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Obstacles to a successful civilian surge in Afghanistan

21 aprile 2009

By Richard Weitz (04/08/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Obama administration’s newly announced strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan aims to strengthen the American and, ideally, international efforts in that country along three dimensions: defense, diplomacy, and development. The defense component includes a major increase in the number of American combat troops operating in Afghanistan, whereas the diplomatic thrust employs a regional security approach that engages Pakistan, Iran, and other countries more deeply in resolving Afghanistan’s problems. The development dimension entails new personnel and resource commitments. As with the other two dimensions, however, considerable impediments remain to a successful foreign assistance campaign in Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND: At NATO’s 60th anniversary summit last weekend, the NATO allies agreed to contribute 3,000 additional combat troops and 2,000 more military and police trainers to help strengthen security in Afghanistan through this summer’s election. The increase helps round up President Obama’s commitment to send another 17,000 U.S. combat troops (increasing the total American military contingent to 62,000) and 4,000 American security force trainers to Afghanistan. The U.S. military has requested at least 10,000 more combat troops, but the administration plans to delay any further increase until the results of the current surge become clearer.

The new administration’s diplomatic strategy is most evident in the announced plans to dramatically increase the level of American foreign military and economic assistance to Pakistan. In addition, administration officials are now speaking of an “Afghan-Pak” conflict, underscoring how they consider Afghanistan and Pakistan an integrated theater of operations against a common Islamist threat from al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies. An official from the Iranian Foreign Ministry did participate in The Hague Conference on Afghanistan, but Tehran still remains wary of endorsing the American military enterprise in Afghanistan.

For several weeks, both U.S. and other NATO officials have stressed the need to complement this elevated military commitment and the expanded regional approach with an increase in foreign civilian development efforts in Afghanistan. In explaining the new Afghan-Pakistani strategy to reporters at the end of March, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said that, “It won’t make any difference how many troops we send if we don’t get the civilian piece right.” The “center of gravity,” Mullen argued, is winning the support of “the Afghan people.”

The expectation is that, without balanced progress regarding economic and political development as well as regarding defense and diplomacy, achieving sustainable security in Afghanistan will likely prove impossible. In the past, the absence of effective economic and political progress has prevented the U.S. and NATO militaries from consolidating important battlefield victories in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration plans to increase the number of American civilians deployed in Afghanistan. Some of these diplomats, agriculture specialists, justice officials, and other non-military personnel employed by the Departments of State and other U.S. government agencies, often on temporary contacts, would work at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in partnership with Afghanistan’s national government agencies. Others would work primarily in the field, often as part of the civilian-military provincial reconstruction teams and other institutions that partner with provincial and local Afghan government institutions.

Supported by what the Obama administration anticipates will be enhanced security due to the surge of American combat troops, the enhanced U.S. civilian contingent will seek to improve governance and the rule of law throughout the country as well as provide Afghans with alternative livelihood opportunities to the currently widespread practice of cultivating opium poppies. An important priority will be in building Afghan government capacity to provide security (through a much larger and better trained national army and police) as well as to design and implement its own development projects.

The enhanced American civilian contingent would collaborate with the expanded European contingent pledged at the April 4 NATO summit meeting. Despite recurring appeals by former President George W. Bush, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and other international leaders, European governments have found it difficult to deploy many additional combat troops to Afghanistan. They also constrain these contributions through “caveats” that limit the permissible military activities of these forces. The Obama administration has now refocused its NATO diplomacy on inducing European countries to provide more people and money to support non-military development programs in Afghanistan, ranging from economic development to police and justice training.

The Obama administration also seeks to bolster the role of the United Nations in enhancing non-military coordination among the often confusing cacophony of international actors engaged in development projects in Afghanistan. In addition to the UN, NATO, the European Union, and many nongovernmental organizations are heavily engaged in promoting post-conflict stability and reconstruction in the country. These groups often have contrasting, sometimes clashing, goals and operating procedures. The White House has appointed Peter W. Galbraith, an American diplomat with extensive experience in the Balkans and other conflict regions, as deputy to Kai Eide, who heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, to help integrate all these non-military efforts.

IMPLICATIONS: To succeed, the Obama administration must overcome many obstacles in all three dimensions. The Afghan National Army, though still improving, remains unable to defend itself. The diplomatic outreach to Pakistan, Iran, and Europe will require overcoming several barriers limiting these governments’ support for U.S.-led initiatives in Afghanistan. And at home, the American political system is structurally imbalanced, regularly providing more resources for defense than for diplomacy and development. American civilian efforts are further dissipated by the limited integration among the diverse U.S. government agencies that undertake international development activities.

Despite these changes, some developmental experts worry that the new approach might prove insufficient given the magnitude of Afghanistan’s challenges. For example, the Center for American Progress, which has contributed ideas and personnel to the Obama administration, has concluded that U.S. assistance to transitional countries like Afghanistan will require a complete overhaul in how the United Stated delivers development aid. The Center’s development experts recommend a major restructuring to improve the planning and programming processes in Washington and in the field, especially by making them more flexible and better resourced. Similarly, they conclude that American development assistance needs to harmonize better with the counterinsurgency effort. In particular, development strategies should initially prioritize aiding the most militarily secure regions of Afghanistan to generate successes that could impart momentum to development efforts in other areas experiencing greater security problems. They also believe that the United States and its allies need to hire more development professionals and deploy them throughout the country. Above all, U.S. assistance efforts should concentrate on building local capacity and sparking “catalytic” development by the Afghan public and private sectors rather than promoting solutions that will make recipients indefinitely dependent on continued foreign support.

Other experts fear that an increase in Western development programs in Afghanistan could prove counterproductive. They agree with the general presumption that a substantial improvement in Afghans’ socioeconomic circumstances would make them less likely to support Islamist militants and narco-trafficking, the main security threats to Afghanistan and its Eurasian neighbors. Yet, they fear two negative consequences from NATO’s “civilian surge.”

One possibility is that the increased aid will simply make Afghans increasingly dependent on foreign assistance in the future. The fear is that the inflow of foreign money and personnel will displace indigenous developmental efforts, which lack a lavish resource base. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already become the second largest employer in Afghanistan, behind only the national government. In addition, any major increase in Afghan government development programs or security forces will become unsustainable without continued foreign support since Afghanistan does not possess sufficient domestic resources to sustain large development projects or military and police forces.

Another concern is that many Afghans will not easily distinguish between NATO military and civilian personnel, especially since the alliance’s Provisional Reconstruction Team structure presumes an integrated civilian-military team. Independent Western non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan fear that the resulting “militarization” of aid will complicate their ability to undertake their own development efforts because they too might be seen as an extension of NATO’s post-conflict reconstruction activities in the country.

CONCLUSIONS: Although heartfelt, these fears may be overblown. Despite the best efforts of the Obama administration and its NATO allies, it is probable that these governments will at best mobilize sufficient will and capacity for a “mini” civilian surge in Afghanistan. Whereas the U.S. military is planning to order tens of thousands of more troops into the country, the State Department is seeking to hire only a few hundred more development experts for Afghanistan. European governments seem as averse to substantially increasing their foreign assistance programs in Afghanistan in the midst of a world recession as they are to contributing more combat troops to NATO’s beleaguered International Security Assistance Force.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).

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