Shortage Of Civilian Experts Slows Afghan Rebuilding

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Thousands of American troops are setting up combat outposts throughout Afghanistan. But in order to rebuild the country, U.S. civilian experts in fields such as farming, irrigation and the rule of law are needed.

And those experts aren't arriving in Afghanistan quickly enough, analysts say.

When soldier-turned-diplomat Karl Eikenberry was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2007, he would often ask his field commanders: "If you had a choice right now of getting 100 more infantrymen or 10 agricultural experts, which would it be?"

A U.S. Special Forces medic treats a young Afghan boy in May i

A U.S. Special Forces medic treats a young Afghan boy in May in the Zirko Valley of western Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
A U.S. Special Forces medic treats a young Afghan boy in May

A U.S. Special Forces medic treats a young Afghan boy in May in the Zirko Valley of western Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR

"Nine times out of 10, the answer would be 10 agricultural experts," Eikenberry recalled to NPR in a recent interview.

Now, Eikenberry is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. But U.S. commanders are still waiting for those agricultural experts.

There are 10,000 U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Another 5,000 American soldiers are deployed in neighboring Kandahar province. And the Obama administration is considering sending thousands more.

Compare those figures to the total number of U.S. government civilians on the ground in southern Afghanistan: 50.

"The military is very realistic about a 'surge' in civilian resources," says Andrew Exum, a retired Army officer and defense analyst who recently returned from Afghanistan.

In this instance, "realistic" means those civilian experts aren't expected any time soon.

Exum, who is also a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the process is going to take some time.

"The State Department and other U.S. agencies don't have a ready brigade that can just be deployed at any moment. So they recognize that if we get more civilian resources, we might not get them until next spring," he says.

Exum and others say that success in Afghanistan can come only by providing jobs and a better life for Afghans. Decades of war and civil war have left much of the country a wasteland. The U.S. military says many fight Afghan men for the Taliban only because they're paid, earning them the nickname "Ten Dollar Taliban."

But those U.S. civilian experts who can help boost the Afghan economy and society simply aren't arriving quickly enough.

"The way they are trickling in — and trickling is the operative term — they can't possibly meet the needs in a place like Helmand," says Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan.

"Much of the job will continue to have to be done by the military working with far too few civilians, and that will be true at least through the end of 2010," says Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Richard Holbrooke, the State Department's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, dismisses Cordesman's claim.

"I have no idea what he's talking about," Holbrooke told reporters at a recent news conference. "We have a very sustained plan."

That plan, Holbrooke says, is to bring in more civilians from not only the State Department but also the Department of Agriculture, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, which focuses on economic growth, trade and humanitarian aid.

"Many people have already arrived," Holbrooke said. "I saw a mission that was showing much more energy than I'd ever seen on previous trips going back three or four years."

More Energy, But Still Not Enough People

State Department officials say there are now more than 500 government civilians working throughout Afghanistan from all U.S. agencies. Their goal is to double that number by December. Most of those civilians will be working in the provinces, they say.

State Department officials tell NPR that they plan on using these civilian government experts to create more economic reconstruction teams within the provinces, at the district level.

Right now, many of the current economic teams, known as provincial reconstruction teams, are run by military reservists. The State Department hopes that over time civilians can run these teams.

Rebuilding A 'Decades-Long' Enterprise

They will have a big job. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently that it may take "a few years" to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida, but many years to rebuild.

"The larger part of it, economic development and institution-building, probably is a decades-long enterprise in a country that has been through 30 years of war and has as high an illiteracy rate as Afghanistan does, and low level of economic development," Gates told reporters recently.

"So that is a long-term prospect, but it's also one of those areas where virtually all of our international partners and nongovernmental organizations are committed to that side of the equation for an indefinite of period of time," he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he believes the State Department has a good plan for bringing in more civilian workers to help the military's efforts.

"And my expectation is they will start to show up on the order of by the hundreds towards the end of the year and the first part of next year," Mullen tells NPR.

Causes For The Delays

One State Department official says the delays are the result of the time-consuming search for the right people with the right skills. Currently, the USAID Web site features 50 openings for development officers in Afghanistan.

The U.S. also must build places for them to live in some of the more remote areas in Afghanistan.

Then there is the issue of security. Parts of the country are too dangerous, and that is preventing private charitable groups and nongovernmental organizations from working there, too. The U.S. military will have to make sure those areas are safe, Holbrooke says.

"You can't have civilians go out unless there's security," he says.

And that, U.S. officers say, will likely mean more American troops in Afghanistan.

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