Afghanistan's 'civilian surge' fizzles
War effort requires farmers, engineers, lawyers to share expertise.
It is an oft-spoken truth in Washington these days that American success in its wars overseas will come at the hands of those not in uniform as much as those who are. Civilian engineers, lawyers, farmers, and business people are as important to progress as the men and women carrying guns in a modern counterinsurgency, experts agree.Skip to next paragraph
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But when it comes to Afghanistan, the problem is that a "civilian surge" probably won't happen. A similar effort faltered two years ago in Iraq, and the bureaucratic landscape hasn't changed much since.
"We don't have any more capacity now than we did," says one former aide on the Pentagon's Joint Staff who didn't want to speak publicly on a politically sensitive matter. In Afghanistan, the former aide predicts, "They will make the same commitment and have the same lack of follow-through."
The concern comes as Congress and the Pentagon await the results of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and a subsequent request for additional troops. General McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, will also likely address the civilian surge issue, but it is unclear what he might recommend given the limitations on civilian resources.
In short, all-civilian branches of the US government aren't designed to deploy people the way the Pentagon can. They must find civilians willing to deploy to war zones, pay to ferry them around the country with armed escorts, and endeavor to put the right people in the right spots – all on tight budgets.
This points to a serious flaw in US counterinsurgency efforts. Developing local government, rooting out corruption, improving education, and building economic opportunity are cornerstones of US strategy in Afghanistan, and civilian expertise is crucial to each. One measure of Obama's commitment to the Afghan mission is how well he musters civilians to contribute, some say.
There are some reasons to be optimistic about the future, with the State Department developing an expeditionary "civilian response corps" ready to deploy quickly to hot spots around the world. But that effort will take time. For now, America's apparent inability to deliver a robust civilian surge threatens to undermine any military progress.
That was apparent to Col. Alan Mangan, who was the deputy commander of a provincial reconstruction team working in western Iraq last year. He and his team tried to help the local government better serve its own people. But few of the civilians on the roughly 30-member team were the right fit, says Mangan, now a distinguished fellow at the Project on National Security Reform and a Marine Corps reservist.
"One of them was brilliantly qualified," Mangan says pointedly, suggesting the others were not up to scratch.
The political officer – the person tasked to help the local population build a strong government – was someone whose specialty was communication, not politics. As a result, the team made little progress on this issue, Mangan says. "He filled a billet, he was a body on the team, but while the mission was perhaps not ineffective, it was seriously handicapped."
Stories like these lead many – both in the military and outside – to suggest that, even if the US government could meet its staffing goals for a civilian surge, it would lack the requisite finesse to do the job well.
"The civilian surge is being painted with an eight-inch brush," says Larry Sampler, a former top official for the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. "It needs to be painted with a trim brush."