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A 'civilian surge' to Afghanistan is just starting

Five months after President Barack Obama ordered a dramatic increase in American civilian experts in Afghanistan to undergird a new military push, the so-called civilian surge is moving too slowly, U.S. officials and outside experts warn.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Five months after President Barack Obama ordered a dramatic increase in American civilian experts in Afghanistan to undergird a new military push, the so-called civilian surge is moving too slowly, U.S. officials and outside experts warn.

In place are fewer than one-quarter of the extra civilians expected to provide expertise in law, agriculture, engineering and other areas deemed vital to stabilizing Afghanistan. At that pace, according to military and political leaders, the U.S. risks losing a critical opportunity to boost the war effort amid a resilient Taliban insurgency, waning public support and the deployment of thousands more American troops.

Obama administration officials often promote the idea of linking civilian and military tools of influence, calling the strategy "smart power." However, Anthony Cordesman, a civilian military analyst who spent July in Afghanistan advising Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander there, said the intention to beef up the civilian side does not match reality.

"We need to stop talking about 'smart power' as if we had it," Cordesman said at a Brookings Institution forum last week. "We don't have the civilians in the field."

Those at the highest levels of the U.S. military are concerned, too.

"Our ability to bring civilians in and surge those civilians ... has not moved at a pace that probably we would like it to," Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in July.

Administration officials heading the civilian buildup insist the program is on pace but acknowledge they have sprawling logistics issues. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the head of coordination of the effort at the State Department, says critics don't appreciate the difficulties.

"We have hundreds of people in the pipeline," Holbrooke said a month ago. "Many people have already arrived." He added: "Most importantly, you can't have civilians go out (into the field) unless there's security."

According to figures provided Monday by Holbrooke's office, between 90 and 100 of the approximately 450 extra civilians expected to be dispatched to Afghanistan by the end of this year have already arrived. That includes 56 sent in advance of the Aug. 20 elections to staff hybrid civil-military teams working with Afghans at the local and provincial levels on development and governance.

Most of the rest of the team is to arrive in October and November. They are mainly from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Agriculture Department.

The time-consuming process of adding civilian officials in Afghanistan, officials said, begins with identifying the expertise in greatest need, then recruiting, vetting and hiring people to fill the positions.

That is followed by weeks of training for work that poses unusual challenges, including language barriers and security risks. Their deployment to Afghanistan must also be coordinated with military advances on the battlefield, so that the extra civilians do not arrive before their expertise can safely be put to use.

When Obama announced his revamped Afghan-Pakistan strategy on March 27, he said it would take more than a reinforced military effort to defeat the Taliban and establish stability in the region.

"This push must be joined by a dramatic increase in our civilian effort," the president said. The greatest need is for agricultural specialists, educators, engineers and lawyers, he added.

The idea is to synchronize the military push with a more effective U.S. and allied civilian effort to support local and national Afghan moves to counter the Taliban. But the military push already began last month and is now intensifying in the volatile southern part of Afghanistan.

Initially, Holbrooke had planned to get the approximately 450 additional civilians there by March 2010. He has sped up that goal to December 2009. In addition to the 90-100 who have already arrived in Afghanistan, many others have been hired. They are undergoing training by the State Department's Foreign Service Institute as well as civil-military training at the Indiana National Guard's Camp Atterbury.

"We are on track," insisted Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The additions by the end of the year will approximately double the number of U.S. civilian officials in the country, Hayden said.

"We will likely need even more in 2010 and 2011," she said, but that has yet to be settled in Washington.

In the view of Cordesman and other observers, those numbers may amount to too little, too late.

"Thus far the civilian 'surge' has not taken place," said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, an independent advisory group that has a full-time representative in Kabul.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, wrote in a blog on her Web site while visiting southern Afghanistan in mid-August, "It appears to me that we don't have enough civilians from America and other countries to work with the Afghans to provide security, basic services and governance structures once the Marines clear out the Taliban."

McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy is hinged to close military-civilian cooperation, Collins noted, adding: "But it looks to me like the civilian side is severely understaffed for the mission."

It's also true that some elements of the military reinforcements that Obama identified in March have deployed more slowly than he originally envisioned.

For example, in his March announcement the president said that about 4,000 additional U.S. soldiers would be sent "later this spring" to help train Afghan security forces. That timeline quickly changed, and in fact the Army brigade designated to perform that training mission is only now arriving; it is scheduled to become fully operational on Sept 20.

John Koogler, a U.S. Agency for International Development officer who shifted in July from an office in Kabul to a civil-military unit called a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the eastern city of Gardez, said part of the civilians' challenge is to learn how to work effectively with U.S. military partners.

"There's a lot of room for cooperation, but that also means there's a lot of room for people stepping on people's toes," he said. "There is a lot of aggravation that comes with the relationship."

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Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.