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  John Schweiger '03

Alumni Profile: John Schweiger '03

Management expert fights counterinsurgency with better plan

By Aubrey Henretty

"I came to be considered a counterinsurgency expert mostly by learning it on the ground," says John Schweiger '03, a strategic planner for the U.S. Department of State. After three years in Afghanistan, Schweiger is drawing on his hard-won experience to give future government and military leaders a powerful insurgent-fighting tool he never had: a cohesive plan.

Schweiger, who spent four years in the U.S. Marines before coming to Kellogg, began work for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan in December 2003. The Taliban had fallen quickly after the U.S. attack in 2001 and President Hamid Karzai had been running the transitional government since 2002, but the nation lacked critical infrastructure in healthcare, education and national governance.

As a field officer for Nangarhar Province, Schweiger met with the province's governor and citizens and advised the local military commander. He worked alongside former professional development officers with highly specialized knowledge, but little sense of how to coordinate with other organizations — especially the military. "These were great technical people," he says, "but they just weren't managers." Within eight months of his arrival, Schweiger was asked to organize them, to become the manager they needed.

As he tried to bridge the gap between aid workers, policymakers and average Afghans, Schweiger was also dodging violent insurgents. In early 2004, he says, he was a passenger in a truck blasted with an improvised explosive device. The explosion wrecked the truck, but the passengers all walked away without any serious injuries. "They guy who blew it up was pretty incompetent. He detonated it too soon." It is a testament to Schweiger's high standard of "competence" that he adds nonchalantly, "If he'd waited one more second, he would have killed us all."

Soon, Schweiger became the civilian development adviser to Regional Command East, the military unit responsible for 16 of Afghanistan's provinces and a third of its population.

Searching for the right words to describe the task at hand, Schweiger settles on a business term: "We have a much better value proposition than the Taliban."

No one in Afghanistan longs for the days when such heretical activities as sending girls to school and flying kites were punishable by death, he says. Even so, it can be difficult to get local populations to embrace the official government and report insurgent activity. Fear of retribution and corrupt law enforcement keep many peace-loving citizens from speaking out.

"We're trying to create a situation in which the people can see that supporting the constitution and the Karzai administration is very much in their best interest," Schweiger says. In addition to identifying and quashing police corruption, he explains, it is important for any counterinsurgency team to strengthen and build trust among local communities.

"If you have to fight the enemy," the Kellogg grad says, "you're losing. You have to get the community to reject the enemy."

Schweiger left Afghanistan and USAID in June 2006 to join the Department of State, where he's translating the lessons he learned in Afghanistan into a handbook and developing a comprehensive strategy for the United States to use in future counterinsurgency and stabilization missions.

"There is no greater management challenge than making a public-sector entity work," he says, noting that "bureaucratic inertia" frequently resists oversight and change. "We need to have an institution that's responsible for accomplishing a mission. It's not like a company, where you either learn [from your mistakes] or go out of business."

Though the goals — to help people cast off their would-be oppressors and bring lasting peace to former war zones — are lofty, Schweiger's focus remains on the practical and the proven. "It's not just the things we're doing," he says. "It's how we structure ourselves to get them done."

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