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New State Department team to the rescue in disaster areas, war zones

The State Department's new Civilian Response Corps supplements US military efforts in disaster areas, such as Haiti, and war zones. It's still small but has the backing of top officials.

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Creation of such a civilian corps received government approval in 2004, but it took until 2008 for the CRC to get a budget that allows it to begin building up its affiliations from different departments. This year, the corps has a $140 million budget, which provides funding for 264 permanent specialists and a standby force of 1,000 from eight agencies and departments.

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More long term, the plan is to build a three-tier corps of 4,250 civilian experts, which would include a "reserve" corps, much like the military reserves.

But the CRC is not waiting for full implementation before participating in US interventions ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti. "As we are building it, we are starting to use it," Herbst says.

The Haiti effort, Herbst says, exemplifies what the CRC can do postdisaster. But, he says, it also serves as a pertinent reminder of the corps's conflict-prevention role. "How many times has the US intervened in Haiti?" he asks. "If we'd had this capability in the mid-'90s … the people with the right skills and the funding to enhance the skills of the government in Port-au-Prince, we might have had a stronger government better able to deal with the recent earthquake."

Another recent intervention by the CRC has been in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A dozen corps members are on the ground there, at the forefront of US efforts to help heal what is perhaps the world's deadliest conflict of the past decade. The team is tailored to address the country's most urgent flash points, which include gender violence and food security.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton identified those crucial needs during a trip to Congo in August 2009 and was subsequently able to call on the corps's expertise – something her predecessors could only dream of doing.

Afghanistan, meanwhile, looms large as a test case for the CRC: Will civilian specialists, working in tandem with the military, have a better chance of success at postconflict reconstruction than the military has had alone?

Afghanistan, in fact, represents the CRC's largest ongoing deployment – about 20 people. Last year, corps members set up a team to help with the organization of Afghanistan's national elections.

They also established a team to focus on strategic civilian-military planning – given that the US effort in Afghanistan will continue to be largely a military operation.

"The CRC folks like myself are the connective tissue" between the civilian and military efforts that include everything from countering Taliban propaganda to fostering the rule of law, says Jason Lewis-Berry, a State Department CRC member serving in Kandahar. "I've become a force multiplier for the wide community of people who come out here."