May 2012 Features

Primary Sources: The Perfect Job

A. Heather Coyne ’94 landed her dream job, working in international conflict management. The catch? She had to join the U.S. Army.

Interviewed by Katy June-Friesen


In Afghanistan, A. Heather Coyne ’94 gives a presentation to a class of journalists learning to cover issues of corruption. Photo courtesy of Coyne.

In Afghanistan, A. Heather Coyne ’94 gives a presentation to a class of journalists learning to cover issues of corruption. Photo courtesy of Coyne.

Army Reserve Capt. A. Heather Coyne ’94 is an expert in international conflict management, military and local civilian relations, and community-based approaches to strengthening civil society in conflict zones. Despite being a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal,” Coyne joined the Army because it was the only way to pursue her “dream job.” She deployed to Iraq in 2003 to work as a civil affairs officer, but disenchanted with the U.S. military’s mission there, she left to pursue nonmilitary positions with the U.S. Institute of Peace’s conflict mediation program in Iraq and its Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, where she focused on the Arab-Israeli, Kashmir, and Niger Delta conflicts.

Coyne has spent the past two years in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, where she helped lead civil affairs efforts as the NGO and international organizations liaison for the NATO Training Mission. An outspoken critic of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, she also writes and speaks widely about the relationship between development, governance, and security.

When we spoke in mid-March, Coyne was visiting family in California before returning to Afghanistan, where she will continue her work on community policing with the Afghan National Police, this time as a member of the Police Advisory Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

Katy June-Friesen: How did you end up in the military?

A. Heather Coyne: Coming out of grad school, I had the perfect job in mind. It was an overlap between security, governance, and development and looking at the relationships between civil and military [arenas]. I called around to all the NGOs, and they all said, “Oh, no, we don’t deal with the military. We don’t deal with security issues. We don’t work in combat zones.”

So I sort of gave up and became a bureaucrat at OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget]. I was reading about all these different special operations programs and stumbled across the description of civil affairs, which is the Army unit that deals with civil-military relations in conflict. I was looking at it, going, “Ha-ha, there’s my dream job, only it’s in the Army.” By the end of the week, I was calling the recruiters even though I just felt horrified. I had never, ever in my life considered joining the military.

KJF: Your feelings about the 2003 invasion of Iraq changed significantly after you deployed to Baghdad to do civil affairs work. In a piece you wrote for The American Interest magazine, you called the U.S. military’s efforts “amateur hour.” Why?

AHC: We were trying to help Iraqis set up governance, and what we ended up doing was pushing them to get outcomes that we wanted.

We weren’t paying attention to the process of setting up communications and interactions and relationship building, and all those things that make it possible for people to pursue their own interests and to work for their own agenda. And that really crippled their ability to develop a system so they could do it for themselves. You could have gotten huge results because people were so excited. They wanted to participate. They wanted to be part of reforming their government. And we didn’t give them any channels to do so.

But … it wasn’t just the military—it was the civilians, and it was even the organizations that traditionally should know how to do it, like USAID. Everybody was doing the wrong thing. Everybody was so uncoordinated that they would stumble over each other and undermine each other’s program.

KJF: Why did you think you could do better work in Iraq with the U.S. Institute of Peace [USIP], and what were your main goals in this position?

AHC: USIP is all about conflict management and trying to get people engaged in managing their own local conflicts instead of going in there and telling them, “We’re going to fix it for you.” So that was much more appealing.

USIP was working with women’s NGOs that had ideas for doing self-management projects in their own communities. We were also working on interreligious, intersectarian violence and helping bring different sects together to look at nonviolent approaches to their conflict. Then there was a huge piece on rule of law, where we were looking at constitutional reform and how that could improve the governance system so that you could get support from the whole country for a new constitution.

KJF: You were in Iraq for three years. Did you notice that Iraqis’ feelings about the U.S. invasion changed over time?

AHC: They had such high expectations and were so disappointed by what they ended up with, and they didn’t understand that it was our own incompetence. They thought that we were actually doing it on purpose. They kept saying things like, “But if you can send a man to the moon, surely you can turn on the electricity for Baghdad.”

KJF: So after your disappointing experience in Iraq, why did you volunteer to go to Afghanistan and join the NATO mission?

AHC: The military dominates these operations, so if you want be a big part of them, the military is the place to be, which is really disappointing and not the way it should be.

KJF: Your title was “NGO and International Organizations Liaison.” What kind of relationships were you trying to build?

AHC: I went out to the NGOs and said, “I understand your reluctance to work with the military. You just tell me what the military needs to be doing differently to make your lives easier.”

All the [local] civil society groups, the NGOs, everybody said, “The problem is that the military is training the police to be soldiers. The police are not soldiers. The police need to be responding to the community. They need to be engaged with the community.”

I said, “Great, what kinds of things can the Afghan civil society do to make that happen?” And they said, “Well, we’d be willing to do some training on human rights or some training on how the police should treat women.”

View from the top of the Police Staff College in Kabul where Coyne collaborates with international police advisors to integrate democratic policing into official training. Photo courtesy of Coyne.

View from the top of the Police Staff College in Kabul where Coyne collaborates with international police advisors to integrate democratic policing into official training. Photo courtesy of Coyne.

But then one [expert] on Afghan civil society said, “That’s great, but the women’s NGOs and the human rights’ NGOs—they are marginal in Afghan society. They [have] good ideas, but they don’t have deep roots in the society. What you need to do is go and work with the … [groups] that resonate with the Afghans. And that’s the bankers’ association, the taxi union, and the sports federation—groups that provide services that are connected to the daily life of the Afghans.”

The sports federation started joint police-community teams so that the police are out there interacting with the community on a regular basis. It took off like wildfire. Consultations where business and professional associations meet with the police on a regular basis and tell them what their issues are—that was something that nobody expected from the police before. The police didn’t expect them either, since their history has always been about protecting the state, not about protecting the people.

So it was a real eye-opener for both the police and the people to realize that they could interact with each other and that they could solve problems together.

KJF: How did you feel when you heard about recent events—the U.S. troops burning Korans, an Afghan policeman murdering American military officers, and most recently, a U.S. soldier murdering Afghan civilians as they slept?

 AHC: It’s that same feeling, the sick horror that I felt with Abu Ghraib, and feeling like, “Oh, God, I just don’t want to be in the military, [don’t] want to be associated with the military when this happens.” Obviously, it’s not the way most people behave, but [these kind of events are] the result of a system that uses violence. You’re in a system that doesn’t treat you well, that doesn’t … build relations between the Afghans and the Americans because most of the time the Americans are all caged up on a base and can’t go out and interact and understand the culture.

 KJF: Do you think the U.S. withdrawing all combat troops by 2014 is a good idea?

 AHC: I think that when we withdraw—when we’ve already made everything so dependent on the military—what we’re doing is just giving up and going home. If we had done it differently, then maybe a withdrawal would be the right thing because we could ramp down the military engagement and ramp up the civilian stuff. We’re really pulling out all the resources and all the people who are making things happen.

KJF: You’re returning to Afghanistan. What kind of work will you be doing?

AHC: The UN actually created a position to try to continue the work we’ve been doing on community-police engagement. So I’ll be going back with the United Nations, and I’ll be there probably a year, maybe a little more. It’ll be interesting to see if I can make these things happen more effectively than I could in the Army.

KJF: All of this work you’ve done—it’s not a typical career trajectory for a Bryn Mawr alumna.

AHC: Joining the Army was the best decision I made. But it still is incredibly painful. I don’t know that I could recommend being part of the military to anyone at Bryn Mawr. But it helps for me to be able to see what’s going on inside the military and try to make that communication happen with the civilians and the NGOs.

I always tell people, “If you want the Army to behave like a progressive organization, you need more bleeding-heart liberals to join the Army.”

KJF: I’m guessing that your outspokenness and assertiveness is sometimes a bit counter to military culture?

AHC: Yeah, I get in trouble a lot.

Comments on “Primary Sources: The Perfect Job”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! After living and working in Guatemala for nearly 4 years, I feel that a lot of what Heather says is very similar to the involvement of local and foreign NGOs with the field of development in Latin America. A truly inspiring story!!