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Max Currier: Enhancing the Civilian Presence in Afghanistan

As President Obama formally announces his strategy for Afghanistan at West Point this evening, far too much attention focuses on the number of additional soldiers. One overlooked aspect to the war in Afghanistan is the role and number of civilians, who work in synergy with soldiers in building the civil society envisioned by the Obama administration as a key component of a successful counterinsurgency.

With enough soldiers, the military can clear and hold areas. But the "build" phase of this three-step counterinsurgency mission is more problematic. Unless the United States can help promote a developing, sustainable, and licit economy; train and develop support for an effective government; and literally help build the attendant civilian infrastructure such as roads and schools, then the United States will not be able to leave behind anything much better than what they found in October 2001.

Consider a typical Afghan: say, Ashraf the farmer. Ashraf cares primarily about harvesting a crop that he can sell for enough money to feed and shelter his family. He has no particular loyalty to his own government, the Taliban, or the United States. The “hardcore” Taliban number only about 10,000 in a country of 28 million; the remaining 20,000-30,000 are so-called “afternoon volunteers,” who are motivated by practical grievances rather than ideology, and whose allegiances can be temporarily won by whoever provides better opportunities.

Say, as often happens, two Talibs leave a note one night at Ashraf’s farm threatening to destroy his crops if he does not begin planting poppy—or, perhaps, begin planting roadside bombs against American convoys. The Talibs promise that if Ashraf complies, they will provide him with credit, poppy seeds, protect his fields, and then transport the crop to market once harvested. Ashraf, like most Afghans, hates the Taliban (whose popularity generally hovers south of 10 percent), but he knows his fields are suffering, that he has no credit to buy seeds for next season, and that he can’t transport his excess harvest to distant markets because there are no roads. The Taliban, for all their offenses, offer Ashraf what he needs. So, in many of the most important ways, the success or failure of the U.S. mission depends on Ashraf’s decision or not to submit to the Taliban’s demands.

This is precisely where additional civilians can be most successful—in helping persuade Ashraf that he need not collude with the Taliban. Today, most civilians in Afghanistan outside embassies in Kabul are assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are joint civil-military units that, in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, coordinate and implement development strategies for the "build" phase of counterinsurgency. A U.S. PRT includes roughly 80 soldiers, of which most are Civil Affairs specialists and support staff, not combat troops. Yet of the 80, only three civilians are assigned to a typical U.S. PRT—one representative each from the Departments of State and Agriculture, and one from USAID—and many posts actually remain unfilled. As of January, the total American civilian presence at PRTs amounted to only 35 specialists. Contrast this with some 65,000 American combat soldiers and another 30,000 on the way.

THE BIG QUESTION — August 4, 2009

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