McChrystal wants huge boost in U.S. civilians in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 10, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — In addition to possibly requesting thousands of additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the country's top American military commander will ask the Obama administration to double the number of U.S. government civilian workers who are in the country.

The proposed civilian "surge" is the fourth leg of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's emerging strategy to rebuild Afghanistan's economy and government, along with more American troops, vastly expanded Afghan security forces and closer cooperation between U.S. and Afghan troops, including posting troops from both countries at the same bases.

The request for additional civilian resources will be part of a 60-day assessment of the strategy in Afghanistan. McChrystal's plan also will outline how the military wants to revamp the relationship between civilians and the military so that soldiers shift economic and political development work to civilians.

It's not clear, however, whether the State Department can deploy enough civilians fast enough to make progress in an economically backward nation that remains plagued by an Islamist insurgency, internal rivalries, inadequate infrastructure, official corruption and a booming opium trade. What's more, nearly eight years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, one thing that many of its people have in common is growing discontent with the presence of foreign forces.

The assessment was to be released later this week, but the Pentagon has announced that it won't be made public until early September. The plan is already a race against time in Afghanistan and in Washington, where the administration is eager to demonstrate significant progress before the 2010 congressional elections.

A State Department official said that there were 560 to 570 U.S. government civilian employees in Afghanistan at the end of last year, and that by the end of this year there'll be about 1,000.

Only 75 of the new arrivals are in Afghanistan so far. "We're doing this in a planned way. We have to balance getting the right people out there, as opposed to just deploying them quickly," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, as the official wasn't authorized to speak for the record. "We fully expect to be able to get them all out there by the end of the year."

Many of the new arrivals will join provincial reconstruction teams, which work with provincial and local officials across Afghanistan. Not all of them are coming from the State Department. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is sending 55 employees into the field as part of an effort to rejuvenate Afghanistan's once-rich agriculture.

It may be difficult, however, to convince some disheartened American troops to work with civilians, whom they think haven't had much impact in the places where they've been.

In Kabul, though, military officials called the proposal a central part of their plan, saying that rebuilding Afghanistan's shattered economy and cleaning up its corrupt government are key to the U.S. strategy.

The military will move to population centers and wrest control from the Taliban, and civilians will move in afterward to rebuild communities. In many places now, the Taliban not only control areas by force but also have established local courts, government centers and businesses and have run government officials out of their communities.

"Government is the key, and you will see that in General McChrystal's strategy," said a senior military official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak to the news media. "If all we achieve is security, then this won't work."

However, even if the surge occurs, "it might not arrive until early 2010," said Andrew Exum, who's at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, a national-security policy research center, and who serves as an adviser to McChrystal. "For the near term, the military needs to be prepared to take on responsibilities better executed by civilians. . . . We're on a very short timeline in Afghanistan with respect to shifting momentum, and by the time the civilians arrive in any significant numbers or capabilities, it might be quite late in the game."

As for the provincial reconstruction teams, he said, there's no standardization. "What (each one does) depends on their relationship with the Afghan people and their guidance from their home country," Exum said.

Many of the new employees are being hired under a special provision of the law that allows the government to hire temporary personnel on an expedited basis. Aside from the new hires, it's not clear where the additional personnel will come from. Some could come from Iraq, where a State Department inspector general's report recently recommended that the U.S. Embassy be downsized significantly and provincial reconstruction teams be phased out.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has alerted the State Department that hundreds more civilians beyond the total of 1,000 now planned probably will be needed in 2010 and 2011, officials said. The total could end up reaching 1,350, with about 800 in Kabul and about 550 outside the capital.

Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, dismissed criticism that the civilian buildup has been insufficient so far.

"We have a very sustained plan. This is not like taking an existing military unit out of Fort Bragg and training them and then sending them out," Holbrooke said at a briefing last month. "We have hundreds of people in the pipeline."

(Youssef reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Washington; Strobel reported from Washington. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Kabul.)

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