Arms and Man at Yale

by Annie Carney:

While most Yale students interned in D.C., took classes, or traveled to Europe, Whitney Haring-Smith’s summer job was the stuff of which boyhood fantasies are made: he got to work with guns and ammunition.

But there was nothing playful or glamorous about his work, as Haring-Smith, MC ’07, discovered when he arrived at the site of his internship: Kabul, Afghanistan. It was there that Haring-Smith served for two months as an operations assistant for the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups, a program coordinated by the United Nations Development Program through its Afghanistan’s New Beginnings Program. Work this dangerous and delicate would seem to demand more expertise and experience than a college student could provide, but Haring-Smith did not let his youth deter him from taking on the job, which afforded him the opportunity to be in the midst of a changing political climate.

Whitney Haring-Smith sits on a short-range, ground-launched missile (similar to a SCUD) at Khairabad Ammunition Depot in August 2006. The missile is disarmed and awaiting demolition as part of the work of the Afghanistan's New Beginnings Program of the UNDP in Afghanistan.

After interning the previous summer with the U.S. Department of Defense and getting in touch with several contacts, Haring-Smith was offered the position. Because of the political instability in Afghanistan, student travel there is not sanctioned by Yale, but this internship was under the auspices of the United Nations. So after the necessary security checks and some preliminary preparation, Haring-Smith was on a flight to Kabul in early June.

Asked the obvious question, “Why Afghanistan?” Haring-Smith explained, “I wanted to go there because I felt it was a place where a difference could be made.” He said that working on basic social service issues—for example, on education or environmental projects—is appealing, but progress in these areas is impossible in the absence of a secure environment. Thus, disarmament work appealed to him because of its long-range impact on the stability of the country. He also wanted to work in an area where “precedents were being set.” According to Haring-Smith, “The decisions being set now in Afghanistan are not only affecting Iraq, but how NGOs, international organizations, and national militaries operate across the globe.”

Haring-Smith is not alone in being drawn to a political hotspot; whether out of altruism or hubris, many Yale students seem compelled to travel to places of crisis. But Haring-Smith is extreme. He had looked into working in Iraq, but he decided on Afghanistan in part because he felt it held a greater potential for progress. One critical difference between the two countries, he argued, is their demographic distribution. “The Iraq War is largely waged in cities,” Haring-Smith said. “There are some underpopulated areas such as Anbar province, but you are primarily fighting for cities, whereas in Afghanistan, the majority of the population doesn’t live in anything we would call a city.” This difference, he argued, allows for greater possibilities in creating a stable environment and promoting social services.

Haring-Smith was remarkably candid about the prior knowledge and skills he did—and did not—bring to the project. He spent the long hours on the airplane and during the layover at Dubai reading hundreds of pages of briefings, filled with byzantine flow charts, complex acronyms, and “Worst-Case Scenario”-type subheadings. He did not speak Dari or Pashtu, so he had to rely heavily on translators. His munitions knowledge was gained largely from on-the-job training. While certified experts were to handle the highly technical issues, Haring-Smith still had to learn a considerable amount about weaponry to conduct his internship. “I can handle rounds, I can tell you which came from China and the former USSR and which came from Britain or Iran—skills you develop from working the job,” he told the Globalist. But Haring-Smith is a quick study, and his leadership skills, an understanding of the UN bureaucracy, and knowledge of the political situation in Afghanistan served him well.

The disarmament program’s primary goal is to collect as much illegal ammunition as possible: while internationals provide the logistical and technical support, the Afghan government is responsible for the project, with local officials ostensibly taking the lead in the collection of arms. The government’s incentive for disarmament is the promise of development assistance, but as Haring-Smith discovered, development promises were often slow in coming—as was voluntary compliance in the disarmament process. In fact, Haring- Smith believes the biggest challenge to the disarmament mission is the lack of development resources. “You need a solid commitment from the international community to fund assistance operations, to build roads and schools and power plants,” he said. He believes that whether the project is nationalized or run by international organizations is secondary to the need for the resources themselves.

Haring-Smith’s specific assignment was to coordinate efforts of various munitions experts and to encourage local officials to collect illegal weapons in their areas, which led him to several provinces around Afghanistan. As Haring-Smith discovered, encouraging compliance was often a difficult enterprise. He explained that negotiation meetings with the local authorities were often “tricky business.” Haring-Smith jokingly said that the success of these meetings was measured by whether figures of authority shook your hand after the meeting or shot at your vehicle, but his humorous comment was not without a measure of seriousness.

Haring-Smith spoke frankly about the successes and failures of the disarmament program. One of the greatest obstacles, he claimed, is the sheer number of weapons in the country. Describing his first assignment in Mazar province, Haring-Smith recounted how his team collected almost two hundred weapons, from rifles to automatic machine guns to mortars, about half of which were probably serviceable. “Certainly anyone in the U.S. who found that amount and caliber of weaponry would have done a significant amount to make a neighborhood safe,” he said. “But one of the difficulties of this job was that you could spend two days driving around the Afghan countryside collecting weapons, come back with a truckload, and still have done little to actually improve security.”

The ubiquity of ammunition throughout Afghanistan is dangerous, as much is stored in ammunitions depots with scant security. But most Afghans have grown immune to the presence of weapons throughout the countryside. What Haring-Smith referred to as “the scraps of war”—debris left over from decades of fighting—litter the countryside, and Afghans have put this leftover ammunition to interesting uses. He described how Afghan homeowners use cartridge shells from 100mm and 122mm artillery rounds as support beams to reinforce their roofs or to provide makeshift chimneys.

The various disarmament measures, Haring-Smith explained, take place gradually, one small success at a time. Haring- Smith noted that much of his work was fairly routine, but the management of projects often required ingenuity and organizational skill. In one project that Haring- Smith orchestrated, a warlord agreed to turn over several tons of ammunition, but the village where the weapons were stored was several miles from a paved road, making transport a challenge. Destroying the weapons on-site was not a viable option either, so Haring-Smith decided to use a common Afghan mode of transportation: donkeys. Negotiating with dozens of locals and commandeering a sufficient number of pack animals for what came to be known as “the donkey mission” was no small task, but Haring-Smith successfully pulled it off, and a convoy of donkeys made its way down the steep mountain paths loaded with mortars and BM-1 rockets.

“It was difficult to work on disarmament in a country where there are so many guns and bombs and feel satisfied at the end of day,” Haring-Smith confessed. “But the reason you are providing security is not security for its own sake but for what it enables.” He pointed out that his project’s work on heavy artillery and associated helicopter missiles was considered successful, though he again emphasized that the disarmament work is important not only for reducing the potential for large-scale conflict, but also for creating a safe environment for the people. In the end, what you want is “a baseline so that you can do public health, development, public education, environmental remediation,” Haring- Smith said. “It is the gate key to all of the issues that improve quality of life in these countries. At least that’s how I slept at night.”