Afghanistan Civilian Surge Could Last Decade

Experts cite daunting job of training illiterate Afghans to run city halls.

ByABC News
February 28, 2010, 2:15 PM

WASHINGTON, March 4, 2010— -- When U.S. and Afghan troops fought their way into the town of Marja, military officials said it would be a significant battle, because they would be clearing the Taliban out of their last stronghold in Helmand province.

What makes the fight for Marja so crucial is that it will be the first large-scale test of the counterinsurgency tactic of bringing a surge of governmental officials, Afghan police, and development projects with them, in a bid to win the Afghan people's support -- support deemed critical in a war where the enemy lives among the population.

Among the invaders were two U.S. civilians who are expected to help shepherd what ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal called a "government in a box" in Marja -- an entire corps of district and sub-district-level officials to begin administering the city.

According to Dereck Hogan, senior adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, there is now a total of six civilians -- four American and two British, serving on the district support team responsible for Marja.

Those six civilians are part of a larger civilian surge by the Obama administration and their efforts in Marja -- a town with little or no tradition of self government -- mirrors the colossal task being faced by American civilians in Afghanistan.

The Afghan administration being brought into Marja are outsiders, a sensitive issue in the tribal culture of Afghanistan, according to Matthew Hoh, a former State Department adviser in Zabul province who resigned last year over strategy disputes with the administration.

Hoh said bringing in Tajik, Uzbek, Hazari and urban Pashtun Afghans from northern and central Afghanistan who speak Dari, to govern culturally-different rural Pashtun Afghans in southern and eastern Afghanistan who speak Pashto, is fomenting an ongoing civil war in Afghanistan.

Marja is a Pashtun town, and the name of the military operation was Moshtarak, a Dari word for "together."

"We couldn't even pick a word from their language," Hoh said.

"They don't want to be encroached upon. They're very traditional, very poor, very rural people and they don't want outside involvement," he said.

Haji Zahir, the new deputy governor of the Nad-e Ali district where Marja is located, has lived in Germany for the last 15 years, Hoh says.

"That's crazy. We're not doing anything to empower the local leadership" he said, "We're bringing in outsiders."

Hogan said he recognized the task wouldn't be easy.

"Of course actions speak louder than words, they're going to want to see what their government officials are doing for them, and so that's why we have this district support team on hand to try to support the Afghan government in this obviously difficult job ahead," Hogan said. "It's not easy, it's not just sort-of, 'plop', here's governance, and 'plop', here's development."

There are nearly 1,000 American 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.

They have deployed mostly to Kabul, the nation's capital, to work in ministries, but some will deploy to less secure parts of Afghanistan. Outside Kabul, these civilians will deploy with military teams.

The job is so daunting -- and dangerous -- that it was difficult to fill out the slots needed for the civilian surge when U.S. officials first called for it in March 2009.

A senior State Department official, commenting on the condition of anonymity, said staffing will be a challenge beginning this summer when the first one year civilian deployments come to an end. The administration has considered extending deployments to two years, but a spokesman said only that a deployment plan for the coming year is still being worked out.

That will only begin to address the mission of creating a functioning Afghan administrative bureaucracy that is competent and not corrupt.

"I spent a lot of time with ministers in areas ranging from finance and interior to agriculture, and other areas, where they could hold portfolios in any of the Western governments that are there as partners. There are many other ministers who don't share that. So there's capacity, they know what they need, they know that they need to build depth of capacity, they're working hard on it, and they've got to take on corruption," said Jacob Lew, deputy secretary of state for management and resources.