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.
Government-Building in Marja Faces Ethnic Divide
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."
State Department Revising Targets for Civilian Deployments
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.
Afghan Government Building Could Take Five to 10 Years
It is an extraordinarily difficult job, even in areas that are not under siege by the Taliban, in part because Afghanistan lacks the civil service class of bureaucrats accountable to a central government that existed in Iraq that is capable of running a government.
"In some areas where I was, you have a literacy rate of less than 10 percent. ... We have Afghan police and army recruits who can't count, who can't understand how numbers work," Hoh said. "So the idea that we're just going to come in and build up these systems of government ... and they're going to start delivering services right away to people, it's just not going to work."
Michael Keays, a State Department official and former Provincial Reconstruction Team adviser in Ghazni province, predicts that it will take five to 10 years "to get Afghanistan back to where it was in 1973, which was a relatively peaceful time in Afghanistan."
Keays isn't the only one who is looking at a decade for American civilians to be coaching an Afghan government into existence. John Nagl, president of the think tank Center for New American Security who co-wrote the U.S. Army Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, agrees.
In talking about having the civilian push succeed, he said, "I am quietly hopeful so long as we maintain this commitment for the long haul. I'm afraid five to 10 years it's going to take."
U.S. Civilian Agencies Not Ready?
If that is what the U.S. is facing, the civilian corps may not be ready for it, experts said. Afghanistan will be the first theater of combat since the Vietnam War where a civilian effort of this scale has been employed.
More than 1,000 civilians were involved in the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, or CORDS, which were combined military and civilians teams that pacified South Vietnamese villages and brought in developmental projects and governance.
"We as a nation, I think, have not invested in the civilian capacity, the civilian resources we need to succeed in the wars we're currently fighting," Nagl said.
"As we come to terms with the fact that these are going to be long wars," Nagl said, "We're going to need more American intelligence officers, we're going to need more intelligence special forces officers and non-commissioned officers, we're going to need more U.S. Agency for International Development workers in a lot of places."
"There are more members of military bands than there are foreign service officers to cover the whole world," he said. "There were more members of USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] working in Vietnam at one time than there are USAID officers in the whole agency that cover the whole world today."
"There's no doubt that it would be easier to do what we're doing if we had the kind of capacity that we're working to build. Getting 1,000 civilians, or increasing that number now is harder than it should be because we don't have the depth of resources, human resources and experiences that we hopefully five years from now we will have," Lew said.
No Drawdown Date for U.S. Civilians in Afghanistan
While President Obama has set the summer of 2011 to begin withdrawing troops, there is no such deadline for the civilians.
"Unlike the military schedule, we don't see this as something that starts to draw down in July 2011," Lew said. "If we are able to succeed on the military side, we see a long term, ongoing relationship. Obviously the size of it will evolve over time, but we don't see it as 'finish the work and run.'"
If there is any doubt about the civilian commitment the Obama administration is making, a January white paper on Afghanistan from Amb. Holbrooke's office stated, "Civilian personnel will remain deployed in significant numbers even after the security situation improves and our combat troops come home."
A counterinsurgency war is "enormously expensive and enormously difficult", Nagl said. But, he added, "This is the least bad option available of all of the choices."