Afghan Hand formed partnership works for Kandahar Airport
December 24, 2013
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- He answers the phone with his standard greeting, "Lieutenant Commander Asman, how can I help? In this instance, like many times before, the question is met with a need.
On this day, Kandahar parliament member Rana Tareen's flight from the Kandahar International Airport to Kabul is canceled and Lt. Cmdr. Jared Asman, the Afghan Hand who serves as the KIA development advisor, is asked for assistance.
And that is what he does -- advise, assist, and train.
Many times Asman says his job as liaison between the airport and the International Security Assistance Force is to bridge a large divide -- and build relationships.
"You're a shadow whose presence is always felt. Sometimes it's hard because you are caught between two worlds," said Asman. "And sometimes it's hard to deliver the message -- to deliver the truth is not always easy."
He also delivers continuity, speaks the native language, focuses on issues, and has an acute sense of cultural awareness -- all of which he has parlayed his training of the Afghan way of life into working relationships with varying stakeholders whose vested interest in the airport often differs.
As a U.S. Navy officer who serves in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program, Asman is the go-to guy in many instances for problem solving and issue resolution. Conceived in 2009, the program is formulated to assist ISAF in building a better long-term relationship with the Afghan and Pakistan people.
When he was chosen for the program, like other AfPak Hands, he went through six months of extensive language and cultural training before arriving in Afghanistan for his specific assignment. He works directly with the director of the KIA, Ahmadullah Faizi.
Asman, who is at the end of a 10-month tour, has seen night and day improvement from his initial impression -- when he was astounded, he said.
"My first day there was jaw dropping -- it smelled bad, it was a wreck," said Asman, whose background is in aviation. "This was an exquisite problem."
Faizi and Asman forged a partnership working together extensively.
When they talk about their behind-the-scenes efforts in infrastructure development and airport improvement, they agree about the critical importance of relationships like theirs, which is built on trust.
"I have a great job. I don't think I'd be better anywhere else," said Asman. "The dynamic between me and the director is very good. That relationship is the most important part of the job."
Asman, a helicopter pilot back in the U.S., who spends much of his time interacting at the expansive airport grounds without a security element or interpreter, nonchalantly says growing up in Detroit, Mich., is one of the best skill-sets he brings to the table.
The airport is a bustling enterprise that he says, "has anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people who move through it each week."
"It's an Afghan-run government institution -- it's fairly healthy, and there's no single actor," said Asman, referring to the government institutions that share oversight responsibility.
Faizi says Asman is the third person from the AfPak Hands program to sit in the position, but he's really the first to be most successful in bringing together the many different Afghan agencies and ISAF -- helping to develop a working consensus on many issues and getting projects underway. So much so, he says, they are many years ahead of where he forecasted the airport to be.
"He has a great relationship with our border police, intelligence agency and other governmental agencies," said Faizi, "Above all else, he has personal interest and kindness."
As Asman prepares to leave, he is currently training two Afghan Hands to replace him; one will continue to work with Faizi while another servicemember will focus on airport security.
Faizi says there are three things about the Afghan Hand partnership that makes the program worthwhile: the system in place for approved allotment, better relations with NATO forces and "third- greater coordination amongst various stakeholders with doing things much faster," he says.
Faizi also credits the program with making it smoother for the entry control point and ramp project to get underway.
"It's all the hard work of everyone working together," said Faizi, who was previously a political and cultural advisor at ISAF. "The Kandahar Airport is three years ahead of our plan."
In 2010, when he took the helm at the request of the Governor of Kandahar, there were 94 flights, and today it is far more than triple, he says. "There were four employees -- now there are over 500 people working."
When Faizi was new to the job, he said it was overwhelming. Today, looking at the progress made, laughing, he says, "I took a job I never saw myself in; now it has been three years."
"I'm learning the hard way. I'm in a third world country trying to operate in a first world. How can we get Kandahar airport to look like airports in the rest of the world -- it's an access bridge to the international world," added Faizi. "Today, it's a show piece for Afghanistan. Kandahar is the second biggest city and, most important, the heart of Afghanistan. It used to be the capital."
Asman is happy in the progress, his accomplishments and says it's not the same airport. He credits the two Afghan Hands before him with paving the way.
"My predecessor got through a lot of stuff - including early mentorship to keep records," said Asman, who will soon be stateside and attending the National Defense University as a continuation of the Afghan Hand program.
"The Afghans have a saying -- 'once the river cuts the gorge, even if it dries out the water will return,'" said Asman, who says, like the old adage, the airport is moving in the right direction and will continue to prosper. "Their economy will survive, but at what level I don't know, but if you move the economy along, there will be growth."
At the end of the day Asman catches up with his replacement Dean Samaniego at the airport. Discussing the day's activities, Samaniego asks Asman if he and Faizi talked about what happened yesterday.
"You look at the crocodile closest to the boat," Asman responded, knowing many times choosing which message to deliver often times is determined by the most critical and unexpected issue.