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Scott Alamanach

FDA Compliance

Going Low Profile in Afghanistan

Customer relations 101: Remember whose turf you’re on.

Published: Monday, June 15, 2009 - 09:40

This is the second report from the author, who is currently working in Afghanistan. Don’t miss his first article,Ensuring Quality in a War Zone.” 
--Editor

They told us the road was clear. They didn’t say it was safe; it was a dirt road that ran seven kilometers through the district of Shah Wali Kot, the Taliban’s primary stronghold. But Dahla Dam Road was in a sparsely populated rural area, where almost no one lived. There were perhaps four villages in the vicinity of the road, and none of these, we were told, were large enough to bother contacting. So the road, they assured us, was clear.

The Dahla Dam, a defunct hydroelectric dam originally built by the U.S. government during the 1950s, is in need of serious repair, but heavy equipment cannot traverse the seven-kilometer dirt stretch between the dam and the nearest paved road. For this reason, we were hired to pave the way to the dam. Dahla Dam Road was a high-profile project; the Prime Minister of Canada was being updated on it, so the client was in a hurry for us to begin. They encouraged us to bring in armed guards, armored vehicles, and whatever other hard security we could think of, anything that would get us moving quickly.

Dahla Dam

For the client’s sake, we refused this approach. If you want to accomplish anything constructive in southern Afghanistan, hard security is not the way to go. Afghan men are protective of their women and children, and they don’t want armed strangers hanging around their town. We sent our native-Afghan team members to check out the territory. They reported that there were more than a dozen villages that considered Dahla Dam Road as part of their turf. We would have to get all those villages on board before we could begin work.

We were able to arrange a meeting with some of the men from these villages. Dressing as an Afghan and travelling in an ordinary vehicle, one member of our team slipped into Shah Wali Kot and sat with these men over tea. One of our Afghan staff acted as guide and interpreter. The villagers asked questions about the proposed road project, curious to know who we were and what intentions we had. These proceedings were delicate, but our willingness to come into their village, sit with them, and hear them out earned us a great deal of credit. The men agreed to arrange a meeting with all the elders of the area.

A few weeks later (a delay the client found interminable), our entire team came to Shah Wali Kot, again dressed as Afghans and moving as the locals do. To our astonishment, elders from more than 50 villages had turned out. Despite what the client had told us, the road was anything but clear—there were thousands of people who felt they had a stake in it. Had we barged in with hard security and no regard for the community, we’d have been cut to ribbons.

Our meeting went phenomenally well. The elders were pleased that the road would be paved, and they were glad that someone had thought to ask their permission about it first. They could, and subsequently did, tell the local Taliban commanders, quite bluntly, that this road project was not to be harmed; it was under the elders’ protection. Area residents were hired to provide security, and to date there has not been a single threat on the project. I know no other project in Shah Wali Kot that can make that claim.

Discuss

About The Author

Scott Alamanach’s picture

Scott Alamanach

G. Scott Alamanach Mikalauskis is a problem solver with interpersonal, team-building, and cross-cultural skills that have led him to be a quality assurance manager, project manager, and team leader in various countries. He has designed, implemented, and managed training programs and construction projects in some of the most remote and dangerous places on earth. He has also written quality manuals, project proposals, and quality management system implementation plans, and published several articles. He has bachelor degrees in mechanical engineering and humanities. For more information, visit www.linkedin.com/in/gscottmikalauskis.