I have a lot of knowledge about Afghanistan. I spent four months training before going to Afghanistan. And I thought that the classroom learning would prepare me for what was in store. I may have had a lot of Afghanistan knowledge, but I quickly learned the classroom and real life are not the same thing.
I had two weeks of language training and thought I knew Dari well enough to communicate at a basic level. But I quickly learned there are many different dialects in Afghanistan. And although I could say hello and make polite conversation. I thought had enough Afghanistan knowledge to do it on my own. But I quickly learned that without a translator I couldn’t communicate effectively with the contractors and government leaders I worked with on daily basis.
I thought I knew
I thought I learned how to spot an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). But I quickly realized in real life you have to drive at a normal speed. And the key indicator a pile of rocks are everywhere in Afghanistan and they don’t all mean there is an IED nearby.
I thought I knew what it would be like to be in a firefight, but when the gunfire is real and the rockets are landing nearby you realize your training prepares you how to react, but not how to feel inside.
I learned about the culture in the classroom but didn’t understand the people until I met them where they were at the market, in the schools, at government meetings. The people of Afghanistan surprised me with their bravery and knowledge.
I thought I knew what it would be like to work with contractors from my experience at home, but I didn’t know what it was like to work with people from a different country and a different work philosophy.
There was more to it than I thought
I thought it would be easy to ensure our projects were sustained, but how do you teach sustainment when it is a word they don’t understand.
Afghans would see a concrete building and think it will stand forever. The Afghans were used to mud huts and couldn’t comprehend maintenance was required. Just like their mud hut required regular maintenance. So do the new buildings even if they were made of concrete and not mud.
My time in Afghanistan was met with many different challenges. Though it all, I learned a lot. My four months of training attempted to prepare me. But there are so many things about being a foreign country you can’t learn until you arrive.