fruit. We certainly don’t take all of the credit, but we’re proud to have been part and parcel of that movement. So that is the agency at large. We work all around the world in transitioning and in poor countries.

The Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs emerged when President Obama came into office and wanted to focus quite specifically on these two countries. At the State Department, you may recall, he created the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the time it was Richard Holbrook, so our office is an analog to that. Within USAID, it has evolved from a task force to what I would now humbly suggest is a fairly well measured and well-functioning independent office within USAID. We also have an analog at the Defense Department which is a Pakistan/Afghanistan coordination cell which is run from the joint staff. This illustrates the three “D” of defense, diplomacy, and development working together in a parallel structure that allows us to focus resources pretty intensively on these two countries.

Larry, what is the size of your budget, the number of folks that support your mission, and can you give us a sense of what your footprint is in both countries?

The model for the U.S. Agency for International Development has evolved from the days of Vietnam when we had literally thousands and thousands of U.S. government employees on the ground to now when we’re more of a general contractor in some respects. We have expertise and we have areas where we will bring the expertise to the table ourselves, but we’re also quite adept at partnering, whether it is with “for profit” firms or not for profits. In Afghanistan, we probably have five to seven thousand people, all nationalities, all different skill sets, doing everything from building roads to educating women to providing healthcare.

Depending on how you want to define my team in Afghanistan, it is one hundred and eighty-five U.S. government civilians or it is thousands of implementing partners in support of the U.S. national security imperatives in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a different mission. It is much smaller despite the fact that the country is much, much more populated. Pakistan is a more advanced country in terms of technology and human capacity in the country itself, so we don’t need quite as robust a footprint. I want to say it is something around one hundred to one hundred and five U.S. government direct hire civilians.

The biggest difference in the two is in Pakistan has the human capacity to support our mission the way it needs to be supported. We have a tremendous team of foreign service national staff in Pakistan, some of whom have been with the mission since it reopened in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s.

For Afghanistan in FY15 we have requested a budget of $1.2 billion and Pakistan will probably be on the order of $750 to $800 million.

What are your top management challenges that you face?

A real challenge is ensuring our institutional memory about the program and efforts we are pursuing. Afghanistan is what we call an unaccompanied tour, so staff are without their families; it is a critical priority country which means that the stress levels are understandably high.The quality of life at the embassy is as good as it can possibly be, but we are constantly working with the embassy with the State Department to improve it. Given this environment, it is critically important we secure our institutional memory of the programs we’re running in Afghanistan. We have less of a problem with institutional memory in Pakistan because we have the FSN staff that remains in place even after our foreign service officers rotate out…that is quite difference in Afghanistan.

Another challenge is making sure we communicate the value of what we are doing and that we are getting a return on investment. We’re still working on evolving how we communicate that to communities of interest – it involves constantly being mindful that USAID is in Afghanistan to the tune of billions of dollars because it is in the national security interest of the U.S.

Larry, would you highlight some of the actual results and changes in Afghanistan?

The greatest indicator of USAID’s successes in Afghanistan, and they’re not just USAID’s successes, but our contribution to successes in Afghanistan, are probably in the areas of health, education, and opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan.

With respect to health prior to our arrival, the bar was originally set incredibly low. Afghanistan, when I got there in 2002 and 2003, was just decimated. There was no healthcare to speak of. The United Nations Development Program has something called the human development index; they noted last year that over the course of twelve years in Afghanistan, that country had increased more as a percentage than any other country in the world over the decade. In fact, life expectancy in Afghanistan has increased by twenty years from forty-two years to sixty-two years over this period. Mortality rates for children under five years old has been reduced by sixty-two percent. Maternal mortality has increased by over seventy-five percent — this is a result of USAID pushing training for midwives.

With respect to education, in 2002 there were less than five hundred thousand students in school and the schools lacked particular standard; plus all he students were boys. Now that number is approaching nine million with more than thirty percent of the students being girls. There is a generation of young Afghan men and women who have completed primary education and secondary education; we now have students entering trade schools or university studies with many of them young women. There are women as vice presidential candidates on election tickets. There are women delegates in these provincial council elections and more than thirty-five percent of the people who turned out to vote were women. And again, that would have been unheard of in the past. I’ll add one more accomplishment that I think underpins all of these. That is the technological and revolution is probably not too strong a word to say that cellphone technology has brought to Afghanistan. In 2002, there were no cell phones in Afghanistan. Now the Afghans began to develop a market for cell phones; it developed incredibly quickly, to the point that now over ninety percent of the population of Afghanistan has cell phone coverage which is on par with most countries in the western world in fact.

Larry, 2014 marks a significant transition period for Afghanistan. To that end, would you describe your three-fold transition strategy?

This year will mark the first transition from one democratically elected president to another in Afghanistan, which is very significant for the Afghans. It also marks the end of International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) war fighting mission in Afghanistan. The ISAF transition really began a year and a half to two years ago when ISAF began closing provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) around the country and began reducing the size of their footprint from over one hundred sixty thousand troops to now I think U.S. troops on the ground are in the thirty thousands. By the end of the year, the U.S. present will be much smaller.

2014 will be a point of inflection and what the Afghans call their decade of transformation. This is not an American withdraw from Afghanistan, but rather a military withdraw. We continue to communicate our steadfast engagement. We focus on three segments. One is we want to make sure that the gains made in health, education, and the empowerment of women don’t slip. We view these areas as the building blocks for a sustainable Afghan society. We want to make sure that the heavy investment of money and resources, intellectual and human capital, aren’t fritted away or lost. We’ll continue to support education, perhaps increasingly adding capacity at the higher education level, so as students move through the primary, secondary schools, they have a place to go. We’ll continue to support access to healthcare. We’ll be working with the Afghans on how do you sustain the gains that you have made in healthcare thus far? The second thing is this transition period is going to be economically painful for Afghanistan. The drawn down of international militaries has had an effect on the economy. There will continue to be for some period of time, a budget gap, a budget deficit in Afghanistan that will require donor support.

We want to focus on helping the Afghans bridge the dip in GDP. Just for frame of reference, in 2012 GDP was about $20.5 billion. From 2002 to 2012, it grew at about nine or ten percent a year. Again, astronomical growth rates, but considering where they started from, it can be expected. In 2014, the anticipation is that it will be a six and a half percent growth. 2015 it will slow to five and a half percent. In 2016, we’re expecting it will slow yet again to four and a half percent. The government revenues in Afghanistan have grown by twenty percent a year since 2002, but that is not enough to cover the gap. The third point is involves increasing the credibility and the capacity of the Afghan government, so it has the ability to fix potholes and collect the trash — what we called in Iraq — sewage, water, electricity, and trash — while also having the capacity to engage regional neighbors and forge regional economic trade.

Larry, you have a unique perspective working on both the military and civilian sides of the U.S. government. What do you see as some of the main leadership differences between the military and USAID?

I would say in the military you have a “command and control” environment where a commander will staff to come up with courses of action. Staff will discuss and argue; it may get messy, but they will come up with three courses of action.

The commander will have an intellectual debate about each of the courses of action and then make a decision. It is a very clear process; there is never any question about who is making the decision.

On the civilian side, as opposed to command and control, I used to describe it a as “beseech and cajole” because in civilian organizations there tends to be less of this clear command driven decision making process. I have come to value both approaches, but recognize that in the areas of diplomacy and development, a more collaborative approach to decision making is critically important.

There is a tremendous book by Jim Locher called Victory on the Potomac, which details efforts to pass the Goldwater-Nichols Act a reality and bring “jointness” to the armed services. Now joint assignments are highly sought after because they are seen by military officers as giving them a broader perspective; not just a prerequisite to promotion, but it also equips them for working at higher levels. We don’t have a similar pursuit on the civilian side, so when you marry State and USAID or USAID and the Department of Agriculture or Commerce, we haven’t had that cross pollination that joint assignments may produce and as a result the clash of cultures can be quite strong.

I invite you to listen or download my complete interview with Larry Sampler, assistant to the USAID Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan on The Business of Government Hour.

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Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Having worked there.

* kudos to USAID for fighting the good fight, under impossible circumstances. Administrator Shah is the real deal as well.

* a comment – the culture needs more command and control, but they are working on that.

* “beseech and cajole” is good advice no matter where you work…management is evolving and traditional leaders don’t always see that. people have to willingly act, not be forced.

* maybe a step beyond they should be empowered to do what they naturally do – this is my personal belief and i see that it does work

* i understand the logic of civilian-military cooperation but think that USAID should try to distance itself from the military as much as possible in terms of talking about operational alignment. it mixes up the brand, mixes up people’s impression of the mission – adds to the impression that we provide aid in order to take over.