Civilian Surge Goes On Despite Afghan Bombing

This week's Taliban suicide bombing which killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan, comes at a time when Americans are beefing up their military and civilian presence in the country. John Dempsey, who leads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, talks to Steve Inskeep about the implications of the attack on a civilian outreach base near Khost. International partners plan to more than double civilian specialists in Afghanistan in 2010.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Happy New Year. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're learning more about this week's suicide bombing in Eastern Afghanistan. According to the Associated Press and other news sources, the bomber was being courted as a potential informant. He was invited to the American base, showed up wearing an Afghan army uniform and then blew himself up, a bombing that killed seven CIA agents and came at a time when the Americans are beefing up both their military and civilian presence in the country. To talk about the effects of this attack, we turn to John Dempsey. He is head of the office of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul. We've reached him on this New Year's Day in London. Welcome to the program, Sir.

Mr. JOHN DEMPSEY (Head, Office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Kabul): Thanks for having me on.

INSKEEP: What effects do you think this bombing is likely to have?

Mr. DEMPSEY: Well, I mean, certainly it's troubling news, to have this occur right now, but I don't think it's going to have major repercussions for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, given the increased attention in the civilian surge that we've all been hearing about for sometime, that's going to go forward. There is no question. But certainly, having something like this happen, is going to be problematic.

INSKEEP: Well, I suppose there are short-term effects to an attack like this which is simply the tragedy of the loss of life and also the loss of experience in intelligence of some key CIA officers, but there is also the somewhat longer term effects of how it is perceived by people, how it changes people's perceptions? What can an attack like this do in making people think about the situation in Afghanistan?

Mr. DEMPSEY: Well, I mean, I think you raise a good point. And there have been problems trying to attract people to come to Afghanistan, to work in an environment that's unstable, potentially unsafe. And having something like this happen is going to probably make some people rethink whether the risk is worth actually coming out to do this type of work.

INSKEEP: Now, one reason we wanted to call you is because, although this base was used by the CIA, CIA officers were targeted - it was also used by civilians who are part of the so-called provincial reconstruction team, who were in one of the roughest parts of the country, trying to do some work. What do those teams do?

Mr. DEMPSEY: Well, there are provincial reconstruction teams throughout Afghanistan, not only in some of the more unsafe areas, and essentially what they do is go out and provide development assistance to Afghans in the respective areas of the country. And they are attached to military bases, which has raised a number of questions, since the whole PRT concept started about five or six years ago, with people asking, is it worth having the military being involved in these types of endeavors? And some Afghans, I think, are questioning whether or not the whole PRT concept is actually worthwhile. And some look at them with skepticism, saying having the military involved in development work is blurring the line between fighting a war and trying to reconstruct a country.

INSKEEP: You're saying that people in Afghanistan find it confusing to have Americans coming off the same fortified base and some of them bring guns and are killing people and others bring money and are trying to fix things.

Mr. DEMPSEY: Well, exactly. That's the tension that's existed since the PRT concept started. It's something we've been grappling with, and what happened this week in Khost province is certainly not going to help relieve that tension by any means.

INSKEEP: Mr. Dempsey, I want to broaden beyond Khost and look at the whole country over the next several months, as more and more U.S. troops are coming into the country as hoped, at least, that more civilians will come as well. What are one or two things that those civilians could do that would quickly make a difference in Afghanistan?

Mr. DEMPSEY: Well, it really depends which part of the country we're talking about. But I think there are a couple of universal principles that can guide how the U.S. civilian increase is going to make a positive impact. And those things include getting out and talking to communities. If the civilian increase leads to people coming into PRTs or other types of Western bases where they are not allowed interact with the Afghan communities in which they are working for security reasons, the incident that happened in Khost is not going to do anything to increase people's ability to get out and about - and interact with communities in which they are working.

INSKEEP: John Dempsey heads the office of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul. Thanks very much.

Mr. DEMPSEY: Thanks for having me.

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