‘Slow but steady progress’ in Afghanistan, alumnus reports

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    Pittman, center, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., during a U.S. visit with Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Youth Affairs Taimoor Eshaqzai and LTG Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, president of the Afghan Olympic Committee. (Photo courtesy of Hal Pittman)

Rear Adm. Hal Pittman will soon retire from a 29-year-military career, having spent the past year as the senior ranking public affairs officer in the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

"I've reached the highest rank I can achieve, so it's time to move on to other leadership challenges," the 1983 Appalachian State University graduate said in February, shortly before transitioning out of his position as chief communication officer for all U.S. forces and NATO in Afghanistan.

With four generals and 275 people working for him, Pittman's job has entailed everything from media relations and strategic planning to crisis communication, communication with top military officials, and outreach with Afghan officials and communities, including development of sustainable community-based sports programs.

The greatest challenges of his work have been "dealing with the intricate political nature" in Afghanistan. "You're not the only organization, and it's a sovereign nation and the Afghans are in charge. You're dealing with an environment with all the politics of an emerging democracy and also with NGOs and international organizations in the mix, and it's in the midst of an insurgency so there are individuals actively fighting the government and individuals undermining the government. When you put all those things together, it's a hugely challenging mission to craft a narrative that resonates."

NATO and U.S. forces have made "slow but steady progress" in the goal to form a stable Afghan government that can continue to improve the lives of the average Afghan, Pittman said.

He points to the 8 million Afghan youth now in school, 40 percent who are girls, compared to the fewer than 1 million children, all boys, in school under the Taliban.

"It's not irreversible at this point, but there has been progress across the board. Every week we brief statistics such as the number of attacks, and the enemy's ability to wage war is dropping and the enemy's morale is dropping," he said.

"The people of Afghanistan don't want to return to the dark ages of the Taliban. They like their freedoms, they like their cell phones, they like having media, the women like being able to work and have some semblance of rights that they didn't have under the Taliban."

What's not in the news

Asked his opinions of the U.S. news media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, Pittman said that despite continued progress, journalists tend to focus on the violence.

"It's unfortunate. There are blips of transparency, but the media doesn't necessarily provide an accurate portrayal," he said.

"The Americans haven't seen the Afghan people like I have, up close and personal, going to their houses for dinner. They're people who are generous, loving and want the same things that Americans want: to have their kids grow up and have a better life than they did. That's a story not told by the American media. If we turn on our televisions, we think that all Afghans are crazy-looking bearded guys who want to kill us, and that's not true."

Another less-told story has been the International Security Assistance Force's sports diplomacy program, which in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy is building sustainable, community-based sports programs across the country.

"I've seen the difference sports can make, particularly with kids in underprivileged neighborhoods, and it can unite ethnic groups," said Pittman, a certified coach in multiple sports who has been a member of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States and coach at the AAU's Junior Olympic games.

"In Afghanistan, 68 percent of the population is under age 25. It has the largest number of elementary-school aged children of any country in the world. These youth don't have a voice or many prospects for school or for jobs. By expanding sports, it gives them that much more to do to create an alternate future and avoid the things they could fall into which includes drugs, crime or the Taliban," Pittman said.

The rear admiral used his position and regular communications with Afghan ministries to make contact with the Afghan Olympic Committee and build partnerships in local communities, which has led to the training of coaches and construction of multi-purpose fields and sports facilities.

As part of that project, the U.S. Embassy and military refurbished Ghazi Olympic Stadium in Kabul – which the Taliban used as a place of execution – with new turf, lighting and score board in 2011. "What was once a killing field, we brought to life as a re-born sports stadium," Pittman said.

His team brought Afghan leaders to the U.S. to tour four or five cities' sports programs and facilities, including the U.S. Olympic training Center, and establish relationships with sports organizations. A reciprocal trip took place in February in which eight seasoned U.S. coaches conducted leadership training with 160 Afghan young people between the ages of 18 and 25 – half of them women – so they could go back to their communities and create sustainable basketball, volleyball, soccer and tae kwon do programs. A similar leadership training trip is being planned for April in handball, boxing and Olympic weight lifting.

"I wanted to make sure when I left that there were sports organizations that were willing to provide support to Afghanistan, because quite honestly anything that they provide is more than the Afghans have," he said.

"This gives hope, gives heroes and gives Afghan youth an opportunity to be involved in something good," he said.

An international education

In his career, Pittman has served as acting deputy assistant Secretary of Defense, commanded the Joint Public Affairs Support Element and served as a special assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Following the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, he served as senior military spokesman in Yemen.

His military decorations include three Defense Superior Service Medals, three Defense Meritorious Service Medals, four Meritorious Service Medals, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals and three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals. He also holds a master's degree in journalism and public affairs from American University and was a Seminar XXI Fellow with MIT's Center for International Studies.

He enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Appalachian in 1983. He was commissioned as an officer, and said it was through the military that he gained focus and leadership skills.

"I had a great time at Appalachian, but at the time I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was capable of doing," he said. After earning a bachelor's degree in recreation management, he decided to join the Navy because of family influence, a poor economy and the lure of travel opportunities.

He has been to 70-80 countries in his Navy career, and "my eyes have been opened up by traveling," he said. Most of the past 15 years, he's been stationed in the Middle East and Central Asia.

He encourages young people to travel internationally and applauds Appalachian's focus on international education. "I think it's fabulous for young people to experience other cultures. That's something that's missing – Americans are often too provincial. It's a great learning experience for world history, international relations, political science and understanding the dynamics people deal with in other cultures," he said. "It's helpful to understand where people come from."

"Anytime you have cultural understanding and you can interact with people with a level of cultural sensitivity, it helps. I don't know if it will stop wars or not, but it will help us understand people, help us be able to react with more nuance and not be ugly Americans. We'll have a cadre of people more educated about the world and therefore able to make more educated decisions, and hopefully that will lead to more educated policymakers in the future on behalf of our country."