Problems with civilian 'surge' could upset Afghan timetable

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration's "surge" of U.S. civilian officials and experts into Afghanistan is beset by a shortage of qualified personnel, a lack of housing and other problems that could disrupt its timetable for turning over full control of the country to the Afghan government, a new report Friday says.

"Even with the able leadership of Kabul's senior (civilian) officers, the best of intentions and the most dedicated efforts, Embassy Kabul faces serious challenges in meeting the administration's deadline for 'success' in Afghanistan," says the report by the State Department Inspector General's Office.

The civilian buildup is a key component of the strategy that President Barack Obama unveiled in December for defeating the Taliban-led insurgency, which continues to rage more than eight years after the United States invaded.

IG inspectors found that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and his staff have made "impressive progress" overseeing the personnel increase since his arrival in May.

However, they say, the effort is dogged by problems, including its "unprecedented pace and scope," the need to deploy personnel before there are places to house them and difficulty finding civilians with adequate training and expertise.

Eikenberry and his staff often put in 80-hour workweeks, with no days off. Video teleconferences with senior administration officials in Washington can keep them awake until 4:30 a.m., reducing productivity, the report says.

Some of the U.S. diplomats who are assigned to tracking and analyzing Afghanistan's complex politics and social dynamics lack training and expertise, the report says. IG inspectors found that there was no one in the embassy's political affairs office who's assigned full time to monitoring Afghanistan's relations with neighboring countries, including Iran, which U.S. officials have accused of providing weapons to the Taliban.

Many diplomats sent into the provinces, which are home to 70 percent of the country's estimated 32 million people, have no training in political reporting and analysis, the report says.

Living quarters in the embassy complex are packed, and some of those who are assigned to the countryside live in makeshift quarters with no heat or running water, the report says.

Most civilian officials have two months of leave, meaning that they spend only 10 months of their one-year tours in the country.

"The one-year assignment scenario limits the development of expertise, contributes to a lack of continuity, requires higher numbers of officers to achieve the administration's strategic goals and results in what one former ambassador calls 'an institutional lobotomy,' " the report says.

The number of civilians overseen by the U.S. Embassy was to reach about 900 in the first months of this year, a 200 percent increase since September. Many officials are being posted to provincial reconstruction teams and military bases.

Eikenberry and his staff are tied up not only managing the inflow of personnel, but also with dealing with "war tourism" by an "incredible number" of visitors from Congress and federal and state government agencies, according to the report.

The high volume of guests "taxes the same military and civilian assets that would otherwise be deployed in the vital counterinsurgency reconstruction efforts that the visitors seek to evaluate," the report says.

The report, based on an inspection of the U.S. Embassy last fall, contains dozens of recommendations. The administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, is in charge of the initiative.

The civilian "surge" announced by Obama parallels a military buildup of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. There will be some 110,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan once the increase is completed this summer. There are currently 78,000 U.S. and 43,000 international troops in the country.

American combat troops are to begin withdrawing and turning over areas under their control to President Hamid Karzai's government in July 2011. The process is to be completed in 2014, depending on "conditions on the ground."

ON THE WEB

The State Department Inspector General's report

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