February 1, 2011  

Undermanned, overwhelmed

Afghan nation-building efforts need a new approach

One of the frustrating challenges of Afghanistan has been how to build a legitimate, capable and effective Afghan state at all levels that addresses the needs of the people and denies the Taliban the sources of grievance they capitalize on to divide the population from its government.

While a number of challenges exist to building the government, Afghanistan’s history of a nonexistent government in the countryside and an overly centralized state in Kabul has complicated these initiatives. U.S. efforts to build the Afghan government have had a mixed record of success and been uneven. Early lukewarm support for “nation-building” eventually transitioned to a grudging acceptance of its necessity, but efforts were still inadequate to the challenge. The 2002 deployment to the countryside of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) was a good first step but still inadequate. While PRTs — civil-military platforms charged with partnering with local government officials — were an innovative approach, they were significantly underresourced, and absent a sufficient institutional link to Kabul, their efforts were often uncoordinated with the central government, the U.S. Embassy and various military commands.

New efforts have recently been undertaken within Afghanistan to better resource state-building efforts and provide improved organizational structures from the village level to Kabul. However, a number of problems continue to plague U.S. efforts to build the Afghan government and, while recent innovations have improved things, there are still significant challenges.

The Obama administration’s 2009 integrated civilian-military campaign plan for support to Afghanistan was an effort to provide more resources and organization to Afghanistan’s state-building efforts. It created a number of coordinating bodies in Kabul to better integrate civil-military efforts; senior civilian representative positions to provide greater direction to civilian efforts; district support teams to partner with local officials; additional ambassadors to provide improved management; a substantial increase in interagency civilians to work in the field; and it created an Office of Interagency Provincial Affairs at the U.S. Embassy to focus on the countryside. The chief goal of these efforts was to improve the connection of the field to the U.S. government’s representatives in Kabul and to provide a more coordinated approach to partnering with the Afghan government and the U.S. military. To complement these efforts, the U.S. and NATO created the Information Dominance Center in Kabul, stability operations information cells at the regional commands and human terrain teams with military units. They also focused pre-deployment training on collecting information about the human terrain to better inform state-building efforts. Additionally, NATO created task forces to help combat corruption and contracting abuse, bolstered its representation in the central government’s ministries and improved the staffing of the Office of the Senior Civilian Representative (SCR). Collectively, these efforts resulted in a nascent state-building accomplishment, but there are still significant challenges.


Lack of resources, poor design and implementation, and inadequate evaluation mean the effort is faltering. Absent a substantial revision of our current governance approach, the investments and energy that have been poured into building Afghanistan’s security forces and the gains achieved may be squandered if the Afghan government cannot meet the hopes of its people. The Obama administration’s “civilian uplift,” an effort dedicated to substantially increasing the presence of interagency civilians in Afghanistan to partner with the U.S. military, has suffered from significant recruitment, training, placement and evaluation problems. Too frequently, political pressure to meet civilian uplift targets has led to poor quality recruits who are too fat, frail or flaky to do the job. Even among the competent, there is the problem of continuity. Interagency civilians generally serve for one year with five authorized leave breaks, insufficient for them to have a substantial impact. Additionally, a majority of these civilians serve in Kabul and not in the countryside where they are needed. Large areas of the country that have been cleared and are being held either do not have any interagency civilians or have only one or two. As presently organized, the civilian uplift is unsustainable, especially as requirements increase because cleared areas are being transitioned to civilian control. This must change.

U.S. efforts in Kabul are still poorly coordinated and integrated. They have a bias toward the central government versus the field, are fraught with continuity problems because of frequent personnel rotations, and are hampered by friction, miscommunication, lack of teamwork, and poor planning. The failure of the district delivery program (DDP) is an example of these problems. The program was launched in 2009 and was an attempt to provide synchronized security, development and governance to each of more than 80 key terrain districts. The districts were selected by the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command based on how many Afghans lived there, the degree to which they were threatened by insurgents, and whether they were near a key economic corridor such as the ring road or crossing points into Afghanistan. Though initially a joint program of the Afghan government and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that was focused on six districts, it was quickly expanded to more than 80 because of the need for robust nonkinetic efforts in recently cleared areas and to provide Afghans with positive reasons to support their government. The DDP initiative required a competent Afghan district chief partnered with a local representative assembly, the hiring of local government officials focused on service delivery, the coordinated implementation of USAID, State Department and military development programming in the district, U.S. government civilian advisers to partner with local officials, and enduring security. All these tasks required close coordination of the Afghan government, the U.S. military and NATO with the civilian interagency in Kabul and at the local level.

Problems plagued the effort from the outset. Issues over the hiring, transportation and pay of newly hired civil servants constantly beset the DDP program, as did the evaluation of public officials, the coordination of USAID and State programming, and liaison with the central government’s ministries. It became clear that the pace at which the military wanted to work could not be met by either the U.S. interagency or the Afghan government. It took the U.S. Embassy four months to assemble a list of its central ministry liaisons and a similar amount of time to reorient its national-level programming to focus on just one district.

Additionally, the embassy did not have enough civilians to partner with local officials as part of the civilian uplift. Staff members were quick to assert the right to lead on governance and development but slow to assert their responsibility, and they frequently blamed their inaction on the lack of capacity of the Afghan government. When military commands attempted to move forward on DDP by establishing direct liaisons with Afghanistan’s ministries and conducting their own assessments of local governance and development, these efforts were consistently opposed by the U.S. Embassy even though it lacked the resources to do the job. As districts were cleared by U.S. military forces, the civilian interagency was increasingly absent and the Afghan government was similarly missing. We must try a new approach.

In many respects, when it comes to the collective good governance efforts of the U.S. and the international community, the U.N. has the mandate but not the manpower; State has the responsibility but not the resources; and the military has the manpower but not the mission. President Hamid Karzai and his political supporters continue to outmaneuver the U.S. between the vertical seams of the military and civilian agencies and between the different horizontal seams at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. But while his formal government is still weak, his informal government of tribal allies, warlords and friends is fully organized, capable and effective. While much has been done to improve U.S. and coalition state-building efforts, a new approach is needed that is better resourced, fully integrates civilian and military efforts, connects the field to the capital, and is sustainable for the long term, especially as districts and provinces transition to civilian control.

While the U.S. civilian interagency has accomplished much, it is an imperfect instrument for getting the best out of the Afghan government. The U.S. should review the possibility of having a dedicated military state-building effort that mirrors the organization of the civilian interagency and that can provide a structure through which civilians can better achieve their own goals in a more sustainable and effective manner for the long term. The U.S. military should create a dedicated corps (and this may mean an expansion of the Afghan Hands program) to undertake this work. Participants should be carefully screened and receive additional training to undertake the nonkinetic work they must accomplish. To improve the cooperation of civilians and the military at the local level, clear statements of work should be drafted. Additionally, the military and the civilian interagency should be given the opportunity to provide input to each other’s evaluations.

To provide a sustainable reachback capability for field staff in Kabul, Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency), which focuses on a holistic strategy against corruption, should be bolstered to function as the dedicated military state-building effort in Kabul. All efforts to collect information on the human terrain of Afghanistan should report to the task force, as well as military civil-affairs efforts. The task force also should support a stronger central ministry liaison operation, as well as the efforts of the NATO senior civilian representative. The NATO SCR also should be given a more robust staff so that he can be an effective interlocutor with Karzai and his cabinet. The regional commands should have offshoots of the task force that will move all the assets, programs and civilian efforts together into a unified state-building effort.


We also should explore the possibility of putting the civilian interagency staff in the field under U.S. military command. The Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program in Vietnam was a similar arrangement, in which civilians evaluated military personnel and vice versa.

I am reminded of a statement Gen. George C. Marshall made about opposition to putting one military service under the command of another: “We cannot manage by cooperation. Human frailties are such that there would be emphatic unwillingness to place portions of troops under another service. If we can make a plan for unified command now, it will solve nine-tenths of our troubles.”

In many respects, the organization of our civilian and military efforts is the greatest hindrance to how we operate in Afghanistan. If we can improve how we are organized and then supplement this by better resourcing, we will do much to stabilize our state-building program as well as ensure that we can marshal a more robust political program to defeat the Taliban.

Much of our approach to stability operations has been about doing what our bureaucracies are comfortable with rather than dealing with the problem of insurgency on its own terms. A significant portion of our approach is capital-centric, biased toward formal government institutions, focused on long-term development versus stabilization and imperfectly partnered with the U.S. military. In the face of an opponent that blends civil and military approaches seamlessly, is strongest in the countryside, has a nuanced engagement strategy with the local population, and has no manpower shortage, we shouldn’t be surprised at the problems. We should think the unthinkable and recognize that politics, good governance and development are too important to be left solely to the civilian interagency in Afghanistan, and it is time for the military to assume a more central role.

DAN GREEN is a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He previously served with the State Department on a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan (2005-2006) and with the Navy as a mobilized reservist in Iraq (2007) and Afghanistan (2009-2010).