Max Currier: Enhancing the Civilian Presence in Afghanistan

As President Obama formally announces his strategy for Afghanistan at West Point this evening, far too much attention focuses on the number of additional soldiers. One overlooked aspect to the war in Afghanistan is the role and number of civilians, who work in synergy with soldiers in building the civil society envisioned by the Obama administration as a key component of a successful counterinsurgency.

With enough soldiers, the military can clear and hold areas. But the “build” phase of this three-step counterinsurgency mission is more problematic. Unless the United States can help promote a developing, sustainable, and licit economy; train and develop support for an effective government; and literally help build the attendant civilian infrastructure such as roads and schools, then the United States will not be able to leave behind anything much better than what they found in October 2001.

Consider a typical Afghan: say, Ashraf the farmer. Ashraf cares primarily about harvesting a crop that he can sell for enough money to feed and shelter his family. He has no particular loyalty to his own government, the Taliban, or the United States. The “hardcore” Taliban number only about 10,000 in a country of 28 million; the remaining 20,000-30,000 are so-called “afternoon volunteers,” who are motivated by practical grievances rather than ideology, and whose allegiances can be temporarily won by whoever provides better opportunities.

Say, as often happens, two Talibs leave a note one night at Ashraf’s farm threatening to destroy his crops if he does not begin planting poppy—or, perhaps, begin planting roadside bombs against American convoys. The Talibs promise that if Ashraf complies, they will provide him with credit, poppy seeds, protect his fields, and then transport the crop to market once harvested. Ashraf, like most Afghans, hates the Taliban (whose popularity generally hovers south of 10 percent), but he knows his fields are suffering, that he has no credit to buy seeds for next season, and that he can’t transport his excess harvest to distant markets because there are no roads. The Taliban, for all their offenses, offer Ashraf what he needs. So, in many of the most important ways, the success or failure of the U.S. mission depends on Ashraf’s decision or not to submit to the Taliban’s demands.

This is precisely where additional civilians can be most successful—in helping persuade Ashraf that he need not collude with the Taliban. Today, most civilians in Afghanistan outside embassies in Kabul are assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are joint civil-military units that, in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, coordinate and implement development strategies for the “build” phase of counterinsurgency. A U.S. PRT includes roughly 80 soldiers, of which most are Civil Affairs specialists and support staff, not combat troops. Yet of the 80, only three civilians are assigned to a typical U.S. PRT—one representative each from the Departments of State and Agriculture, and one from USAID—and many posts actually remain unfilled. As of January, the total American civilian presence at PRTs amounted to only 35 specialists. Contrast this with some 65,000 American combat soldiers and another 30,000 on the way.

To be sure, the U.S. Foreign Service is far smaller than the combined branches of the U.S. military. Some in Foggy Bottom lament that there are more Pentagon lawyers, or musicians in military bands, than Foreign Service Officers. But 35 civilians is alarmingly low by any standard. Late in the Vietnam War, the U.S. Civilian Operations and Rural Development Support program deployed joint civil-military teams to all 250 South Vietnamese districts in all 44 provinces, employing 7,600 civilian and Civil Affairs military officials at its height.

In his initial strategy announcement this past March, President Obama commendably promised “a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground” in order to “advance security, opportunity, and justice—not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces.” The State Department defined the president’s “substantial increase” in March as a total of 450 civilians; the goal is now 974. Jacob Lew, serving in the new position of deputy secretary of state for management and resources, manages the interagency effort to enhance civilian recruitment and training. During a visit last week to the new civilian training facility at Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck in Indiana, he insisted, “We’re not going to wait [to deploy more civilians] until there’s some big strategic decision.” He said he had created 40 new positions in the preceding weeks.

A civilian force is far better suited to handling the many problems that PRTs come across in Ashraf the farmer’s province or elsewhere. If an elder in a district shura, or local council, asks for seeds and fertilizer, an agricultural specialist could explain that the district also needs better irrigation.  A USAID economist could suggest creating value chains—for example, adding value to tomatoes by creating tomato paste—by constructing roads, storehouses, and processing facilities. There need to be more people with these skill sets. Currently, there are only 12 U.S. civilian agricultural specialists in the entire country.

Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s economy is agriculture-based. As the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Central Asian affairs noted in Congressional testimony in October 2007, “It’s hard to imagine that we could have too much [agricultural] expertise in the country.” At least as of May, only 50 Foreign Agricultural Service members are deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan and the service itself has been neglected for decades.

Civilians are also generally better attuned to the complexities of political development, and thus better suited to coordinate development projects through the provincial governor or district governor. This inherently legitimizes the indigenous government. A civilian might note that the military should employ Afghans to build the local school rather than building it themselves, or recommend that painting an American flag on its exterior upon completion—as if a gift from the generous Americans (which has happened on more than a few occasions)—an Afghan flag with a plaque commemorating the villagers commitment to their future would be more appropriate. The logic being that if the Taliban were to dare destroy it, the locals who built it would see the attack as an assault on themselves, rather than against U.S. forces.

In addition, the development of indigenous institutions can be bolstered by embedding civilians within line ministries. If civilians assess the rural development minister is ineffective, a State representative might suggest the governor employ a trained U.S. civilian—“And, Governor, we are prepared to provide this for you”—to recruit and train indigenous staff to track budgetary spending, assess successful projects, and compel a bureaucracy to deliver seeds, to finance credit, and so forth.

To be sure, mission success requires more civilians from agencies already deployed in Afghanistan but, also, civilians from agencies not currently deployed in theater. Among others, PRTs should seek to employ personnel from the FBI, which operated at several PRTs in Iraq; the Treasury, which embedded officials in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s; and the Drug Enforcement Administration, some of whom are gradually trickling in—all to serve as trainers and advisers to their Afghan counterparts and thereby providing for what General Petraeus describes as a “comprehensive, whole-of-government counterinsurgency strategy.”

For Ashraf’s sake, the additional military soldiers will be essential, too. With more boots on the ground, “holding” units attached to PRTs will be better able to patrol their districts and visit Ashraf’s farm more frequently, sometimes just checking-in briefly, sometimes sitting down for tea and conversation to build trust. In particularly dangerous districts, PRTs should establish additional outposts to provide a more persistent security presence, a tactic that has proven effective elsewhere. Thus far, the military has lacked the numbers to exploit these opportunities. Infantry units are also still required for the offensive combat operations of the clearing and holding phases—evidenced in the push into southern Afghanistan this July. Military training officers, too, are still required to build the capacity of indigenous security forces, a necessity (if not itself sufficient) for eventual military withdrawal.

As President Obama is likely to say in his speech this evening, a lengthy military commitment is unsustainable, financially if nothing else. Developing effective governance is a necessary component of the Afghanistan mission, and embedding additional civilians will be far cheaper and perhaps more effective in this complex project than simply deploying soldiers alone.

Civilians will not accomplish all that we wish them to, nor do so as quickly as our patience might prefer, but their presence is critical to any version of success we might hope to achieve and an influx will provide new opportunities for Ashraf and others where once there were few, good choices. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to have already assumed this imperative—but more needs to be done.

Max Currier is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

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