- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 8, 2009

As President Obama debates whether to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, dozens of civilian aid workers are preparing to deploy to the heart of the Afghan insurgency.

By the end of this year, the State Department expects to have sent about 1,000 civilians to Afghanistan. Nearly 350 of them are to go to the localities in the south and east where the fighting has been fiercest.

Even in the midst of escalating violence, State Department officials say they are having no problems recruiting.

“What’s been the most challenging has been not generating interest, but identifying the most qualified,” said Dereck Hogan, senior adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“What we’re hoping for [is that] the types and quantities of people that we’re bringing to this effort [can address] the problem of building up the local population’s confidence in their own government,” Mr. Hogan said.

The civilians come from at least 10 government agencies and a variety of professions. Some have served in the military. Most have not.

Rachelle Tayag Ramirez is a 38-year old married mother of three small children. She has worked for the United Nations twice in Afghanistan. Now she’ll spend a year there with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

“I know what’s going on in Kabul. I know the policy level. I want to do the hands-on,” the Nevada resident said.

Asked if she’s afraid, Ms. Ramirez, who has never fired a weapon, replied, “I believe the military will protect me.”

Edgar Mason of Seattle was similarly confident. The 32-year-old attorney is a self-described military brat who has traveled to more than 40 countries and works with refugees and victims of human trafficking.

“I believe in promoting equality and especially equality of opportunities and equality of rights,” said the newly minted USAID program officer.

“There are security concerns at times, but I grew up around the military, and I trust that they will do their best to keep me safe, and so will the agency,” he said.

According to State Department officials, civilians receive at least three weeks of training on Afghan culture, provincial reconstruction and security.

Some of that will be familiar territory for Jim Schermerhorn of Cape Cod, Mass.

The oldest in the current USAID contingent, Mr. Schermerhorn, 67, was a platoon leader in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps, then spent 24 years as a Justice Department attorney before going back to school to become a physician’s assistant to work with children and refugees in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“This country has a great history of reaching out to people who are in need and sharing the wealth and the benefits that we all enjoy, and I want to continue to be a part of that,” he said.

“The military has been asking for more civilians. Now they’ll have the counterparts, and they’ll have a serious chance of success,” said Ciara Knudsen, who co-led the design of the Integrated Civilian Military Plan for Afghanistan, published in August.

The plan matches American civilian leaders and military commanders within the leadership structure and empowers teams at the provincial and district levels to pool financial resources, manpower and expertise in hopes of cutting down on wasteful projects.

“It’s all about how do you best use the tools of U.S. national power,” said Jason Ladnier, who co-led the plan’s design with Ms. Knudsen.

The strategy calls for civilians to partner with Afghans just as military personnel partner with Afghan Security Forces. They are to work through existing Afghan government structures, such as community development councils, to design and build development projects.

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development created those councils.

“I welcome working with donors and security forces in more effectively integrating our work to facilitate and accelerate this effort,” Minister Mohammad Ehsan Zia wrote in an e-mail.

The operational plan calls for monthly assessments by military and civilian teams, the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, Afghan National Security Forces and local government representatives. Benchmarks are set for the next 12 months to 10 years.

“This gives us a monthly scorecard” to help Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, “see where his campaign is on track and where it isn’t, allowing him to create contingency plans, shift resources or request new ones if need be,” said Army Maj. David Buffaloe, who also helped shape the effort.

Though the plan addresses integration of U.S. forces, it does not include the more than a dozen other nations with troops in Afghanistan.

Larry Sampler, who has worked on civilian-military coordination in Afghanistan since 2002 with both the United Nations and the State Department, warned, “Unless we can coordinate similar efforts that exist among others in the international community and equip them with the bureaucratic leadership necessary for such efforts, it’s a bit like a tiny spot of order in a universe of chaos. The net effect will still be inefficient and, unfortunately, less effective than it could be.”

Critics also question sending more troops and civilians to go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

“There’s not a lot of evidence that if you spend a lot of money in a place where they hate you, that they’re going to hate you less,” said Christine Fair, an Afghan specialist at Georgetown University.

Jacob Shapiro, an assistant professor at Princeton University who has examined the impact of reconstruction dollars on violence in Iraq, said it’s difficult to prove that aid will have an impact.

Large projects create jobs, but they also can become targets for insurgent attacks, he said.

“Our best estimate is that large-scale reconstruction spending is at best neutral [in terms of reducing violence] and it may actually slightly increase violence,” he said.

He added, however, that “small-scale spending on giving communities little things that they need seems to have a violence-reducing effect, and that becomes stronger as U.S. units operate in ways that give them better knowledge of community needs.”

Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that deploying more personnel in the south and east would just create more casualties.

He recommended implementing “an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy [in the north] because the Taliban are not that strong in the north [but theyre] getting stronger. All the north is going to move [toward the Taliban] if we don’t stop that.”

“Securing the majority of the population is much more important than securing the majority of the terrain,” Maj. Buffaloe said. “But, we cannot only focus on the major cities and expect victory.”

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