Afghanistan's 'civilian surge' fizzles

War effort requires farmers, engineers, lawyers to share expertise.

Julie Jacobson/ AP
Double Duty: An Afghan watermelon farmer (l.) from the village of Dhaneh, Helmand Province, talks with Lance Cpl. Rovin Lara (c.), a member of the US Army’s civil affairs group, via an interpreter. Civilian US government agencies have proven less successful at deploying experts in war zones.

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.

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."

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.

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.


A high-stakes bid for Afghan hearts

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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