Yesterday, 4,000 U.S. Marines –- part of the 21,000 combat troops President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year -– launched a new offensive in the Helmand River valley of southern Afghanistan. Intended to drive the Taliban out of an opium-producing stronghold, this offensive is the first test of the administration’s new Afghanistan military strategy. The Marines intend to apply proven counterinsurgency tactics during this offensive, living and patrolling in villages and towns along the river. The goal, according to a Marine spokesman, is to “protect [the people of Helmand Province] from the enemy.”
The main goal of protecting the population is to create time and space to build effective Afghan government institutions and deliver public goods to the people. This effort at improving governance and economic development is the linchpin of the administration’s new strategy. As National Security Adviser Jim Jones put it in a recent interview with Bob Woodward, “The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed.”
But, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports today, U.S. civilian agencies haven’t been able to increase their numbers on the ground to help with reconstruction and governance. Only two additional State Department officials have deployed to Helmand thus far, and another dozen are not expected to be on the ground until the end of the summer. Despite the Obama administration’s emphasis on a civilian surge in Afghanistan, the military is still having to make up for the lack of civilian capacity –- 50 Marines, most of them reservists with experience in local government here in the U.S., are attached to the Marine unit now deploying in Helmand.
The failure of civilian foreign policy agencies to deploy significantly for the first big push of the new Afghanistan strategy shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since at least the end of the Cold War, more and more of the heavy lifting of U.S. foreign policy has been handed to the military. As counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen has noted, “there are substantially more people employed as musicians in Defense [Department] bands than in the entire foreign service.” This problem isn’t one we’re all just becoming aware of now -– nearly two years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed out just this problem in a speech at Kansas State University. Despite a general, bipartisan recognition over the past several years that the United States lacks the civilian capacity to conduct foreign policy properly, little has been done to rectify this problem.
Acting now probably won’t help us in Afghanistan -– it will take years to build up civilian capacity to the levels needed there. And on top of the demand for civilian expertise in Afghanistan, U.S. involvement in Iraq will continue to demand diplomatic and development resources. Add to those two conflicts increased assistance to Pakistan, and demand for civilian personnel and resources will continue to grow faster than budgets or training allow. There will likely be further reliance on the military to get the job done in Afghanistan: even after General Jones effectively told commanders there that they were not going to receive any more troops, Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen told reporters there were “no intended limits” on future troop strength.
Part of the resourcing problem is structural: there’s no diplomatic-industrial complex that can bring jobs and federal dollars home to Congressional districts the way defense contracts can. And, let’s face it, diplomacy and development simply aren’t as sexy as F-22 fighters or DDG-1000 destroyers. But they may be just as important in both preventing conflict and winning those that the United States finds itself in in the future. While improving America’s civilian foreign policy apparatus may not happen in time to help the effort in Afghanistan, the long-term benefits of doing so are just too great to continue deferring. More speeches bemoaning the lack of civilian capacity aren’t what’s needed -– action is.