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By Andrew Exnicios
On July 7, 2007, less than two months after my class graduated from the Full-time MBA Program at Haas, most of my classmates were on the verge of starting jobs in marketing, finance, and consulting. The economy was booming, signing bonuses were high, and the class of 2007 was taking a well-deserved break before hitting the job market in earnest. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles from Berkeley, I was already a world away as I reported for duty at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Though I had served in the Army prior to Haas, I never expected to find myself back in the military. But several months before graduation I received notice that the Army had further need of my services, and as a soldier I had to honor the commitment I had made to serve when called. So, after graduating in May and getting married in June, it was my time to return to my former life as an Army captain.
This time, though, things were different. Two years of general management education at Haas had equipped me with skill sets that most Army officers lack. Experiences working with classmates at Haas and as an MBA intern with Amazon.com in Seattle had shifted the way I thought about problem-solving. I would soon find out how useful those new skill sets would be in the developing world.
After six months of training at Fort Bragg I boarded a plane bound for Bagram Airfield, the primary US base in Afghanistan. Nestled in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, my home for the next 11 months was about 40 miles north of Afghanistan’s sprawling capital city of Kabul. I arrived on Christmas Eve.
Between December 2007 and October 2008 I had the honor to serve the citizens of Afghanistan as a civil military operations officer. I was a development adviser who helped devise and implement the US government’s development strategy for four provinces in central Afghanistan. My focus was on the transportation, energy, and education sectors, as our team tried to find ways to help Afghan leaders deliver basic services to their citizens. School construction was often at the very top of Afghan leaders’ to-do lists.
Building schools is one of the most visible, strategically important priorities for development workers in Afghanistan, and new school houses are highly sought after in Afghan communities. Beyond the educational benefits, the actual buildings often become symbols of progress and hope, and sources of great pride for Afghans. On the other hand, schools also provide excellent targets for anti-government groups. An under-resourced school or a poorly maintained facility can just as easily become a symbol of an ineffective Afghan government and an out-of-touch international development team.
In my role, I worked with senior military commanders to advise Afghan leaders at the local and national level to determine where to build schools, how they would be resourced, and what the strategic impacts would be to the affected population centers. It was a great first post-MBA job, and I liked to think of myself doing an 11-month IBD project (the Haas School’s International Business Development Program) but with body armor and firearms — because no matter how civilianized our mission was or seemed, the realities of being an American soldier in a war zone were always with me. I carried at least one, and often two, loaded weapons at all times. I traveled off of the US-run forward operating base about once a week on heavily armed ground or air convoys. I was lucky, and never came in harm’s way. Many of my friends and colleagues did.
It’s hard for me to believe, but I have been home now for over a year. Catching up with my friends from the classes of 2007 and 2008, I’m often asked what I think about the situation in Afghanistan now — should America stay, go, draw down, ramp up? I certainly have my opinions, and I’m happy to talk South Asia policy with anyone who is interested.
But I think my best answer is simply to say that it was an honor to serve the people of Afghanistan. It was humbling to work each day with Afghans striving to build their country, and I have great admiration for the international team of volunteer service people, thousands of miles from their homes, working just as hard as the Afghans. The challenges Afghans face are very real, and without short-term solutions. Regardless of how long America’s military engagement in Afghanistan lasts, my thoughts and prayers are with the Afghan people and their struggle to move past generations of struggle and pain.
Andrew Exnicios, MBA 07, in his office in Afghanistan.