October 1, 2010  

The other surge

An increase in U.S. civilians in Afghanistan has mixed results

While much of the public debate over the war in Afghanistan has focused on the “surge” of U.S. troops there and the effect of President Obama’s July withdrawal deadline, a quieter but equally significant increase in civilian resources has also taken place. An “uplift” of U.S. government interagency civilian personnel from the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the Agriculture Department, among other agencies, has also taken place. Announced by Obama in March 2009, the civilian uplift is “a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground … to advance security, opportunity and justice — not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces.” The plan was to increase the number of civilian personnel in Afghanistan from roughly 360 in January 2009 to approximately 1,000 by early 2010 and to around 1,200 to 1,300 by late 2010. Most personnel would be located in the provinces and districts of Afghanistan where coalition troops are located, while those in Kabul would concentrate on partnering with key central government ministries focused on delivering services to the Afghan people. The vast undertaking of recruiting, training, deploying and evaluating these personnel has significantly tested State, where the offices of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the deputy secretary of state have been the coordinating organizations for the uplift. Since September marked the 1½-year anniversary of the president’s announcement of the uplift, it is useful to see how the increase has been implemented and to evaluate whether it has satisfied the president’s goals and met the needs of the Afghan people for good governance, positive administration, and robust reconstruction and development activities.

Reflecting the need for greater coordination between civilian and military operations, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, signed the U.S. government Integrated Civilian-Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan on Aug. 10, 2009. This unprecedented document established integrated civilian and military decision-making structures in Afghanistan that were charged with implementing 11 “transformative effects” — such as the “expansion of accountable and transparent governance” and “countering the nexus of criminality, corruption, narcotics and insurgency” — aimed at defeating the Taliban insurgency’s political program. Reflecting this campaign plan and a renewed focus on conducting operations in the field, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul made several organizational changes to make itself more central to conducting counter-insurgency operations. To improve the ability of its interagency field staff to reach back to the embassy and on to the central government, the U.S. Embassy created the Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs in July 2009. The IPA office focuses on supporting the field and its operations and participates directly in embassy decision-making bodies with ISAF and USFOR-A representatives and liaises directly with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through its ministerial advisers and political section. To improve overall coordination of civil-military efforts at the embassy, a series of working groups, such as the Governance and Sub-National Governance working groups, were created with military and civilian representatives to shape governance and development policy decisions, to evaluate competing proposals and to decide on courses of action. The “Eikenberry/McChrystal civ-mil” plan and the establishment of IPA created the organizational structure to support the civilian uplift.

A number of other efforts at the U.S. Embassy have been made to ensure that the civilian interagency is a more capable partner with the Afghan government and the U.S. military. In addition to greater numbers of civilians overall, more staff has been brought in, including three new ambassadors, to increase organizational muscle and to support a more robust effort in the field as well as in Kabul. Furthermore, reflecting the localized aspect of the insurgency, State created specialized teams focused on governance and reconstruction at the district level called district support teams, which have three-person elements comprising representatives from the State Department, USAID and the Agriculture Department. These teams are embedded with military units and provide governance and development expertise and resources at the tactical level and mentoring to district Afghan government officials as well as governance and development enablers to co-located military units. To improve coordination between the interagency and the military at all levels in Afghanistan as well as to provide greater command and control of civilian resources, the U.S. Embassy also created senior civilian representative (SCR) positions from Kabul down through the regional commands to the provinces and districts to direct the overall coordination of U.S. civilian efforts in their respective areas of operation. The goal of this designation is to provide military commanders with a civilian chain of command that will better synchronize civilian expertise and resources to better meet counter-insurgency objectives. The sum total of these efforts is that our civilian interagency partners are better positioned to partner with the military in good governance and reconstruction efforts and able to assume a more leading position in these initiatives over a greater area of the country in an enduring manner. To a war effort that has long been underresourced and poorly organized, especially when it came to civilian efforts, these innovations and additions have been significant.


State has largely met the goals it set for itself in matching the military surge with a civilian uplift. By September, the number of deployed civilians in Afghanistan was approximately 1,100 with about 430 of them working outside of Kabul. However, as those numbers indicate, a clear majority of these civilians are working in Afghanistan’s capital and, while large numbers of civilians will be deployed to the countryside for the first time in many locations, the focus of the uplift on Kabul reinforces the capital-centric nature of our operations. With the Taliban insurgency focused on securing the villages and districts of rural Afghanistan, this emphasis is unfortunate. Furthermore, it is unclear what factors were taken into consideration when determining the size of the civilian uplift. Why district support teams, for example, are three people versus any other number is difficult to determine when the size, development needs and host government capacity of Afghanistan’s districts fluctuate considerably. Additionally, while the concept of district support teams is absolutely correct with respect to focusing interagency efforts on the lowest level of government the Afghan people encounter, significant challenges have arisen in implementation. Many districts that will be cleared and held by coalition military forces still do not have a dedicated DST to support “hold and build” operations.


Additionally, over half of the DSTs do not have the full complement of diplomat, development adviser and agricultural expert to partner with local Afghan officials and work with military units. Disturbingly, many of the civilian “experts” who have been hired for the uplift are too fat, frail and/or flaky to undertake their responsibilities. Some are physically incapable of doing their job of visiting villages and meeting with local officials, and others are not taken seriously and do not know how to represent the agency they speak for and thus are quickly marginalized by the military. Much of this has to do with challenges in the screening and hiring process in Washington, but because, as one diplomat put it, “[t]he political will in Washington to meet year-end targets is intense,” shortcuts have been taken leading to the hiring of many marginally qualified individuals. While the civilian interagency has a long history of difficulty in recruiting personnel to work in Afghanistan and Iraq, these quality shortfalls are puzzling in a nation faced with an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent. While many dedicated officials from State, USAID, Agriculture and other agencies are doing quality work in the field, far too many fall short of the standards that are needed to be effective in Afghanistan. Many U.S. military units and Afghan officials are increasingly faced with having to conduct good governance, reconstruction and development activities on their own, absent an able and active civilian counterpart. We must do better if we hope to help the Afghan government offer a better alternative to the Taliban.

While the creation of the Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs and senior civilian representative positions suggests an improvement in civilian coordination, implementation has not been without challenges. The process of establishing who the SCR is at each level of the revamped civilian decision-making structure has been difficult and has led to unnecessary conflict in the field. Age and experience do not necessarily respect bureaucratic precedent, and far too many teams in the field have gotten off on the wrong foot by trying to determine who is in charge. Additionally, while the SCRs at the five major regional commands have the responsibility of coordinating and leading civilian interagency members at the regional level, they are limited in what they can do because of how they are organized and staffed. Too frequently, regional command SCRs have inserted a degree of rigidity to coalition decision-making without providing improved leadership, prioritization and better information sharing. Because many civilians in the uplift have been hired under the expanded “3161” program and are new to the federal government, and many federal employees do not know where they will deploy within Afghanistan until well after they have arrived, any sense of teamwork at the regional command is significantly hampered. Additionally, many of these headquarters staff members suffer from morale problems because they were told they would be working in one location, but — due to the needs of the SCR — have been assigned to a regional command civilian platform instead. While many personnel have adapted to these challenges and have been told to expect to move around once they arrive in country, it is difficult to work as a team with people you’ve just met in a position you haven’t been trained for when demands of your military counterparts outstrip the organizational capacity of your leadership.


A complicating factor is that each regional SCR answers directly to the U.S. ambassador but also to the Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs. These confused lines of authority complicate information flow and the assignment of responsibility, and too many of the regional SCRs act like — as one diplomat put it — “little caesars,” becoming way too territorial over their areas of responsibility and preventing others from working directly with the field. This situation would be generally acceptable if headquarters staff functioned well, but the practical result of this rigidity is that it has hampered decision-making rather than enabled it.

The challenge of building the Afghan state in the countryside won’t be solved in the short term. It requires a sustained civil-military effort across all lines of operations for a number of years. While the civilian uplift has significantly improved the ability of the civilian interagency to directly participate in this effort at all levels, a number of problems have arisen with respect to its implementation and sustainability. Many of the organizational reforms that have been adopted at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as well as the overall increase in resources for the civilian interagency have been needed for years. However, these various changes represent only an interim solution and are not sufficient to address the challenge of helping the Afghan government expand its presence into the countryside for the long term. While the civilian interagency is under immense pressure to produce results by July, it is already becoming clear that the civilian uplift can be sustained only for the next year or two as it is currently organized. The challenge of building a legitimate, capable and effective Afghan government in the countryside that can compete with the Taliban’s political program requires a more robust and better organized effort than we have seen so far. While great strides have been made to meet the needs of the Afghan government and our U.S. military units, more must be done if we hope to have the desired effects. AFJ

DAN GREEN is a visiting fellow at Aeneas Group International. He recently completed a tour in Afghanistan with the Navy as the International Security Assistance Joint Command liaison officer to the U.S. Embassy’s Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs.