'Civilian Surge' Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag President Obama is expected to increase the number of American civilian experts working in Afghanistan. But there are problems persuading civilians with the requisite skills to go.
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'Civilian Surge' Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag

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'Civilian Surge' Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag

'Civilian Surge' Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag

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It's uncertain whether President Obama will authorize a troop increase for Afghanistan. The administration is expected to deploy more government civilian workers to help rebuild the country. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, persuading them to go is a problem.

NORTHAM: When President Obama unveiled his administration strategy for Afghanistan back in March, he emphasized that civilians, armed with the expertise necessary to rebuild the country, were just as critical as the tens of thousands of additional U.S. service personnel he was sending.

President BARACK OBAMA: We need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers. That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs. And that's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground.

NORTHAM: To that end, the administration announced it would send in about 450 civilians from several branches of the government by March 2010. That deadline was then accelerated to December this year. So far, only about a quarter of that number has been deployed to Afghanistan.

Jacob Lew is a deputy secretary of state for management and resources.

Deputy Secretary JACOB LEW (Management and Resources, Department of State): We have to remember that decisions were made in the spring, funds were appropriated in July, programming is being implemented, you know, August, September. We're just now seeing the program go into place.

NORTHAM: Lew says the administration expects to reach its target numbers by the beginning of next year. Other State Department officials and analysts say that's optimistic, because it's difficult to find enough people with the right skills and who are willing to stay in Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment.

John Nagl is the president of the Center for a New American Security.

Mr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): I think that quite simply there is not sufficient civilian capacity in the U.S. government to do what needs to be done, and we have not built that capacity.

NORTHAM: But the dispatch of civilian experts remains a high priority for the administration. The idea is that the military clears the way, secures an area, which in turn should allow civilians to move in and start working with local Afghans. But that's not always the way it works, says John Dempsey, who has been in Kabul for several years with the nonpartisan United States Institute for Peace.

Mr. JOHN DEMPSEY (United States Institute for Peace): Security is such that it's so difficult for people to actually be able to move off of fort(ph) operating bases and get out into the field to actually meet with Afghans and do their work. They don't have the adequate logistical or security support to do that.

NORTHAM: And the military often doesn't have the resources to move the civilians around the country or provide security. As a result, military reservists and contractors fill in the gaps.

These are the same problems that plague U.S. civilian efforts in Iraq and other conflict areas. Mark Schneider with the International Crisis Group says there's long been a lack of funding, focus and leadership to fully implement these so-called civilian surges. But, Schneider says, this time it may be different.

Mr. MARK SCHNEIDER (International Crisis Group): It's better in the sense that there's this far greater emphasis/priority from the people in charge now who are saying we have to increase the presence, capability of civilian development agency, then actually going to the Congress and saying we want more money.

NORTHAM: But even the best intentions can get dragged down by bureaucracy and congressional foot dragging. For example, in 2004, the State Department decided to create a civilian response corps, where civilians would go on short-term deployments into conflict zones. The corps only received funding last year. In times, it expects to build a corps of more than 4,000 active standby and reserve members. Its coordinator, John Herbst, says at the moment there are about 50 active members who are ready to be sent to Afghanistan.

Mr. JOHN HERBST (Coordinator, Civilian Response Corps): Obviously, the numbers I'm describing right now are not going to make a major contribution to Afghanistan. But in six months, you know, we might be in a position where we could have, if there was a need, put a hundred or more people on the ground.

NORTHAM: That's probably a good thing. If the administration decides more civilians - as well as troops - are needed in Afghanistan.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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