Rethinking Civilian Assistance in Afghanistan

With the Obama administration’s decision to begin reducing America’s military presence in Afghanistan, it is time to rethink the civilian effort there as well.

Last April, sitting in a converted cargo container at the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul — sandbags slapped against the sides to protect against incoming rockets — I talked with aid veterans about their work. Their commitment was impressive, but so were their concerns about the constraints under which they are forced to operate.

The job of helping Afghans build a state with functioning public services and institutions answering to an engaged civil society is plenty hard. Pumping vast amounts of money quickly — $4 billion this year — through a corrupt and fragile government doesn’t make it easier. Nor do Washington’s expectations, micromanagement and sense of urgency.

In the last 18 months, the United States Agency for International Development, or Usaid, has increased its staff in Afghanistan to almost 400 people from 100 as part of a civilian “uplift” complementing President Obama’s 2009 military surge. They manage a $9 billion portfolio of projects — from construction of roads and transmission lines to health and small-business development — being carried out by 26,000 Afghans and 6,000 people from other nations, all working at some risk. Since 2003, Usaid has lost 385 people, mostly Afghans; some 600 more have been wounded. The program averages 58 attacks a month; as a consequence, tight security restrictions limit travel to the field and contact with Afghan partners.

Usaid has been faulted repeatedly for its oversight of its operations, and there is no shortage of interested parties to do the faulting. In Kabul, staff members answer to five ambassadors or their equivalents, and five oversight agencies — inspectors general (I.G.s) for Usaid and the State Department, a special I.G. for Afghanistan, the General Accounting Office and the Wartime Contracting Commission. Two interagency task forces in Kabul and one in Washington, the State Department representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, require regular (and irregular) reporting. On average, two congressional delegations visit every week, each with its own set of questions. The complaint that responding to inquiries cuts into time needed for design, implementation and monitoring is not surprising.

Management is complicated by the difficulty in recruiting people to work and live out of converted containers, or “hooches,” away from families, occasionally under rocket fire, long enough to develop the expertise, trust and understanding required to be effective. The incentives — danger pay, promise of a first choice on future assignments, a tick in the promotion box — have failed to do the trick. Annual turnover approaches 85 percent; new staff members are continually learning on the job. Each year we start anew.

So what’s to be done?

•Lower the footprint: Building a team of individuals with field experience and enough time in-country to establish trust is more important than increasing numbers in-country. It’s better to focus on fewer people and fewer activities.

• Streamline coordination and oversight: We need to cut coordinating meetings and duplicative requests for information. More responsibility needs to be delegated to lower levels.

•Rein in expectations: State-building involves often-competing objectives. We want the Afghans to do more but we want less corruption. Building the institutions to contain corruption takes time, but we want the government to get credit for better schools and health now. Finding a balance requires patience. Going slower, with fewer but more knowledgeable people working on fewer projects and spending less money stretched over longer time makes sense — if we can develop strategic patience.

•Develop “expeditionary” civilians willing to be deployed to danger zones critical to national security for years not months. The military has an “AfPak Hands” program to develop a cadre of 750 officers with knowledge and expertise to work on the region’s problems for five to seven years. Civilian agencies could do something similar, creating a team based in Washington, traveling frequently to the field, living in-country for up to 24 months, working the problem for four to five years, and developing the area and language expertise needed to do the job.

How we shape civilian assistance has implications not only for our objectives in Afghanistan, but for our efforts in the world’s other troubled spots. Now’s a good time to rethink how we’re going to structure ourselves — to determine what civilian capabilities we need to do the job and how we should develop them.

Desaix Myers, a professor of national security studies at the National War College in Washington.

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