Obama's Afghanistan 'surge': diplomats, civilian specialists

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is planning a major "surge" into Afghanistan of diplomats and civilian specialists steeped in running elections, fighting corruption and battling narcotics trafficking as part of a counterinsurgency strategy to stabilize the country, current and former U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Any effort to turn around the situation in Afghanistan, however, faces long odds. More than seven years after the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul, Islamic militants are resurgent, corruption is endemic and opium trafficking is an economic mainstay.

Obama's advisers have been debating how broad or narrow overall U.S. goals in Afghanistan should be — whether, for example, to limit the mission to counterterrorism, as opposed to the broader goal of building an Afghan democracy.

The White House strategy, which is nearly complete, also proposes an expanded role for the United Nations in coordinating disparate international reconstruction efforts, which have been criticized as wasteful and overlapping.

In giving a leading role to civilian specialists and to the U.N., Obama is making a sharp break from the Bush administration, which excluded both from early postwar efforts in Iraq after the U.S. invasion began six years ago.

One of the veteran U.S. diplomats headed for Afghanistan, former U.S. ambassador Tim Carney, was among the State Department officials briefly blocked from deploying to Iraq by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Carney later become a public critic of the Iraq reconstruction effort.

Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is due to be finished in time for a March 31 international conference in the Netherlands.

U.S. officials agreed to discuss the evolving approach only on the condition of anonymity, because Obama hasn't signed off on his advisers' recommendations.

Among the senior diplomats headed to Afghanistan is Francis Ricciardone, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the Philippines, who also has extensive experience with Iraq, officials said. Ricciardone will be deputy to Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Another former U.S. ambassador, Peter Galbraith, a veteran diplomat who's investigated conflicts in the Balkans and Iraq, is expected to be appointed by the U.N. as its No. 2 official in Afghanistan.

Obama last month ordered 17,500 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this spring, but held off deciding on additional troops requested by U.S. commanders there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday, expressed concern about an "open-ended" military commitment.

"I've been very concerned about an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops for a variety of reasons," Gates said. While declining to discuss the policy review in detail, he said of Afghanistan: "It's a difficult problem and trying to come up with new approaches and new initiatives that enhance our prospects for success is hard work, frankly."

A senior U.S. defense official said that Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, has been insisting that the so-called "civilian surge" be made a key provision of the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy.

He noted that Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also have been calling for an approach that harnesses the resources of the entire U.S. government, not just the overstretched military.

The civilian surge "will extend itself into other departments of the government," said the senior U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity because the strategy isn't final. "That's what the plan is."

Some experts are concerned, however, that the U.S. lacks the ability to launch reconstruction and humanitarian operations overseas involving large numbers of civilian officials and experts.

"The United States today manifestly lacks adequate civilian capacity to conduct complex operations — those operations that require close civil-military planning and cooperation in the field," said a December 2008 report by the National Defense University. "Current efforts to build a civilian response capacity for complex operations are unfinished and . . . the Obama administration needs to dedicate additional attention and resources to complete the task.

The study said that an office to oversee such civilian operations was created in the State Department in 2004. But it was "underfunded, understaffed, and unappreciated," and the military ended up having to fill numerous positions for which civilians couldn't be found.

On another issue, U.S. officials denied that the Obama administration is considering expanding missile strikes by drone aircraft against Taliban targets beyond Pakistan's tribal area to the adjacent province of Baluchistan, as the New York Times reported.

Some Pentagon officials, they said, want the administration to authorize strikes against Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his top deputies, who are widely believed to be overseeing broad strategy from a safe haven in the provincial capital of Quetta.

However, the senior U.S. defense official and a State Department official said that top administration policymakers think that such strikes would enflame already serious political instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Extending U.S. missile strikes to Baluchistan, a move that top Pakistan military and intelligence officials oppose, "might be a price that is too high," said the senior U.S. defense official.

He said that the administration thinks that Pakistan should be pressed to close down the sanctuary that Omar and his confederates have enjoyed in Baluchistan.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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