Missing in Action: Civilians

by Joshua Foust on 9/5/2009 · 6 comments

Peter Bergen tries to highlight the good news from Afghanistan:

* More than five million refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. This is one of the most substantial refugee repatriations in history, yet it is little remarked upon because it has largely gone so smoothly.
* One in six Afghans now has a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system.
* Millions of kids are now in school, including many girls. Under the Taliban girls were not allowed to be educated.
* In 2008, Afghanistan’s real GDP growth was 7.5 percent. Under the Taliban the economy was in free fall.

There are some silly bits in there—does a comparative murder rate really mean all that much? Can you really measure the country’s potential based on the status of Kabul’s airport?—but not totally misleading. The trouble is, what Bergen doesn’t highlight is just what these indicators mean: our best progress has been on the civilian front—and not the military front.

It raises the obvious question: why is the “way forward” debate dominated by arguing over troop numbers? The idea of bringing more civilians into the mix is a good one, but it suffers the same problem simply throwing more troops at the problem does: usage. If the current—that is, early 2009—military strategy is wrong (I think it is, though it is s-l-o-w-l-y changing), then throwing more troops at a wrong strategy would be a bad idea. Despite a lot of hifalutin’ talk about COIN, there’s just not much COIN happening out there at the moment. So if we’re talking COIN but doing something else, more troops won’t address that.

My friend Old Blue mentions in his pretty interesting victory post that there is a civilian surge coming into the country. But where is it? Conceptually, the bits of the civilian surge idea that we know of is problematic, to say the least. But let’s go higher: We’re eight months into the Obama administration and we still have no head of USAID, for starters. Our lead aid and development agency has been leaderless while the military clamors for more aid and development workers to flood the country.

Similarly, all this talk about civilians sounds nice, until you realize the people advocating their use—from McChrystal on down—have no idea how they’re used, what their limitations are, or what their capabilities are. Have the PRTs been effective at hectoring their governors into making the right decisions, or do some luck out by having good governors? Is there a transition plan in place to wean PRT-reliant provinces toward self-rule? Is it even realistic to expect State or USAID to operate in an inherently insecure environment, and do their own rules of security allow it to happen?

This is the kind of thing you don’t hear when talking about Afghanistan’s progress, or lack thereof, and how to move forward. Clearly our biggest lapse, and our biggest failure to capitalize on success, is on the political and civilian side of things. Yet that side of it is completely ignored, drowned out really, in all this rigamarole about troops numbers. The debate is badly out of balance, and until it becomes balanced again, we’re just going to spin our wheels to no great effect.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Madhu September 5, 2009 at 3:50 pm

So, the civilian surge is related to governance? I guess I get confused when I read a general newspaper article talking about civilians – it is referring to the aid agencies and the
State Department, etc, right?

I read such articles and the first thing that comes to mind is that the aid agencies need, like, actual civilians with particular skills to step up. I, also, think about fellow physicians and where we might be needed – there was a conference in March about Health and Security in D.C. regarding Afghanistan. I tried listening to some of the talks posted online, but was still, all, how are you going to do all this? Interesting.

http://fhp.osd.mil/intlhealth/healthSecurity.jsp (the link to the conference website)

from the website

“In an ongoing effort to work in a united fashion with other government agencies and international organizations to improve the health care sector of Afghanistan, the MHS convened an important conference in mid-May called, “Building Health Security in Contemporary Afghanistan.” Co-hosted by the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the conference brought together leaders from Afghanistan, DoD, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of State (DoS), international and academic organizations, and such coalition partners as the United Kingdom and Spain to discuss the important role health plays in establishing and sustaining security, and the U.S. military”s developing function in support of the overall U.S. government effort to help build health systems of conflict-stressed areas like Afghanistan.”

It sounds very ambitious. So, how exactly is all of that going to happen? I wonder if Old Blue has any insight onto the health part of it and how it is going?

Bart September 6, 2009 at 10:57 am

Man, those Afghan civilians must be so happy with the US– they’ve got a brand new airport that 99% will never step foot in. I’m sure that means alot of the families of the 100 or so that just got killed.

anan September 6, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Bart, the airport is a boon to international trade and investment . . . which is Afghanistan’s only prayer for economic growth. Remember that Afghanistan’s annual revenue = $600 million versus Afghanistan’s government steady state expenditure =$6,000 million. The only way this gap can ever close is rapid Afghan economic growth. The Airport is part of the international community’s effort to accelerate growth. Also remember, that much of Afghanistan’s international aid comes from countries other than the US, including this airport.

Joshua, have you noticed that the Kunduz governor and NDS are still supporting the Kunduz air strike? Apparently the locals are blaming the Afghan looters for being “thieves” in a war zone. The names of the dead are not being recited in local mosques because their families are ashamed of them. The air strike does seem to be getting an atypical response inside Kunduz. The national Afghan response is a different matter, however; and that is the more important issue to consider.

Andrew M September 6, 2009 at 2:56 pm

“The trouble is, what Bergen doesn’t highlight is just what these indicators mean: our best progress has been on the civilian front—and not the military front.”
“Clearly our biggest lapse, and our biggest failure to capitalize on success, is on the political and civilian side of things.”
These seem contradictory; are you saying that the civilian efforts have been a failure, or that the failure lies in their being drowned out by military events? Or something else.

Joshua Foust September 6, 2009 at 3:00 pm

It can be both: our biggest successes have been on the civilian front, but it’s a serious failure that we haven’t capitalized on them. Instead of a consistent pattern of civilian successes, we have scattered examples.

Mark S. September 7, 2009 at 11:38 am

It does not matter if USAID has an administrator or not…USAID has been put under operational control of the State Department as it should have been a long time ago. We already have too much layering of government and too many folks with their fingers in the pie. Hilary Clinton can run USAID and the State Department along with the other under secretaries of state that are in charge like U/S Lew and U/S Kennedy amongst others.

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