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UW-Eau Claire Graduate Heads Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan

RELEASED: Sept. 15, 2008

Marlin Hardinger
UW-Eau Claire graduate Marlin Hardinger at a construction site in Afghanistan, where he is a Foreign Service officer.

EAU CLAIRE — A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate and U.S. Army veteran is working with the United Kingdom provincial reconstruction team in Helmand Afghanistan, helping civilians create a local government structure that will assist with restoring order to the region.

Foreign Service Officer Marlin Hardinger is the U.S. Department of State's representative on the provincial reconstruction team in Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

"We're helping people work within the constitution of their new government, a government structure that is similar to what would be state government in the United States," said Hardinger, who has been in Afghanistan since May 2007. "We work closely with the province's police chief and meet with the governor and other local officials. They've not had a functioning government here for more than 30 years, so there is a lot of work to be done."

Hardinger said his daily work varies greatly, but the focus is always on coordinating with and supporting the local government.

"I try to make sure everyone is working together, so I do a lot of advising and supporting of their systems," said Hardinger, a Marshfield native who majored in political science. "The local government structures need help to coordinate their efforts with Kabul to implement development strategies.

"There has been a big push to improve the Afghan National Police and other security forces. We've invested a lot in trainers and materials to work with security leaders to help them improve their protection of civilians. Much of this territory was lost to insurgency but with security forces in place, we've been able to re-establish several government centers."

The functioning government centers are starting to provide civilians with better access to basic needs like education, health care, electrical power and roads, said Hardinger. A highlight of his time in Afghanistan was the recent opening of five schools in the province, he said.

"All the major government players were there along with parents and their children," Hardinger said. "It's rewarding to see how improved security and training leads to better opportunities and expanded programs. That's what we're all working toward."

With only a handful of Americans in the region, Hardinger spends much of his time working with local Afghanistan officials and civilians.

"The people here are incredibly resilient," Hardinger said. "Many government institutions collapsed here because of internal strife and the Soviet invasion. It's incredible to see so many people now coming forward to join in building their country. People know that I and other internationals are here as part of a long-term redevelopment process. It's been a great experience to be part of this effort."

While the civilians are friendly, they also are anxious to see even more progress, Hardinger said.

"Everything takes time — more time than they were expecting," Hardinger said. "Road construction is taking longer than they thought it would and electricity is an ongoing challenge. People are friendly, but there is some frustration that some projects have not moved faster.

"One big challenge is getting the local government to a level where people feel they can depend on it and to make it transparent enough so people understand that it can help them. We need to help them learn to trust that the government can offer a solution to their problem."

While the region is dangerous, Hardinger said he's not had any close calls during his months in the country. He travels with a security detail provided by the U.K. or U.S. government. While many Foreign Service officers operate out of a U.S. embassy, Hardinger lives in a compound operated by the U.K. mission to Afghanistan, which is protected by the British military.

Hardinger, who has been in the Foreign Service since 2002 and previously served as a Foreign Service officer in Moldova and Turkmenistan, has committed to staying in Afghanistan until at least June 2009.

"It's a fascinating area and culture," Hardinger said. "This is a country with 30 years of civilian strife. It's a great place and an interesting and challenging job. I've always been interested in this part of the world, so working in Afghanistan is an incredible opportunity."

Hardinger — who served in the U.S. Army for 12 years before enrolling at UW-Eau Claire in 1996 — said his military experience and his education have contributed greatly to his ability to succeed in the Foreign Service.

With a major in political science and a minor in history, Hardinger said he studied world politics and history, which helped him with the Foreign Service entrance exams. And while a student, he was an intern with the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, serving as a liaison with state legislators. After graduating, he was an aide to a state legislator for two years.

"The internship and working as a legislative aide also helped prepare me to do this kind of work," Hardinger said. "Working with local and state governments was valuable experience. I'm familiar with city and state issues, so I can help officials here deal with the challenges they face. Many of the issues are the same, like agriculture, health care, infrastructure and education."

Hardinger who was a member of the Wisconsin National Guard while at UW-Eau Claire was an intelligent, hardworking and serious student, said Dr. Ali Abootalebi, professor of political science.

"It is crucial for students to be culturally aware, sensitive and understanding," Abootalebi said. "The world is complex in its socio-cultural, political and economic underpinnings, and technology-driven cross-cultural mass communication and transportation have only added to this complexity. Students of today are expected to demonstrate a high degree of competence in their communication and management skills, aptitude for problem solving and even conflict resolution."

Hardinger understood the importance of understanding different cultures, Abootalebi said, noting that Hardinger took Russian language classes as a student. With his interests, experiences and knowledge, the Foreign Service was a good fit for Hardinger, Abootalebi said.

A Foreign Service officer who was a guest speaker in a political science class convinced Hardinger to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. Hardinger now returns to campus to talk to other students about the Foreign Service when he visits family in Wisconsin. He will be a guest speaker in UW-Eau Claire classrooms in November.



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