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U.S. Scrambles For Civilian Crisis Management In Afghanistan, Iraq

  • Ahto Lobjakas

U.S. and Afghan engineers review blueprints for a construction project in Farah Province. U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy recently said that that U.S. "troops can do astonishing things with even minimal resources, but they can't do magic."

U.S. and Afghan engineers review blueprints for a construction project in Farah Province. U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy recently said that that U.S. "troops can do astonishing things with even minimal resources, but they can't do magic."

Having overwhelmingly relied on military force to address global security crises in recent years, Washington now appears to be scrambling for alternative methods.

While the military component will continue for the foreseeable future to form the backbone of the U.S. strategy in hotspots like Afghanistan and Iraq, it is liable to be complemented by increasingly robust civilian crisis-management efforts.

Ambassador John Herbst, the coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization at the U.S. State Department, told RFE/RL on April 22 that the Obama administration is working "furiously" to set up a Civilian Response Corps (CRC).

Herbst said he expects the CRC to become operational by summertime, and could continuously field up to 200 civilian reconstruction and stabilization experts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Herbst said civilian stabilization efforts will in future be the instrument of preference in the U.S. crisis-management toolbox. "We, I'm confident, represent the future of not just the American response, but I would say, [all together], the American response, the allied response, even the global response to the problem of failed states in ungoverned spaces," he said.

Herbst is currently touring Europe in a bid to coordinate U.S. efforts with those of its main allies. But he said he has cast his net far wider, having recently traveled to China, India, and Brazil, among other places, in search of potential partners.

Resources To Succeed

The need for a broader, longer-term civilian engagement in the world's hotspots is felt across the board in Washington.

Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy
The need in Afghanistan is felt especially keenly. Addressing a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on April 21, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, said the mission in Afghanistan needs more resources, and called for a "significant civilian investment."

Flournoy said that it is "painfully clear that for several years, our effort on the ground has not been adequately resourced to defeat the insurgency and address the fundamental conditions that have enabled it to fester."

She added that U.S. "troops can do astonishing things with even minimal resources, but they can't do magic. If we're serious about this mission, and we are, we need to give our people on the ground -- military and civilian -- the resources they need to succeed in this mission. And that goes, as I said, for everyone, not just the military, but the civilians, not just Americans, but the international coalition."

Herbst told RFE/RL that hundreds of U.S. civilian experts already work in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he observed that their numbers are insufficient and their activities largely uncoordinated, both among different branches of the administration and within the military.

He said the future CRC will comprise experts with "all the skills" needed for the promotion of the rule of law -- among them policemen, judges, attorneys, engineers, health officials, agronomists, economists, and city planners.

Reflecting the sense of urgency now felt in Washington, Undersecretary Flournoy appealed to her think-tank audience for volunteers.

But, as "The New York Times" reported on April 22, Pentagon officials say the need for civilian specialists in Afghanistan in particular is so great that hundreds of military personnel with the relevant skills are being recruited to fill the gap until a significant civilian response capability is in place.

Adequate Personnel

Herbst also alluded to a recent and palpably sudden change in Washington's priorities. He noted that while the administration recognized as early as late 2003 that the way it conducted civilian operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was "inadequate," it only started significantly funding such operations last year.

Herbst says his office, which was created in 2004 and which he has headed since 2006, got $55 million in 2008. "It's a fair amount," he said. "But only a fair amount to begin with."

With this money, the CRC will be able to permanently hire 100 experts, with another 500 on standby working in different U.S. civilian agencies. It could field its permanent employees within two-three days of notice and maintain a mission for up to a year.

This year, Herbst said, funding for the civilian crisis-management effort was raised to $75 million, allowing the State Department to boost the "active component" in the CRC to some 250 personnel, and the standby contingent to possibly 2,000 people by late 2010.

Deploying civilians in countries like Afghanistan will not be a straightforward matter. But officials in the country's beleaguered government say they would welcome an increase in U.S. involvement.

Speaking to RFE/RL on April 23, the governor of the restive western Farah Province, Rohullah Amin, said guaranteeing the security of a few hundred civilian experts would not be a problem.

"If they're civilians, we have international forces over there, we have Afghan police, Afghan ANA [Afghan National Army], [they] can provide security to them," Amin said. "Even our public is providing security to the international community, to these people."

Herbst said the intention to deploy civilians in "nonpermissive" environments like Afghanistan and Iraq heralds the rise of what he calls a "new type of civil servant." But he is quick to note that it has a precedent in the past -- the United States also fielded civilian reconstruction experts in Vietnam during the war in the 1960s and early 1970s.