Home The Washington Diplomat February 2010

Civilian Surge Gains Steam, But Is Strategy Overinflated?

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month repeated that success in Afghanistan — and other war-torn countries — depends largely on increased and sustainable development, and that depends on greater cooperation between the State Department, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

It was Clinton’s latest attempt to prop economic and agricultural development up on the same pedestal as defense and diplomacy — forming the triple-headed policy push she often refers to as “the three Ds” (also see “Defense, Development and Diplomacy: Experts Want a Return to the Last Two” in the February 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

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PHOTO: STAFF SGT. DAYTON MITCHELL / U.S. AIR FORCE
U.S. soldiers distribute humanitarian aid in Pir Zadeh, Hutual, Afghanistan. A long-awaited "civilian surge" aims to inject American civilian expertise into the development work in Afghanistan, which has largely been carried out by the U.S. military for the past eight years.

If the rhetoric reflects reality, this renewed focus on the military-civilian partnership is — or soon will be — the backbone of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, commonly referred to by its military acronym of COIN, which among other things calls for protecting population centers, building local government and improving infrastructure.

In December, President Obama rolled out his new counterinsurgency strategy by pledging an increase of 30,000 service members to support the 68,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. While Obama glossed over his desire to triple the number of American civilians in Afghanistan this year, he made it clear last March that the 300 educators, lawyers, engineers and agricultural specialists working in Afghanistan were simply not enough to help farmers develop new crops to replace opium poppies, to make schooling more accessible, and to build the infrastructure projects needed to help sustain local leaders.

After months of fleeting mentions about this anticipated but somewhat ambiguous “civilian surge,” the administration finally seems to be moving full steam ahead to have 1,000 civilians in place early this year — a mix of volunteers from USAID, the State, Treasury and Agriculture Departments, as well as other agencies. Now, dozens of these new recruits are passing through role-playing and immersive courses at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, a former mental hospital turned military facility in rural Indiana that simulates what civilian personnel will face when dealing with Afghan culture and the American military.

“The work of these development experts helps make future military action less necessary,” Clinton said in a Jan. 6 speech at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “It is cheaper to pay for development up front than to pay for war over the long term.”

Paul Jones, State’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, shared a similar message a month earlier at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “We are now in the midst of a civilian surge,” he said, explaining that these volunteers will work with Afghan ministries and side by side with the U.S. military in District Support Teams and Provincial Reconstruction Teams — units of soldiers, diplomats and reconstruction experts operating in the hairier regions of the country. Some will also extend the government’s diplomatic presence outside of Kabul by staffing new consulates in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.

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PHOTO: USAID / AFGHANISTAN
A worker builds a retaining wall during the construction of the USAID-funded Kishim to Fayzabad Road, one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

While promising, the push has highlighted philosophical divides in the federal government over who should control the development process and sparked new questions over the metrics to determine success, who’s in charge of oversight, and how to develop the right kinds of civilian expertise needed inside Afghanistan.

Moreover, will enough capable civilians line up to volunteer for such a dangerous mission, and how will the military protect them from the dangers? Even more important, do military officials — who have been better equipped, coordinated and largely running the development show for eight years — truly buy into the idea?

According to some, the shift away from directly targeting insurgents to “clear, hold and build” critical parts of Afghanistan also reflects the Obama administration’s pared-down expectations of what can be accomplished in the embattled country, even though the renewed focus on development still represents a mammoth undertaking.

The question is will paving roads, growing wheat and building schools help wins the proverbial hearts and minds of Afghanistan’s beleaguered population? Is it even feasible in one of the world’s poorest countries, what’s been called “the graveyard of empires?” And can an approach that hinges on long-term goals and strongly smells of nation building mesh with the administration’s more short-term military strategy of dismantling and disrupting insurgents — and transferring responsibility as quickly as possible to local Afghan forces and government?

At least publicly, officials say the civilian surge can be effective if kept within the administration’s more narrowly defined parameters of success.

Jones has said as much, telling ForeignPolicy.com that, “We’re not there to turn Afghanistan into something we’d recognize as America. What we want to do is what the Afghans want to do.... We’re there to increase governmental capacity.”

USAID’s Make-or-Break Moment In her Jan. 6 speech, Clinton assured the crowd she was pushing to iron out the coordination problems that have hampered efforts on the diplomacy and development side of COIN.

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PHOTO: BEN BARBER / USAID

“Now in the past, coordination among the so-called three Ds has often fallen short, and everyone has borne the consequences,” Clinton said, noting that she is united with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in their commitment to change that. “The United States will achieve our best results when we approach our foreign policy as an integrated whole, rather than the sum of its parts.”

Shah — the most obscure and untested of the three government figures — could become the most important figure in determining the success of the civilian surge for various reasons: his expertise in agriculture, his relative government inexperience, and USAID’s recent struggles, having lacked a leader for 10 months.

In fact, USAID’s future has been in doubt for some time, with speculation continuing as to whether the independent agency will ultimately be folded into State’s bureaucracy (its budget and policy are already essentially controlled by State). USAID’s full-time staff has shrunk by 40 percent over the past two decades, while its funding has doubled. As a result, foreign assistance programs have been divided among numerous government agencies, causing duplication and confusion.

Before being plucked in December to head the agency, the 36-year-old Shah had been undersecretary of agriculture since June and previously worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private charity. During his Senate confirmation hearings in December, Shah pledged to make USAID more accountable, transparent and less reliant on private contractors.

While Shah’s involvement in relief efforts in Haiti has put that agenda on the backburner for now, Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security suggests that by the time Shah leaves office, there’s a good chance he will be primarily judged by the role USAID plays in Afghanistan.

“He knows that if he can’t get Afghanistan squared away, his tenure is also in jeopardy,” Cronin said.

Mobilizing People — and Money It will be an uphill battle. Cronin points to the color-coded maps that government officials use to diagram the Taliban’s pockets of strength and influence in Afghanistan. Last year, the map showed a third of the country green (in government control), a third red (in Taliban control) and a third yellow (contested areas). “Those numbers have shifted in favor of the Taliban in the past year,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the government has done a poor job of mobilizing civilian forces equipped with the expertise and knowledge necessary to deliver a successful counterinsurgency strategy and some form of state building, Cronin said. As a result, the State Department and U.S. development agencies — such as USAID — lack the employees with the proper skills. For instance, there has been a shortage of people who speak Afghan languages, including Dari and Pashto.

And while the Obama administration has improved the situation, Cronin says tension still exists between the State Department and USAID, and the ambitious policy objective being thrust upon them by the White House and “frankly the American public.”

“There is a cultural bias in the State Department and USAID against too large a devotion of resources — starting with our people — to put into harm’s way,” he said. “There are too few of these people who are willing to go into battle zones and put their lives on the line for an issue like state building in Afghanistan, which has never been perceived as a successful state.”

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PHOTO: USAID
As part of USAID's development projects in Afghanistan, above, an educational program trains former militants on how to use computers, while at left, communal taps were built for the residents of Nawa village so that they wouldn't have to collect and carry their water every day. 

But others counter that quite a number of people have volunteered for the mission and that tentative progress has been made, albeit under the radar.

“The Obama administration’s civilian increase in Afghanistan hasn’t received nearly the attention that the military surge has, but we’re already seeing positive developments as a result of the greater attention to the non-military matters,” said John Dempsey, senior rule of law advisor with the United States Institute of Peace in Kabul. “Agriculture has received double the resources of a year ago, and a number of American specialists have been deployed into the provinces to assist with farming. Partly as a result, Afghanistan had its best licit agricultural output in decades in 2009.”

He added: “The number of American civilian specialists in the county has tripled from just a year ago, with many of these here for longer tours and in areas of the country that had often been neglected in the past.”

Still, the issue of resources perpetually looms over diplomacy and development officials. Clinton for instance expressed dismay over the fact that USAID only had four engineers worldwide.

“It is appalling, but the reason for that I could have told the secretary is because USAID in general does not have the money to provide large contracts for infrastructure,” Cronin said. “So therefore, most of the money gets earmarked and divvied up into smaller pots and therefore can’t pay for bigger infrastructure projects.”

The lack of resources and personnel is also somewhat of a vicious cycle when it comes to the three “Ds” — with defense better funded and better able to carry out rebuilding functions in a conflict zone, and diplomacy and development lagging behind in both resources and skill. Whether the Defense Department gets a bigger share of the money pie because it’s more competent, or is more competent because it gets more money is the chicken-and-egg dilemma that’s long confounded the diplomacy and development community.

Keeping Things in Perspective According to Cronin, the bigger question is whether defense leaders — from Secretary Gates to Gen. David Petraeus to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal — will find the civilian surge credible? Do they think volunteers, mostly skilled retirees, can work well with military boots on the ground?

Cronin says the fact that the military is continuing to operate “as though the surge is not a serious effort — is not as serious as we would like — is I think something that is not talked about for obvious reasons.”

He argues that the plans have already been scaled back for Afghanistan. “Not in rhetoric because you cannot sell a major military effort by saying, ‘Guess what? We are going to build Afghanistan to the level of Chad.’ It is not exactly something you want to sell,” he said. “But I think the recent White House review — notwithstanding all of the rhetoric — was a further scaling back of expectations of state building.”

The sheer numbers reveal as much: There are some 600 civilians currently in Afghanistan, up from about 300 this time last year, with the goal of adding another 400 — an improvement but still paltry when compared to a total projected deployment of 98,000 U.S. forces as part of Obama’s revamped strategy.

“So while on the one hand … any state building in Afghanistan is ambitious, the Obama strategy is still ambitious, it is not the complete state-building effort that might have been implied by some of the earlier policy articulations, including the president’s policy review that was issued in March of last year,” Cronin said.

“So if it is scaled back and if it is more focused largely on infrastructure and energy, largely on agriculture, economic opportunity, jobs and training, and it’s divided between the green areas and those areas that get cleared that you have to try to hold and build … then you have a semblance of a chance of making that increasingly stable, at least in those areas. That’s I believe the heart of the strategy.”

Dempsey of the United States Institute of Peace agrees that the mission needs to be focused on what works and tailored to the Afghan people. “Simply increasing the number of civilian specialists doesn’t guarantee success, especially if security concerns don’t allow these people to interact regularly with ordinary Afghans,” he told The Diplomat.

“Also, some sectors require specialized understanding of the Afghan context — for example, assisting with the development of Afghanistan’s rule of law system. Sustainable improvements in the justice sector are essential to the country’s long-term security. However, the Afghan legal systems and means for resolving disputes differ enormously from those in the West. Simply because an American attorney is a superb lawyer in the U.S. does not necessarily mean such skills will be of much use in Afghanistan — and they could, in some cases, be counterproductive,”

Dempsey pointed out. “Thus, cultural understanding and considering how Afghans perceive American civilian assistance is important in the design of programs to ensure their success.”

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014