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The Civilian Surge Myth

The U.S. needs to stop pretending it can do nation-building.

How can we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Afghanistan? There's one solution that has attracted analysts of all stripes: a "civilian surge," where development and political advisers working for (or contracted by) the State department and the U.S. Agency for International Development flood the country and turn the tide against the insurgents.

The logic, at least, is sound: It takes more than military success to defeat insurgents. Insurgency grows where a corrupt and weak government does not provide security, justice, and opportunity. Unless these underlying problems are resolved, the military can kill insurgents forever, and more will emerge. Insurgency is a symptom of deeper ills. The rub is that these deeper ills are not military, but political, economic, and social--things that armed forces are not prepared to fix.

The Obama administration certainly understands this. In July 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama said, "We cannot continue to rely only on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives that we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well funded." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has long trumpeted the need for more civilian capacity for counterinsurgency and stabilization. In a November 2007 lecture at Kansas State University--a year after taking over the Pentagon--he said:

One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: Economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more--these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success … The Department of Defense has taken on many of these burdens that might have been assumed by civilian agencies in the past … But it is no replacement for the real thing--civilian involvement and expertise.

No one welcomes this more than the military. In the absence of civilian capacity, soldiers end up managing public services like trash collection, or trying to teach democracy and good governance. At a major conference on irregular conflicts last month, I listened as a decorated Marine colonel heading for command in Afghanistan talked of how that conflict would unfold when the civilian surge was in place. As a Pentagon official heard this, he told me, "The military is looking to off-load nation building; they are so desperate to do that--and so eager to enshrine the lessons from the Iraq counterinsurgency--that they have convinced themselves of the necessity and plausibility of a civilian surge."

There is consensus on the problem and general agreement on the solution, but absolutely no sense of how to make it happen. There is little chance that the United States will mobilize enough civilian capability to re-engineer backward states and keep it in the field during a protracted insurgency. It is, as the Pentagon official told me, "a pipe dream."

We have not and will not put our money where our mouth is. So far, the most important initiative was the Bush administration's creation of the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to coordinate the vital development and reconstruction tasks that had been thrust onto the military. While fine in theory, this has not been supported at nearly the level needed, and is unlikely to be in the future.

Even a fully funded Civilian Response Corps--the crown jewel of the effort--would theoretically consist of 250 full time members, 2,000 "standby" members from elsewhere in the federal government (which begs the question of how their employing agencies would do without them if they were gone for years at a time), and 2,000 "reserve" member from the private sector and state and local governments (who also would leave their employers in the lurch if deployed for an extended period). Under the absolute best possible conditions, the Civilian Response Corps could send one American adviser for every 42,000 people in a country like Pakistan, or one for every 35,000 in Nigeria, at least for as long as they could be kept in the field. This is a drop in a very large bucket.

The need for expanded civilian capability is certainly most stark in Afghanistan. "Almost every report on the progress of Afghan governance, police and justice system for the last eight years has decried the lack of civilians," said retired Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes. As Army Colonel Louis Jordan, the senior military adviser to the Afghan Deputy Minister of Interior for Counter-Narcotics, put it, "a 'civilian surge' of career professionals is an absolute necessity to make any of this work." General Stanley McChrystal's recent strategic assessment stated, "Broadly speaking, we require more civilian and military resources..."

The problem, though, is bigger than Afghanistan. Much bigger. The foundation of current American security policy is stabilizing countries where extremists can use insurgency and other forms of violence to create terrorist sanctuaries. To be effective, this requires extensive assistance and large numbers of advisers with expertise in infrastructure development, financial and economic planning, education, governance, the cultivation of civil society, and law enforcement. Yet, after five years of speeches, workshops, and reports, we are no closer to having what we need.

There are only two solutions. We could belly up and provide the resources for a serious expeditionary civilian corps. But a few hundred or even a couple of thousand people is not enough. We would need many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of advisers with linguistic skills and cultural knowledge willing to leave home and live under risky conditions for years at a time. And we are not talking about 20-somethings paid a pittance and fueled by idealism, but skilled professionals demanding serious pay for their expertise and sacrifice. (The difficulty that the State department had convincing even its hardened professionals to volunteer for duty in Iraq showed what a challenge this is.) Of course, if the pay is high enough, the experts will come. But, at a time of massive government budget deficits and a persisting national economic crisis, this is simply not in the cards.

What, then, is Plan B? If we are unwilling to pay the price for a serious civilian capability--and admit that foisting the job of development and political assistance on the military is a bad idea--the only option is to alter our basic strategy. We could find a way to thwart Al Qaeda and other terrorists without trying to re-engineer weak states. We could, in other words, get out of the counterinsurgency and stabilization business. This is not an attractive option and entails many risks. But it does reflect reality. Ultimately, it may be better than a strategy based on a capability that exists only in our minds.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.