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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.

Patricia DeGennaro: Obama's War — The Next Best Steps in Afghanistan?

Tonight, America’s commander-in-chief will address the nation to outline his new Afghanistan strategy. Among other things, this means many of the West Point cadets in the audience will learn what their immediate futures have in store.

According to White House officials, President Obama will comply with General McChrystal’s request for more soldiers, deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan over the next six months. Obama has reportedly said that these young men and women will be asked to “finish the job.”

Of course, the question remains: What exactly is the “job”?

For eight years, forces on the ground have been struggling to find the mission. Hopefully, all of us will soon hear what their “job” is and why it will entail deploying thousands of extra soldiers. Thanks to McChrystal’s assessment, we now understand some of what more soldiers will do. The influx of troops will certainly build and train the Afghan army and police forces and arm militia-style provincial patrols. They will also use counterinsurgency tactics to target Al Qaeda and/or the Taliban while protecting average Afghans, as well as add a dash of nation building.

Unfortunately, this multi-billion dollar strategy ignores the reality of Afghanistan. No one can easily summarize the challenges and complexities there. The country comprises a conglomeration of cultures, ethnicities, languages, and beliefs, and is surrounded by problematic neighbors. History has shown that large-scale interventions there never work and that treading more lightly makes a difference.

Charles G. Cogan: The Political Class is Falling Off the War in Afghanistan

This article was originally published by The Huffington Post. Read more



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