Afghanistan War Strategy Facing 'Serious' Setbacks

Shortage of qualified personnel, housing and planning threatens civilian surge.

WASHINGTON, March 8, 2010— -- The Obama administration was so successful in adding to the ranks of U.S. civilians on-the-ground in Afghanistan that it overlooked key challenges that may undermine its progress, according to a new report.

"Even with the able leadership of Kabul's senior officers, the best of intentions and the most dedicated efforts, Embassy Kabul faces serious challenges in meeting the administration's deadline for 'success' in Afghanistan," said the report, released Friday by the State Department inspector general's office.

Problems such as a shortage of housing, lack of qualified personnel and a lack of organization, are taxing an overworked U.S. civilian workforce. There are nearly 1,000 U.S. civilians in Afghanistan representing at least 10 different U.S. agencies, including the Departments of State, Defense, Agriculture, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, as well as the CIA, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. From working in ministries to military teams, the personnel behind the surge in the U.S. civilian force is part of President Obama's civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

"The unprecedented pace and scope of the civilian buildup, the need for these new officers to arrive in Kabul before support infrastructure expansions have been completed, and the complexity of establishing arrangements to equip the new subject-matter experts for success in the field will constrain the ability of these new officers in the short-term to promote stability, good governance, and rule of law (ROL) in Afghanistan," the report said.

The report came after two months of inspections at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul last fall, from September to November. At the time, about 600 U.S. direct-hire employees were in Afghanistan, a doubling of civilians since January 2009. The number had increased to nearly 1,000 this January.

"The need to expand the already over-burdened life support systems (housing, food, security, transport) in Kabul and in the field to support the new staff has itself become a major short-term challenge," said the report, which described members of provincial reconstruction team staff deployed outside of Kabul housed in makeshift lodgings with no heat or running water.

Temporary duty officers in Kabul were housed in 65-bed modified cargo containers with common bath facilities for months at a time, according to the report.

Apartments Are Offered as Incentive to Stay Two Years in Afghanistan

"Embassy leadership is fully aware of these shortcomings and actively engaged in negotiations with coalition partners and Department of Defense commanders to rectify them," the report concluded. "However, it is not likely that accommodations available for this civilian upsurge will be adequate in the short term absent support by interagency officials for embassy efforts. Conditions on the embassy compound are already strained beyond capacity, and, despite the embassy's efforts, there will be serious challenges in residential and office space."

There were three apartment buildings with a total of 144 single and double occupancy units, and occupants of the "well-appointed apartments universally reported satisfaction with their units, and stated that living in one of the apartments made a significant difference in their morale and quality of life," according to the report.

An assignment to an apartment is highly prized, and is offered as an incentive to employees who volunteer for a two-year tour in Kabul, the report explained.

At the time of the inspections, the embassy had presented a request for an additional 307 U.S. direct-hires for fiscal years 2010 and 2011. According to the special representative's office, those numbers have been revised, and could perhaps be even higher than 307.

Besides a shortage of resources, a lack of planning by the administration threatens to hinder success of the surge.

"Because the [State] Department committed to complete the first phase of this plus up before the end of 2009 with a second phase to begin in early 2010, new staff is arriving in Afghanistan before the embassy can prepare position descriptions, ready housing, and office space, or adequate on-site supervision for the subject-matter experts (3161s), many of whom have never worked in the government," the report stated.

And while some of these civilians oversee implementation of grants and development projects across Afghanistan, "the deteriorating security situation in many areas of the country limits the embassy staff 's exposure to Afghans other than regular government interlocutors and constrains the reporting and advocacy work that U.S. direct-hires from all agencies were brought to Afghanistan to undertake," the report said.

Traveling outside the embassy or outside of a military base can be onerous, requiring about 15 to 16 military personnel and three to four armored vehicles.

Report Cites Lack of Communication, Coordination

Furthermore, the 131-page report describes a lack of communication and coordination between civilians deployed to provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) outside of Kabul, and members of the embassy in Kabul, resulting in poor reporting back to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington, D.C. The report also described a lack of communication and coordination between the special representative's office and the Kabul embassy.

Exacerbating this lack of communication and coordination are one-year deployment terms, the report said. The lengths -- which include at least two "rest and relaxation" breaks -- are so brief that they disrupt continuity in policy and project implementation, many of which take more than one year to complete.

"Because the majority of assignments to Kabul are for only one year with multiple R&R breaks, most U.S. staff spend approximately two months of their one-year tours on leave. The one-year assignment scenario limits the development of expertise, contributes to a lack of continuity, requires a higher number of officers to achieve the administration's strategic goals, and results in what one former ambassador calls 'an institutional lobotomy,'" the report said.

The report also cited lack of qualified personnel, such as in the political affairs section.

"The biggest challenge facing the [PAS] section is the combination of one-year tours, inexperienced officers, and simultaneous rotation of all personnel," the report concluded. "As the inspection began, no officer had been in the job for longer than two months. Almost all except the counselor and deputy were on their first political reporting tour. Many had not received a hand-over memo from their predecessor, and most did not receive an orientation to the section's work although they did receive the mission's overall administrative orientation."

Other quality-of-life issues threaten to reduce the effectiveness of U.S. civilians in Afghanistan, such as long days and inconvenient work hours.

"Continual 80-hour work weeks, even with periodic R&Rs, may, in fact, reduce productivity as staff reaches the half-way point in their tours of duty. The time difference between Kabul and Washington regularly extends Kabul's workday with a flurry of late-night requests to clear briefers, or provide information for Washington's consumption first thing in the morning, Washington time," the report said.

Report: Quality of Life at Embassy Kabul Is Difficult

"In addition, Washington's often preferred time for video conferences or telephone calls is at the end of their day, which equates with 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. Kabul time," according to the report. "Last-minute requests that Kabul be prepared to participate in information sharing meetings or policy discussions in the middle of the night sap the energy of the senior staff, disrupt the next day's meeting or travel schedule, and add to already long work days."

Along with highlighting problems and potential challenges, the report made 89 recommendations, and 46 informal recommendations.

But it makes clear there is no easy short-term rectification, especially with only more civilians to come over the next two years.

"The quality of life at Embassy Kabul is difficult and will remain so for the indefinite future as the arrival of even more personnel increases the stresses on the infrastructure," the report said.

"Permanent office buildings are already filled to capacity. Basic systems are at or near capacity. Management, with the strong support of the department, including [Bureau of South and Central Asia] and [Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations], copes on a day-to-day basis," it read.

"There is some concern that the additional civilian personnel now arriving in Kabul will outstrip the ability of the embassy's infrastructure to meet the demands placed upon it in the short term. While the management section has a carefully orchestrated plan for construction of both permanent and temporary office and housing units for the civilian uplift, a slight delay in any one phase could result in a serious shortfall in life support."

The report is available online at