As an intelligence analyst, Lisa deployed to South Korea and worked on intel issues related to the Korean peninsula. After leaving the Army she began working for the US Department of State on intel issues in Afghanistan. She discusses some of the key challenges that the Afghan government faces with the Taliban and with overall governance.
Interview conducted on June 14, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Lisa Smith
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Lisa Smith: Gelisha Smith.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
LS: Army. I served between 2008 and 2012.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
LS: E5, Sergeant.
RH: What was your MOS?
LS: 35F [spoken as thirty-five Fox] which is All-Source Intelligence Analyst.
RH: Cool. What is your current position?
LS: Currently I’m an RSO, Intelligence Analyst, for the Department of State. RSO is for Regional Security Officer.
RH: And based in?
LS: Based in Kabul, Afghanistan. Previous to my Kabul position I was in Herat, Afghanistan for a year then I transferred over to Kabul in November 2014.
RH: Good to go. When you were in the Army, what was your unit?
LS: I had multiple units. The first one I served in was Second Infantry Division. I was in Korea. That was my first main duty station. Then after that I served with Third Army at the Army Echelon so it was pretty higher up. That was located at Shaw Air Force base, South Carolina. When I was attached to the Third Army I had deployed to Kuwait as well as Jordan.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
LS: Initially I wanted to join the military as a mental health specialist. I was really fascinated learning about the psyche and definitely helping people who struggled with mental problems or mental illnesses. I joined the military because it seemed like it would be a great way to open up into that aspect as a psychologist. I planned to go into the military and go to school in the same project or same career plan. And then when I joined, they didn’t have it open so I waited about six months [laughs] for something to open up that I was really interested in and I saw intel analyst.
It kind of struck me as odd. What is an intel analyst? Finally I did some research and I just fell in love with the job and I joined and I’ve been an intel analyst since 2008.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
LS: Well, my uncle is a Marine. He is a retired Marine also a retired police officer so he was very supportive. My cousin is in the Air Force. She is a Tech Sergeant. She’s currently still in. My mom is actually a college professor so she thought that the best benefit that I’ll have from joining the military is that they pay for my education so she was all for it. [laughs] So my family was very supportive. My sister was a little, I guess you could say she was a little disheartened by the fact because I would be moving around a lot. She was the one that was the most worried about my decision.
RH: Alright. Where were you on September 11th?
LS: September 11th I was eleven years old so very young. I was definitely in school when it happened and the crazy thing – I was in school in Brooklyn – and the crazy thing is, when we found out it happened, the school kind of shut down. The teachers and the principal told the kids to call their parents so I tried to reach out to my parent and all of a sudden I get a knock on the door from the principal. They take me out of the class and they pull me aside and they say, “your mom, we can’t get in touch with her. We believe that she was in or around the building.” At that time I was just freaking out. I was like, “I don’t know what that means. What does that mean? What are you telling me?” Then finally, a couple of hours later, it was a miscommunication. My mom, even though she was in Manhattan, she was OK. She actually had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get to Brooklyn.
It was kind of a life changing moment for me at that time. I remember it vividly. I was really taken aback because I thought that she was in the building at that time and then I later on found out that my mom had turned down a job about two years before September 11th in the towers. So she could have been but it didn’t happen.
RH: What are some of your other memories of that day?
LS: I remember a lot of walking. [laughs] Nothing was running. The trains weren’t running. The busses weren’t running. We literally had to just walk and prayed that maybe cars would be on the road that had space. It was very crowded. At that time I didn’t really know what was going on. My aunt told me that she was able to see the second tower fall from her roof. She had cell phone footage and it wasn’t as clear as the ones on the news but watching it on her cell phone it was like, “what is going on?” It really didn’t hit us that this was an act of terror. My family was just like, “what the hell is going on?” We had no clue that it would become a war.
RH: Being a student and that young at the time, over the next couple months how did your school respond and how did the kids around you respond?
LS: You know, I can’t say that I actually agreed with the response. I felt like we were not taught anything after that. They tried to just go on as a regular day, regular school year, same curriculum. They really didn’t prepare us for what was to come and I guess it was because of our age. We probably wouldn’t take it as seriously. We had a couple of drills. I can’t remember them in detail – a couple of fire drills or emergency drills. As for learning about other countries or terrorism and what it means, war, we didn’t touch on that subject at all. So everything that I got information-wise was from the news when I was that age.
RH: Did New York City change at all and, if so, how?
LS: In my experience, yes. I think that for the most recent years after that incident, probably the next three to four years after September 11th, we were really sheltered from other cultures. We were paranoid at anything and any person. We kind of became ethnocentric. We didn’t really care for any other culture. I can see a lot of people get singled out because of their race at the store and businesses. Jokes were being made and things like that. It was kind of ignorant. I didn’t leave New York around that time so I can’t say how any other parts of America were reacting to this. I know that there are a lot of people who believe the nation got stronger, got together and came together but I really didn’t see that. In fact, I just see more of a divide against the culture of people because of the fear.
RH: Before we move on, any other significant September 11th memories or stories?
LS: No. I don’t have them. [laughs] I just remember watching it on the news which was, “wow! Crazy.”
RH: Alright. Good to go. When you joined the Army in 2008, what was boot camp like?
LS: It was fun. I spent a lot of my time crying [laughs] because of course we hear the term “new Army” and people say, “oh, the old Army is more tough. The new Army cares about your feelings. They don’t yell at you as much and they can’t hit you like they used to.” So I guess you can say I was a part of the new Army because none of that really happened. I can say that basic training did what it was supposed to do. It broke me down, made me realize my strengths and weaknesses and definitely built me back up because at the end it was one of the most joyous moments that I’ve ever had in my life to graduate basic training and actually finish the training.
We had a lot of heart to heart, touching moments and meetings as a company. My battle buddies and I, we would have little sit arounds and ask each other what made us join the Army or what type of family we grew up in. So it was emotional. It was. I definitely remember that and I definitely still talk to the people that I went to basic training with so it was very life changing.
RH: Good to go. What was your follow up training like?
LS: AIT – that’s Advanced Individual Training – was about four and a half months because I’m intel. That’s typically longer than any other MOS’s AIT so my AIT was a little bit more laid back because it wasn’t like a revolving door where people just were there for eight weeks like your typical AIT and then they leave for their first duty station. Ours was longer than basic training so we had a tighter bond. My AIT was very competitive and very tedious. There were a lot of people that would not make it through the cycles. They would have to start all over because the work was very hard. I passed. [laughs] Even though I did not get to graduate with my friends that I came into AIT with, I definitely still talk to them and we still keep in touch. They are still intel analysts. So it’s not one of those things where it’s a degree mill like, “hey, here you go.”
RH: OK. Where did you go to boot camp and where did you go to AIT?
LS: Boot camp was Fort Jackson, South Carolina and AIT was Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
RH: After AIT, where did you go to?
LS: That’s when I went to my first duty station in Korea. That was the first time I was ever outside of America. I was nineteen and I went to Camp Casey which is by the DMZ.
RH: What kind of work did you do there that you are allowed to talk about?
[Note: Lisa’s work in South Korea was not directly related to the Global War on Terrorism but since it is part of her overall military experience, it is included here.]
LS: What we mainly focused on was defensive and offensive tactics with North Korea. We were partnered with South Koreans and worked with South Korean soldiers as well. They would be attached to our unit. We called them ROK soldiers which is Republic of Korea. We had worked alongside them to help them train in the event of an attack from North Korea. There were many threats from North Korea. You would see it on the news too. Maybe missile training or their boats would go into South Korean waters. It was mostly filled with a lot of drills, my training over there in South Korea. But other than that the town was wonderful. The country is beautiful. I definitely had a real good time.
RH: What was it like working with the ROK soldiers?
LS: It was very interesting. What I learned was that as a male in South Korea – I didn’t know this prior to going there – you have to fulfill your duty of military service and be in the military for two years and that was for a contract. It was kind of like a draft, you could say. The ROK soldiers were very grateful and generous. They didn’t feel pressured to be in the military but they were very helpful. Most of them spoke very good English so they would be in the offices like the HR office alongside American soldiers. They were wonderful soldiers, wonderful helpers and of course they lived on camp with us as well. It was just like having South Korean soldiers in the US Army. It wasn’t that different. They just wore a different uniform.
RH: What are some of the memories that you have of being in Korea?
LS: One of the biggest exercises we had was the shelling of Daeyeonpyeongdo. It was on the news as well. Yeonpyeong is the name of the island. North Korea actually did hit that island which is South Korean territory. That was a big thing. They were ready to go. They were really ready thinking it was about to be an all-out war because there were soldiers and people living on Yeonpyeong Island. That kept us on twenty-four hour ops for about a week where we had to work continuously and work in shifts as well. It was very tiring. [laughs] But like I said, once again you learn that if you’re watching it from America you’re like, “oh my gosh. North Korea is really going to attack this time.” But then when you’re in South Korea it’s like, “ugh. Another drill.” [RH laughs] You know what I mean? It becomes like a part of the norm that North Korea is constantly threatening.
I truly believe that it was because of the state of their country – poverty-stricken people. I always told my friends and my family when they would be worried about me in South Korea, “look, North Korea is the type of country that is like a little kid crying out for help.” They would lash out but they really want attention. I felt like they were really, I can’t say jealous, but they were really hurt by the fact that no other country around them, especially America, would help them. Even though if we do help them, they don’t really distribute the help accordingly. They put it to their higher ranking people. I kind of felt like, for North Korea, that was their defense mechanism but it was really a cry for help.
RH: Did you have a chance to interact with any North Koreans at all?
LS: No, not at all. [laughs] Of course there are some North Korean fugitives living in South Korea undercover but of course they can’t tell you that straight out. They can’t say, “hey. I’m North Korean,” or else they’ll get deported. The war, because it divided their country, you have some family members living in South Korea that are North Korean. They try to cross over just to be with their family. That’s the main reason that I see why they try to come over to South Korea. That and, of course, to avoid the starvation in the country.
RH: I know this doesn’t have anything to do with the Global War on Terrorism but I find it endlessly fascinating [LS laughs] so I like talking about it. Before we move on so I can get it on the record, any other significant experiences in Korea that you’d like to talk about?
LS: Oh yes. I definitely forgot. When I was in Korea they did announce the death of bin Laden. I remember that we were all in the chow hall and we had the televisions on the wall. The president came on the TV and he discussed the capture of Osama bin Laden and we were just like, “yeah!” We were screaming and so happy. [laughs] But we were like, “it’s not over.” There’s still work to do. You have to capture all the guys. There are people who are the second in command. There are his minions out there. There are people who are still fighting his cause. We definitely knew that even though that was a big thing for America and for the war on terror, it did not close the chapter on what was about to come. Of course, as we know, after the death of Osama bin Laden there were still troops that were being killed in Afghanistan – even more so. It was a good thing but then we kind of felt like, OK, now we know it’s about to go down because these guys are going to try to avenge their leader, do you know what I mean?
RH: While you were in the Army, did you work on anything Afghanistan related and, if so, how?
LS: Somewhat. I was able to read some of the intel coming from our people in Afghanistan but they really didn’t reach that through because my mission was primarily Iran and North Korea when I was in the military. I understood what was going on but I didn’t provide any intel help.
RH: You said you worked with Iranian intelligence. Is there anything that you can talk about with that?
LS: No. I didn’t work with the Iranian intelligence. When I was in Kuwait my focus was the defense posture of the Arabian peninsula in the event Iran might start an attack. Even though they weren’t, in the event Iran might start their attack, we focused on how to prepare the Arabian peninsula, their soldiers and their government in order to defend that. And of course we always had eyes on any type of threats to the NATO partners. So I never worked with Iranians or anything like that.
RH: OK. When were you in Kuwait?
LS: I was in Kuwait about six months in 2012. It was broken up into three months each.
RH: What was your job while you were in Kuwait?
LS: It was intel analyst. I guess in Kuwait we were more focused on the order of battle. We really tried to build up defense structures in the event that something would happen.
RH: What did you do specifically?
LS: [laughs] I don’t know how to answer that. I definitely had a hand in building the battle rhythm and things like that but I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary that an All-Source Analyst would. We created products, briefings, data mined.
RH: After you got back from Kuwait, did you separate from the Army?
LS: Yes. I separated from Shaw Air Force Base. The Kuwait deployments were a part of my duty station at Shaw Air Force Base. I separated from the Army – honorable discharge. I served about three and a half years.
RH: What was your immediate post-military experience like?
LS: I worked for the National Ground Intelligence Center located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Do you know how they have NSA, NGA and all these different intel hubs? NGIC was another one of them so it was very prominent. It’s a part of the US Army actually. It’s a US Army branch. We focused a lot on providing scientific and targeting products for the guys overseas. So this position that I had did work a lot with our guys out in Afghanistan as a support and as a reach back center for them.
RH: What motivated you to apply for the State Department?
LS: While I was in the National Ground Intelligence Center, I really didn’t like my job there so I started looking for other jobs. One of my co-workers who later became one of my mentors helped me find this job. She told me, “OK. There is a job, it’s in Afghanistan though and it’s a very respectable position. It’s going to open the doors for a lot more to come. It’s a great networking position, great experience and you’ll definitely have a good resume.” So I applied and I got the job.
RH: Nice! When was this?
LS: 2013 of October. October 2013 was when I first deployed to Afghanistan. It was actually on my birthday when I landed here. [laughs] From January to July of 2013 is when I worked for NGIC and then I went through the training with my job now for about two months and then deployed in October.
RH: OK. Let’s go ahead and talk about your time in Afghanistan. What do you do in Afghanistan?
LS: Right now I’m an All-Source Intelligence Analyst again but this time I’m more of a politically-based All-Source Intelligence Analyst. We’re focusing more on the bigger picture like the politics of Afghanistan, the government as well as protecting the safety of our ambassadors as well as any VIPs that come into the country for meetings or important business.
My job here is very much different than the Army because we are not focusing on the enemy anymore. We’re not focusing on the guys on the ground doing their various activities. Our focus is more training and assisting the Afghan government and the Afghan soldiers to fight the war themselves, I guess you could say against the Taliban. We are more instructors here rather than fighting side by side with them.
RH: What do you remember most about arriving in Afghanistan for the first time?
LS: I’m actually the youngest person working here. [laughs] So I was very new. I was very wide-eyed, listening to everyone and looking around. It wasn’t my first civilian job because, like I said, I’d been working for the National Ground Intelligence Center so I can’t say I was wound up from the military mindset and nervous at seeing these high-ranking people. I did work with ambassadors and brief ambassadors but it was very new to me.
As for the country, on the ride from the airport to my compound, I got to look outside and I’ve never seen anything like it, how Afghanistan looked and how people are. The men stare a lot at me [laughs] because, I guess, I’m an African-American female and they probably haven’t seen a black person in their lives. They’re very staring at me. [laughs]
I saw a lot of weird activities. You can find four people riding a bicycle at the same time. Sometimes you see people with goats, just herding goats down busy streets with cars too. I saw a lot of older model vehicles as well. It’s kind of like stepping in a time zone, you could say. Of course that’s expected. It is a developing country. I’ve been to Dubai and to Kuwait so I know what sandy areas look like but this area was just, it was kind of sad because it was definitely a result of war. They never built up from that Soviet era.
RH: Let’s talk a little bit about the politics of Afghanistan. Could you describe a bit about the Afghan government right now and maybe a little bit about the Taliban and where they stand right now?
LS: As you may or may not know, the Taliban’s sole purpose is to be recognized as a legitimate government themselves. They want to show their people that, “hey, we’re the government of the Taliban and we can run the country better than the own Afghan government.” So that’s the big divide between the Afghan government and the Taliban right now. They actually do have a government-like structure. They’re not just a bunch of wild people running around shooting people. They actually tried to develop their own treasury, their own department that would handle certain things. They are really trying to be recognized as a legitimate government. The only reason why they aren’t being recognized as a government is the way they go about things with violence and the great discrimination against women and children. They’re trying to rule with an iron fist you could say but it’s completely undemocratic the way they’re going about it.
As for the Afghan government, the Afghan government is really, in my opinion, they’re very new. When a person comes into a room they are observant of everything but they’ll try to mimic. Instead of coming up with a new idea they may feel the need to mimic other in order to fit in. So they’re a very pleasing government. They want to please everybody but really can’t come up with their own ideas in the moment.
We’re trying. Another thing I want to emphasize is that it’s not just America that’s here. A lot of people get that confused. I see it a lot on social media, “oh, you’ve never taken the troops out America! America sucks because they’re still running Afghanistan.” We’re not the only country here. I’ve worked with German military. I’ve worked with Italian military. Russians are over here. The South African government is over here. We all have our embassies around Kabul City. The Australians. All over has their footprint in Afghanistan to help to them build and be a support system for them while they’re growing into this democratic government.
As for the democratic elections, I was in Afghanistan for their first ever elections after the reign of Karzai who had been the president of Afghanistan.
RH: What were the dates of those elections?
LS: The election was 2014. It was April 2014. I was in Herat, Afghanistan during the elections. Just like ours, they had their two main runners and, at the end of it, people got a chance to vote. The voting process was evolutionary for Afghanistan. It was very sad because you had the Taliban and their supporters attacking these voting booths, stopping them from voting which is very much similar to what we went through with our civil war and our civil rights movement with people being opposed to black Americans voting. They would attack the centers and they would attack the people as they were going to vote. You saw the same thing over here. Of course they used war-like materials. It wasn’t like America where people would do it undercover but they were very out in the open with it in Afghanistan.
But they went and they still voted. They were not afraid. The people were very brave. The Taliban did not hold them back. There were two elections: a preliminary one and a final one. The final one was June 14th and we were concerned because we were thinking that nobody is going to come out to this one because of what just happened in the preliminaries. But they came out stronger than ever and they voted and they got their first president. He’s completely different from Karzai.
RH: How so?
LS: He’s different in a way where Karzai – I can’t speak personally because I wasn’t in Afghanistan during his reign but a lot of people were dissatisfied with Karzai. I guess they wanted something new. They were just tired of him, maybe they thought he was corrupt, they just wanted something new. So now with Ashraf Ghani, who is the president now, I see that most of the people are not trying to overthrow him. They’re happy with their decision because they voted for their decision. Ashraf Ghani is educated. He actually went to school in America. He is college educated as well so he is definitely a good representative of Afghanistan’s change.
RH: What are some of the changes that you have seen since his election?
LS: I’m not sure if this is a result of his presidency but, like I said, we changed from fighting side by side with the Afghan soldiers to training them. I can’t speak on what Ashraf Ghani and President Obama agreed on because I don’t know [laughs] but I do know that since his transition, we have become more of a training assist for Afghanistan.
What I do know is that people just watch the news or are on social media, when President Obama announced the drawdown they expected five hundred planes full of soldiers leaving Afghanistan and everyone’s home and that’s that. But that’s not what a drawdown means. A drawdown is we’re getting rid of the Special Forces or we’re getting rid of the fighting and targeting and we’re going to leave that area so we’ll remove those people who are strictly for that type of job but we’ll keep the construction workers, we’ll keep the intel analysts such as myself and we’ll keep the support here. That’s basically what the drawdown means.
Honestly, supportive roles – because we are confined to the embassy and are confined to camps, we’re not out in the open like our soldiers would be – they’re in less danger than if we were still out here as a tactical footprint. I never experienced any day where I felt in danger over here and I’ve been in Afghanistan for about two years. [laughs]
RH: Do you move around the country at all?
LS: No. Not all. It is still dangerous out there. I can’t say that Afghanistan is the next country to have a resort [both laugh] or for people to come out and visit. It’s still very dangerous. Actually, we did have a man come here who wanted to backpack. An American wanted to backpack across Afghanistan. We were totally thinking that he’s completely crazy and I think he actually did it. I haven’t followed the story on the news but some people think that it’s really safe but there’s still precautions to take.
RH: What are your interactions with the Afghans like?
LS: I love them! [laughs] I do. They are hilarious, they are so happy and so kind. When I was in Herat, we employed the Afghan local nationals in roles on our embassy and on our compound. Of course they go through their security clearances, they go through interview processes that are thorough but they are allowed to work here. We have them in kitchens or we have them just doing labor work or building. They come and they help rebuild some of our buildings here – construction.
In Herat I remember one of my funniest experiences with an Afghan local national was that he came up to me and he said, “hey! Did you hear?” I’m like, “hear what?” He was like, “Rihanna is pregnant.” [RH laughs] I was like, “what? Rihanna?” You know, the American singer. He was like, “yes. She’s pregnant.” I was like, “no she’s not.” And he was like, “oh! It’s a rumor! Ha ha ha!” [laughs] So they are interested in our pop culture. I see them with jewelry and wearing the same kind of clothes as us, the same brands. They’re very interested in our pop culture.
As for Kabul, one of the first things they’ll ask me is, “what is your name?” And I will tell them and every time they see me they’ll say, “hey Lisa! Hey Lisa! Hey Lisa!” They’re very attentive. They’re very kind and generous people.
RH: OK. Excellent. Do you work with anybody in the government?
LS: No. The Afghan government leaders only have interactions with our government leaders. Of course, I guess that’s just the way it goes. Ambassadors only really talk to ambassadors. They leave it up to the upper echelon kind of people.
RH: Since you’ve been there, what do you think are some of the greatest challenges to governance that the Afghan government has faced?
LS: Dependency. They will definitely have to be able to run it themselves. I kind of feel like we kind of had a hand in that as well because we were always there for them so they probably don’t know anything different if we completely leave – when we completely leave. Like I said, there will always be a reach-back over here and there will always be partners here. We have embassies everywhere. We have them here, we have them in South America. I think that the embassy here will always stay here but I don’t want the government to believe that, in the event something happens that’s dangerous, America’s going to load up the planes and fly over here like we did in the past because it’s not going to happen.
RH: Going forward, do you think that Taliban will ever be able to be brought into the process or are they just so violent and so against good governance that they’re impossible to work with?
LS: No. I did see some trying with the Taliban. They would have, I can’t say negotiations because they can’t really negotiate but they would try to have talks with the Afghan government. They would try to come to a certain understanding. Was there ever a reasoning coming from that? No. I don’t think so, or at least it wasn’t released into the open or to the media – the result of what those talks were. I have seen their leaders try to set up some meetings with Afghan government leaders. Their approach is they feel like, “hey, we can’t get heard with screaming and fighting. Let’s try a different approach. Let’s try a more professional approach.”
Do I believe that the Taliban will ever become a legitimate government? No. I think that they’re more of a tyranny than a democratic government which Afghanistan did vote for and want. They had an option. This wasn’t something that was just imposed on them by America or by NATO partners. They had an option. Do you want a new leader? OK. Let’s show you how the voting process goes. Did they vote for the Taliban? No. [laughs] There were rumors that there were candidates who were siding with the Taliban. The Taliban put their candidates into the government process or at least attempted to. Those were the rumors. I can’t confirm or deny that. Obviously the guy didn’t win. These people know what they want and obviously they don’t want to be ruled by the Taliban so I don’t think that they will ever succumb to the Taliban’s governance.
RH: Can you describe a little bit about the ethnic makeup of Afghanistan and how does that contribute to their politics?
LS: It’s a huge contributing factor. You have different types of tribal affiliates in Afghanistan. They’re broken up into different types of tribes. I don’t know all of them offhand. Basically, tribes go hand in hand with their trust. If you come from the same tribe, even though you’re from a different province, you’ll automatically gain their trust. They have a strong, familiar bond with them.
The tribal aspects of that played a big part in the elections as well. Many people said that the only reason that Ashraf Ghani won is because his tribal affiliation was the majority of the population. It makes sense. The majority of the population or some of the population is illiterate. They can’t read or write. How they will learn is through their family and their friends telling them things so you have that word of mouth type of thing and if it’s coming from your tribe you’re going to be like, “OK, I trust this. I’m going to vote for this guy because he’s a part of my ethnic background.” Or, “I don’t like this guy because he’s a part of a tribe that I don’t get along with,” rather than going through their type of campaigning to have positions and things like that. You have to think about that as well.
Everything came from word of mouth with these people. Some things. I can’t say that the whole country is based on rumors. The campaigning was very strong and very similar to ours where they would travel from province to province, capital to capital to give a speech. So they were able to talk to people who cannot read or write. But then you have other people who are in more rural areas that can’t do both and they are just going off of their tribal makeup.
RH: Can you describe the role of women in Afghan society and, with the new government, is that going to change at all going forward?
LS: Yes. It already changed. Women are taking roles in the government as well. You have women in ministries, women who are ministers. They have a different department. They have a defense department, an agricultural department so you have women that actually work in these departments which are so critical to the capital of Afghanistan Kabul and so critical to the government. And then you have them taking on higher roles and getting respect. But they are definitely building up a type of relationship where they can be respected the same as their male counterparts.
But that’s just in the city. As for the more rural areas, no. Women are still just carpet makers or housewives or farmers. Not even farmers because that’s too much labor but definitely simple tasks and simple roles like that. So hopefully what’s going on in Kabul will spread in Afghanistan but I’m thinking it’s going to have to take time.
RH: How has ISIS and events going on in the Middle East affected Afghanistan, if at all?
LS: I haven’t seen it affect it. That’s their war over there. I haven’t seen it come over here even though the media will say, “we’re worried about this. This is our biggest fear.” But I haven’t seen it. I can’t speak for other provinces, just the one that I’m living in. I haven’t seen anything like that. But like I said, we’re not really focused on targeting people anyways so that’s just something that we are trying to train up the government to handle and the soldiers to handle themselves.
RH: Alright. Perfect. Before I move onto some of my concluding questions, is there anything else about your time in Afghanistan that I left out that’s significant?
LS: No! I think you got all the information.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So I always ask a couple of spiritual questions. Has being in Afghanistan affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
LS: No. I am not religious. Me personally, I’m really open to knowledge about every religion and I respect them. There are times where I’m driving on the road, I have to be careful because there is someone literally praying on the side of the road. Typically, some people probably won’t understand it or it will aggravate them. I don’t know. [laughs] It hasn’t affected me and my beliefs. It doesn’t make me feel like, “oh, maybe I should become a Muslim or maybe I should switch over.” That is something that some people do when they travel over here. They try to adapt to the religion and practice it but I’ve never been interested in practicing any religion so it hasn’t really affected me.
RH: OK. Good to go. Last couple questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about Afghanistan that you have found to be not true?
LS: That everyone is the Taliban. [laughs] Or that everyone is fighting and the place is just full of negativity. It’s really not. Or especially that Afghan people are uneducated or illiterate. There are colleges here. One of them is actually called the American University. These people want to learn. They want to become a better country, use their resources accordingly and they’re not just sitting here getting ran over by American tanks or Russian tanks. The misconception is that we’re just over here fighting everyone which really frustrates me. I understand that the media has to have its views. It has to get its viewers so they turn out these strong headlines and terrible things and it kind of warps American minds into thinking that’s why we’re here. It’s one of the big misconceptions that we’re here for fighting.
RH: If you could communicate something to people in the State Department years or even generations from now that are going to be doing this kind of work, what would it be?
LS: Definitely have etiquette. It’s definitely helpful to approach things with an open mind and a professional mind. Don’t go there after watching hours of Fox News or join these types of jobs after watching hours of Fox News and have biases. You have to have an open mind. I definitely think that when you are behind this desk and doing the work that we do, it’s very hard to disagree with what you’re reading or feel so strongly about something but that’s why you take things with a grain of salt. You’re there to do a job rather than put your emotional output into it.
RH: How have you grown since you’ve been in Afghanistan?
LS: I was just talking about this too to my friend. [laughs] Travelling and, especially coming to places where you are experiencing the bare necessities, it definitely makes you more – how do I say? – tolerant. It definitely makes you more tolerant to things that are going on in social media, things that are going on in America, in the world. A story came out recently about a white woman pretending to be black and she became the head of the NAACP in Washington State because she had been living as a black person for about ten years even though she’s really white. I just saw a lot of outrage from African Americans and, at the end of the day, me being an African American I wasn’t really as worried or offended or outraged by it because I know that people – and I’ve learned this from traveling – if you don’t like something you change it whether it be your gender or your race or something. I can’t say that everyone should go ahead and pretend to be someone that they’re not [laughs] but if you truly feel like you’re not living happily, then try to get there. Be as happy as you can be.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
RH: Alright. And my last question. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your time at the State Department?
LS: I would definitely say every rotation is an accomplishment because this job is highly and extremely competitive. [laughs] I’m very happy to be working here and working as long as I’ve done which is, trust me, longer than most of the guys who come through here. So I‘ve grown professionally. I definitely get that a lot from my boss, that he sees a change in me. I’m less timid as well. I’m more confident about my work. I would say that’s my biggest accomplishment.
RH: Alright! Good to go. Anything else?