A day after President Obama declared in his Afghanistan war speech that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on Capitol Hill trying to rally support for maintaining a significant nation-building program in Afghanistan.
The United States has tripled the number of civilian-assistance workers and diplomats in Afghanistan since the beginning of the military “surge” in January 2010 – to more than 1,100.
What has been called the “civilian surge” was also part of Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency “secure-hold-build” strategy: secure territory, establish a presence to hold on to it, and build up institutions of the state to inoculate local populations against the Taliban’s return.
Secretary Clinton gave no hint in her Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony Thursday of how a shrinking military presence would affect the American civilian operation in Afghanistan. But she did suggest that the civilian surge has reached its maximum – even as she outlined a justification for keeping US civilian experts, ranging from agronomists to judicial and local-governance specialists, in Afghanistan for years to come.
“We have now reached the height of the civilian surge,” Clinton said. “Looking ahead, as the transition proceeds, we will shift our efforts from short-term stabilization projects to longer-term sustainable development that focuses on spurring growth and integrating Afghanistan into South Central Asia’s economy.”
Clinton offered the senators a list of statistics on how life in Afghanistan has improved as a result of US and international programs – irrigation systems built or restored, infant mortality down, numbers of kids in school – especially girls – up.
But she bristled at questions about “nation-building,” and insisted that what the US is doing is in the US national interest.
“So-called nation-building raises a lot of questions in people’s minds. That is not what we think we are doing or what we intend to do,” she said. Instead, “the aim of the civilian surge was to give Afghans a stake in their country’s future and provide credible alternatives to extremism and insurgency. It was not nor was it ever designed to solve all of Afghanistan’s development challenges.”
And even though she was speaking to a Senate committee that has found billions of dollars of wasted spending in investigations of the US civilian program, Clinton painted a picture of a bargain – especially when compared with what the Pentagon spends in Afghanistan.
“Let’s not forget,” she said, “an entire year of civilian assistance in Afghanistan costs Americans the same amount as 10 days of military operations.”
But Clinton did not explain how the civilian assistance program will continue as the US military draws down. Currently, Afghanistan’s daunting security environment means that civilian aid workers must work with substantial security teams.
One recent report out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee concluded that many US assistance programs won’t be able to carry on in the absence of US forces.
At one point, the State Department and USAID planned to continue increasing the number of civilian experts in Afghanistan into 2014, when the US is to have all its combat forces out of the country under a NATO-endorsed plan. The State Department has a plan to divide the civilians among the capital of Kabul and four provincial consulates once combat troops depart – a scenario that reflects a similar cover-the-country plan for continuing civilian operations in Iraq after US troops depart.
But the State Department has already trimmed back it budget request for Afghanistan next year by about a quarter, to about $3 billion.
And even though that pales when compared with the $2 billion to $3 billion a week the Pentagon spends on military operations, as Clinton likes to point out, many in Congress expect future spending on civilian operations in Afghanistan to be cut even further.