New Surge To Afghanistan Is Civilian, Not Military

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Progress in Afghanistan this year will depend on how the U.S. surge there plays out — not just the military surge but another, less well-known influx of civilians. The United States and NATO have sent a legion of reformers with the difficult task of fostering good governance. It's this effort that may ultimately determine the lasting success of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with NPR's Quil Lawrence about the large, coordinated U.S. civilian effort in Afghanistan.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in for Scott Simon.

We begin this hour with the a look at the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Progress this year will depend on how the U.S. surge there plays out. Not just the military surge, but another less well know influx of civilians.

The United States and NATO have sent a legion of reformers with the difficult task of fostering good governance. It's this effort that may ultimately determine the lasting success of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

To find out more, we're joined by NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quill Lawrence. Hi there, Quill.

QUILL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

LUDDEN: What is the scope of this civilian surge?

LAWRENCE: Well, they have about tripled the number of Americans working at the U.S. embassy and in various provincial reconstruction teams around the country in the last just two years, up to about 1,100 people and growing. They are from 16 different U.S. government agencies.

They're doing things in areas from advising ministries on every level of government to smaller things. I recently attended an inauguration of some solar street lights here in the city of Kabul. Afghanistan - most of the country gets about 300 days per year of sun. So it was the actually Army Corps of Engineers that was setting up a whole bunch of new street lights powered by solar panels.

The budget for USAID is to four billion dollars this year, so it's a vast effort.

LUDDEN: And how's it going? I mean, what kind of challenges is this effort running into?

LAWRENCE: The most obvious challenge is security. This year there were 100 aid workers killed in Afghanistan, about 80 of them from organizations that contracted with the government, with USAID. It's clear that they are targets. Many of them, therefore, have to travel with the military.

In some places you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a military patrol and a patrol that included civilians. They're in the same bulletproof vests and armor, they're riding in the same heavy vehicles.

Some organizations - aid organizations who have been here for decades say that the aid effort has become militarized here. In speaking to some traditional aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders or Mercy Corps, they say they have a much lower profile, and they've actually been resisting many of the offers to expand and take some of this largess - this U.S. government largess coming into Afghanistan, because they say they can't really absorb it. They know that they'll end up hiring more people than they can successfully manage.

And it's very hard to hire qualified people in Afghanistan, which is one of the biggest problems with waste and corruption here.

LUDDEN: Would you have any sense of, you know, are Afghans receptive to these kinds of reforms?

LAWRENCE: Well, it's very difficult. You hear U.S. officials talking about wanting to do rule of law projects, for example, trying to set up court systems. I spoke to a lawyer recently who said that in Badakhshan, one of the provinces up in the north which has been very peaceful, that 80 percent of the lawyers - of the judges, rather - there are illiterate.

So there's just a lot of capacity that needs to be built. And when you hear a foreign organization talking about wanting a quick impact rule of law improvement project, well, the answer of most of the aid communities, such a thing doesn't exist. You need to go through education and get an educated population that in a couple of decades might be able to improve a justice system, for example.

LUDDEN: The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, was in Kabul today as part of this civilian push. What's that about?

LAWRENCE: She was here talking with the government here about border security. She went out to the main Pakistani border crossing at Torkham, and was giving support with issues of revenue collection.

Out there the Department of Homeland Security is one of 16 U.S. government agencies that is out here with staff. She said that they've stepped up to about 24 people from DHS here, and they're hoping to double that soon.

And she's also meeting with high level Afghan government officials, including President Karzai.

LUDDEN: NPR's Quill Lawrence in Kabul. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Happy New Year.

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