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Can you stop by Afghanistan on your way out?

To anyone who has ever served in the military, changes to plans are as commonplace as breathing. We even have a type of order for that helps us handle sudden shifts in direction. FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) are used throughout the military planning process, but usually end up as the “oh crap!” type of order that we all use to switch things up. FRAGOs aren’t complete (hence the fragmentary part) and go along well with “stand by” or “more to follow” instructions. Back in the states, waiting for the boss to arrive at a briefing? No problem. Deployed, waiting for the boss to figure out which road won’t lead to certain death? A little more interesting.

We usually just laugh about situations that go 180 degrees every four or five hours. I could tell you a lot of stories that involve a lot of troops waiting for hours in the rain, pounding metal rods through concrete (unsuccessfully, as we figured) to set up tents, briefing changes, ammo changes, miscues…normal stuff (in spirit) for most offices, but with high-caliber weapons and no climate controlled lounge to vent frustrations.

So, I’ve been looking forward to finishing out my term of service for a while now. My original plans involved getting out in January of 2008, but stop-losses being what they are, I stayed in a little longer. Truth be told, being locked in turned out to be the best thing for me. I ended up teaching at the military’s journalism school (and thereby escaping Fort Hood!), and was ushered in as one of the DOD’s social media paragons.

And yet, even the extended time was to eventually end–June of 2010 in my case. We get to save up our vacation days in the military and use them, if we wish, to edge back our final day. We call it “terminal leave” which is an ominous moniker that simply refers to the fact that at the start of this “terminal” period, we will finish spending our vacation days at the legal end of our enlistment contract. So, for me, having not taken many days off in the last while, I have a solid two months of vacation time saved up. So, June became April. Getting out of the military isn’t as easy as it sounds (as in NOT getting up early, NOT pulling duty, NOT saluting every third person you see). It actually involves mountains of paperwork to document the physical trauma most of us suffer at the hands of environments and men who try to kill us.

So the “out-processing” period takes time. Time, for me, that was rapidly approaching its end. Yet there was enough. I was starting to disconnect myself from work—a common theme, as commanders expect their subordinates to take care of themselves on their way out—nothing shirking about it.

That is, until I got a FRAGO of sorts. I got a call as I was heading out the door one morning from a Navy captain I know from the U.S. European Command. He said that Lt. Gen. Caldwell’s office needed me in Afghanistan ASAP. I thought it was hilarious—sounded like something out of a spy movie or action flick. Can’t really say “no” to that sort of direct request. I was told “more to follow” and the higher-ups got to work on the preparations.

So I’m heading over to Afghanistan in the next couple of weeks. NATO is revamping its NTM-A (NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan) websites and wanted me to put in social media initiatives and join a small, select team to formulate the strategic communication plan for using the sites to reach out to media and the public.

Beyond that, there really is no plan. These sorts of special missions rely on the ability and knowhow of people who are put in the mix. So there will be no “wait and see” on my part. I’m starting my prep to hit the ground at full speed. What’s cool about NATOs intent is they want something that can interface with the Afghan people directly. There are, as you might figure, a number of obstacles and quirks to dealing with the Afghan public directly. One being a lack of computers. One being relatively high illiteracy. One being dialect issues.

However, a large chunk of the people have cell phones, in a strange juxtaposition of pre-industrial/post-industrial trends and technologies. These phones are hardly the ones most U.S. commuters cart around—and the cellular infrastructure is barely 1G; but they have cell phones! They get text messages, by and large. There are some Afghan carriers that have data plans, but those are often too expensive for much of the public. If NATO is to have success in establishing a rapport with the Afghan public, it can’t just have a fancy website with social media links and a Twitter feed, it’s going to need a shift in information distribution.

That’s where I come in. I’ve talked with some of my coworkers who have spent some years over there. I’ve tried to get some insight. I think a quasi throwback approach will be best for NATO. We can put a website in place, sure. That will serve the local and international media well. But I also want to see an SMS system put in place, where people can text to a number and get information. That means mobile-friendly versions of the sites. Moreover, that means very, very basic mobile-friendly versions of the sites.

Since dialects and illiteracy are still barriers to communication, I will also want to explore the possibility of having a sort of call-in voicemail system. Regular people will hear that they just have to call a certain number to hear what’s going on, and someone on NATO and the Afghan government’s side will read the stories aloud to them over their phones.

Granted, some will cry “propaganda” from these channels. One, that’s in direct violation of the DoD Principles of Information and the standing intent from our highest levels. Two, we have tried unsuccessfully to repair and restore the country for nine years. The Afghan people aren’t stupid, they know when they’re being fed BS. For my part, the system will be for the distribution of genuine information.

That is, unless I receive a FRAGO that orders me to cancel the Afghanistan trip and head downstairs for a meeting about the school’s website redesign. Ha! Wouldn’t that be painfully normal?


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Andrew Krzmarzick

Keep us posted, Josh!

To what degree do you communicate with counterparts at State, USAID or similar to get a sense of successful practices related to mobile technology in Afghanistan or places like it? It seems to me that they have probably experimented elsewhere and have some ideas. Generally, I am curious about the communication/integration between governmental entities…

Martha Garvey

This is fascinating stuff, Josh. Please keep us posted.

For my part, the system will be for the distribution of genuine information.

Simple. Smart. And yet–so hard to do. Thanks for sharing this.