Afghanistan's 'civilian surge' fizzles
War effort requires farmers, engineers, lawyers to share expertise.
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The problem stems from the inability of the US government to integrate its many branches and organize around a central task – namely, the mission in Afghanistan, say experts who have studied the problem. Some agencies don't want to "give up" their most skilled employees for long periods of time, and there are few professional incentives for others. As a result, the ad hoc deployments of government employees to missions overseas tend to put the wrong people in critical jobs.Skip to next paragraph
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There are other challenges, too. Security regulations state that most civilians working for the State Department in a war zone have an armed escort outside any secure compound. So their most important activity – getting out among the population and meeting with local officials – is costly and can sop up limited resources.
Moreover, the Pentagon gets the lion's share of the resources. The baseline Defense Department budget of $534 billion is 10 times that of the State Department ($53 billion). The State-funded US Agency for International Development (USAID) had a force of about 15,000 civilians during the Vietnam War. Today, it has 7,000-plus, and, seven months into his presidency, Mr. Obama has yet to name anyone to lead the agency.
As a result, the US government continues to operate under a jury-rigged civilian staffing system that relies heavily on private contractors and leaves the military to shoulder much of the remaining work overseas.
Afghanistan, for example, needs agricultural experts to help farmers grow crops and find alternatives to opium. But instead of turning to the US Department of Agriculture for many consultants, the Pentagon sent dozens of National Guardsmen who are farmers in civilian life.
Attempts to encourage or even coerce government agencies to work better together – the so-called "whole of government" approach – have left few lasting impacts. There was some success in Vietnam and Bosnia, notes the Project on National Security Reform, an advocacy group in Washington. But it is only the US military that has grown "exponentially more effective" over the years, the group noted in a report.
"Unfortunately, the system learns and adapts poorly, and lessons from both programs were quickly lost," the report said.
The group continues to push the administration to make reforms to prepare the government to work in the world of unconventional warfare.
A program at the State Department gives some reasons for hope.
State is creating a "civilian response corps" of individuals who can deploy quickly to countries both to prevent and respond to conflict. So far, the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization has identified and trained more than 500 "reserve" civilians and about 50 "active" civilians for the new corps, says coordinator John Herbst. By the end of next year, the office will oversee a corps of about 1,250 individuals with a wide range of skills, he adds. Most of those in reserve will be employed by other government agencies, complicating efforts to deploy them, at least initially, Mr. Herbst says.
But ultimately the corps could deploy as many as 400 civilians at any one time, he says. Funding for the initiative came too late for the program to play a significant role in the current deployment of civilians to Afghanistan, Herbst says, but he expects the corps can help "institutionalize" the use of civilians in wartime and raise the US's chance for success overseas in modern warfare.
"We represent the future," he says.
The US has pledged more than $300 million in development over the next year
in Helmand Province. Success could sway farmers at the center of both the
insurgency and the opium trade.
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