Difficulties In Surging The Right People To Afghanistan And Pakistan

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This morning’s New York Times provides this update on a Pentagon effort to get qualified personnel for what’s been called the “Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands” program, which I look at in this post last November.

It seems that the effort, deemed by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen as the “military’s number-one manpower priority,” is off to a slow start and is having some difficulties getting the right people to join.

The “Afghanistan-Pakistan” program aims to create a 912-member corps of mostly officers and enlisted service members to work on Afghanistan and Pakistan for up to five years. According to the New York Times, 172 people have signed up, but Admiral Mullen has raised questions about whether the right people with right skill sets are signing up in a memo last month. General Stanley McChrystal, America’s top military commander in Afghanistan and the brainchild for this effort, said through a spokesman that the effort is “understaffed.”

These challenges aren’t surprising -– in large bureaucracies with thousands of personnel, the rigid rules and incentives for advancement often deter people from signing up for new initiatives. But the slow start raises an important question often absent in debates about sending more troops, diplomats, and money to places like Afghanistan and Pakistan –- do the people who are being sent by the Pentagon and civilian agencies to work on Afghanistan have the right skill sets?

Quite frequently, leaders inside the Beltway or think tank analysts propose that the United State government do things that it is currently not equipped to do -– and the debates often ignore the serious capacity problems that exist inside the government. For example, training more security forces in Afghanistan is highlighted as central to the mission, but few look at whether the U.S. military has the number of qualified personnel to serve as trainers and advisors.

Given the Pentagon’s considerable resources, I suspect that it will eventually overcome the slow start in its Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands effort. The bigger challenge exists on the civilian side – the State Department is involved in an uphill battle to more than triple the civilian presence in Afghanistan as part of a “civilian surge,” something I wrote about in December. In November, I traveled to Indiana with Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew to tour a facility that is training personnel heading out as part of the civilian surge – a much-needed innovation based on lessons learned from the Bush administration’s mistakes in sending 20-somethings with no experience to Iraq.

The Obama administration set a goal of getting nearly 1,000 civilians on the ground, up from about 300, and it’s not clear if it has yet met the target. And apparently the Obama administration is looking to expand beyond the initial target for the civilian surge. But as Spencer Ackerman noted last month, what are these additional civilian personnel going to do? How is the State Department ensuring that the people being sent have the skill sets that are needed in Afghanistan? What does the political stalemate in actually filling the leadership slots in Afghanistan’s ministries mean for this effort?

In follow-up meetings I have had with various administration officials in efforts to learn more about the civilian surge, I have heard serious off the record concerns about whether the civilian surge is actually getting the right people with the right skill sets into the right places in Afghanistan.

In addition, I have had a very difficult time getting clear answers to basic questions like -– how many implementing partners (personnel from nongovernmental organizations and private contractors) are linked to the civilian surge in Afghanistan, or how many of the personnel going out as part of the civilian surge are proficient in Pashto or Dari? On that last question – a very basic data question – senior officials at the State Department, including the Foreign Service Institute, have not been able to provide updated figures.

Given the decades of underinvestment in civilian agencies like the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, the people working on these issues are working long hours fighting an uphill battle implementing a civilian surge in Afghanistan. The management, budgeting, and internal information systems at the State Department seem outmoded if basic data about the civilian surge is not easy to get. Across the border in Pakistan, the Obama administration faces an additional challenge of dealing with a Pakistani government that has delayed visas and created problems for getting additional diplomatic and development assistance personnel needed to manage and implement the threefold increase in development assistance outlined in last year’s Kerry-Lugar bill.

The overall point here is that the policy debates on Afghanistan and Pakistan one point that is ignored too often is whether the United States has the right people with the right skill sets – that beneath the debate about numbers and money is an issue of quality and whether the United States is putting qualified personnel on the ground to deal with some of the most complicated security questions in the world.