About the Author: Morgan O'Brien serves as Staff Assistant to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Morgan writes from Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan.
Over the past two days, I've had a front row seat as a cross-section of around 300 civilian and military experts from the United States, Afghanistan and the rest of the international community met for a "Rehearsal of Concept" (ROC) that turned an airport terminal building into a multinational conference center.
Co-chaired by my boss, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and General David Petraeus, commander of United States Central Command, the ROC Drill sought to dig deep with the Afghans and the international coalition into U.S. and ISAF thinking on the year ahead in Afghanistan. Dozens of key players from the field discussed the details of their plans and programs to promote an across-the-board, cooperative civilian-military, international and Afghan discussion on the challenges posed and ideas for making continued progress.
"Over the past year, we have consistently sought inputs from all of our partners to ensure we developed a comprehensive, civ-mil, counterinsurgency campaign," said General Petraeus. "This event, however, took that partnership to a new level. These were invaluable, very productive sessions."
The sessions were not only invaluable and productive, but fascinating to watch. It was refreshing to see such a wide array of nations -- with a dozen Ambassadors and 13 Afghan ministers and other senior officials, and international organizations -- talk with one another as partners sharing a common platform and common goal. Rather than theory, they looked at what could actually be done in the coming months. Sitting in the same room as a collection of individuals like ISAF commander General Stan McChrystal and President Karzai who will end up in my children's history books (if books exist when I have kids -- I'd continue, but I'm not sure if it would be appropriate for DipNote if I turned this post into a love letter to my new iPad), was a one of those moments that makes you appreciate the unique opportunities the Foreign Service provides.
As Ambassador Holbrooke and General Petraeus both pointed out numerous times over the past few days, the build up to this moment was the furthest thing from spontaneous. Last May's ROC Drill, held at Washington's Ft. Leslie McNair, laid the foundation for this year's event.
“While we identified a number of areas for improvement last year, it was virtually all American participants, something we wanted to improve upon for this year,” said Ambassador Holbrooke. “To get 300 people to Kabul took many, many months -- the planning for this event began during President Karzai's inauguration in November.”
In what Ambassador Holbrooke described as the "capstone" of the ROC Drill, President Karzai addressed the participants during the Sunday afternoon session, thanking attendees for coming to Afghanistan, and recognizing the value of this forum. Another moment I enjoyed was seeing the embassy interpreter -- a young Afghan man whose name I'm not going to mention here -- take tremendous pride in announcing the arrival of his President to the conference attendees. President Karzai's attendance was not just a big deal for the Afghan participants.
“President Karzai's participation carries great importance,” said Ambassador Holbrooke. “We greatly appreciate the fact that he came.”
In addition to President Karzai's brief visit, more than a dozen Afghan ministers and officials representing fields including intelligence, finance, policing, foreign affairs, trade, agriculture, justice, local governance and many others were on hand to participate in the discussion for most of the two days.
In Washington, desk officers often prepare background documents, meeting prep papers and information memos about foreign officials whom they may only know from embassy reporting cables. But the ROC drill brought Ministers Zakhiwal, Atmar, Popal, Wardak director Saleh and a host of others off the pages of briefing checklists and into the middle of the action. I saw these men share their thoughts about how to move their country forward with our leaders and saw the most prominent figures on all sides really listen to one another.
"We spent the last two days with some of the smartest, and most dedicated people in Afghanistan," said Jack Lew, Deputy Secretary of State.
The American co-chairs, the Afghan leaders, and the international representatives all agreed that the two-day event was a success and decided the practice should continue more frequently. "The last two days were so successful that we are planning another ROC drill here, in the near future," said Ambassador Holbrooke.
"We had a very good exchange on the topics discussed over the last two days," said General Petraeus. "But there are still seams and areas for improvement."
At the conclusion of the event, Ambassador Holbrooke and General Petraeus met with President Karzai to deliver a two-hour long outbrief and begin planning for future events, which will include not just an additional drill but also a visit by President Karzai to the United States in mid-May and the Kabul Conference in the summer.