RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We know it's not safe being a U.S. soldier or a Marine in Afghanistan, but it's not safe being a civilian either. And that was underscored by a helicopter crash that killed three officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and an attack yesterday on the United Nation's guest house. Still, even as the danger grows, the State Department is beefing up the civilian presence in Afghanistan.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, was sounding defiant yesterday, after militants attacked the U.N. compound leaving five U.N. staffers dead, including an American.
Mr. IAN KELLY (Spokesman, Department of State): If that is their purpose here, to try and discourage us or intimidate us, it's not going to work. We are committed to the Afghan people, and we are committed to seeing this through.
KELEMEN: But the violence does come at a time when some here in Washington are questioning the mission in Afghanistan and whether civilians can do much to help. An ex-Marine in a top civilian position in Afghanistan recently quit, saying he is quote "lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the U.S. presence there." Anti-war activists have seized on Matthew Hoh's resignation letter.
Mr. ROBERT NAIMAN (National Coordinator, Just Foreign Policy): He's challenging fundamental premises of the war. He's not just saying that this is going badly, he's saying that what we are doing doesn't make sense.
KELEMEN: That's Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy. He says the resignation letter makes the case that the U.S. is essentially intervening in a civil war in Afghanistan. So he thinks it doesn't make sense to talk of a troop build up or even a civilian surge right now.
Mr. NAIMAN: Sending more civilians isn't going to change anything if the civilians are there in support of the existing war policy. If the idea is that, you know, we are going to try in militarily defeat the Taliban and sending more civilians is going to help that because we are going to win hearts and minds by building schools and hospitals — that policy hasn't worked.
KELEMEN: Rather it has made civilians targets of the insurgents, he argues. Naiman's advice is to focus on the political process and encourage neighboring countries to help support Afghan reconciliation as well.
Mr. NAIMAN: I'm all for sending more civilians in a political context where we are trying to end the war and promote national reconciliation.
KELEMEN: For now, State Department planners are pushing ahead with their efforts to get 974 civilian positions filled in Afghanistan by the end of this year — including lawyers, agriculture and development experts, and diplomats.
Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew told reporters earlier this week that the U.S. is managing to recruit people for those jobs without the sort of uproar that marred the Bush administration's efforts to get more civilians to sign up for duty in Iraq.
Deputy Secretary JACOB LEW (Department of State): I don't want to say it's easy. This is very hard. I mean, they're hard assignments. These are hard decisions for people to make to go over, and it's hard work when they get there. So it's challenging, and I think we have to be kind of conscious of the fact that it gets harder as you do it year after year, because people who are inclined to take assignments like this have already done it once or twice.
KELEMEN: Even if the president decides to send more troops to Afghanistan, Lew said, he doesn't think the needs on the civilian side will change radically.
The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Susan Johnson, says she is hoping for a broader debate about what civilians are able to do in Afghanistan. She says the resignation letter by Matthew Hoh could spurt that sort of discussion.
Ms. SUSAN JOHNSON (President, American Foreign Service Association): We certainly respect what Mr. Hoh has done in putting this out, if it stimulates more thoughtful and constructive discussion of our policy and our approach, and the question of how many civilians we should or shouldn't be sending, at what point in time, to do what really, ought to be looked at carefully?. We shouldn't be just stuck in the groove that we are in or in some old construct that we are transferring from Iraq.
KELEMEN: As in Iraq, the United States has mixed civilian-military reconstruction teams deployed around the country in Afghanistan. Johnson says, it's still too early to tell if the latest violence there will hurt the State Department's recruiting efforts for those assignments.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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