Shadow Government

At war in Afghanistan; at peace at home

By Dov Zakheim Kabul is a city at war. There are green zones and red zones, and roadblocks everywhere. The city is awash with a host of uniforms — those of NATO states, as well as others, from Australia to Mongolia. Americans in uniform walk the streets fully equipped and armed. American government civilians wear ...

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By Dov Zakheim

Kabul is a city at war. There are green zones and red zones, and roadblocks everywhere. The city is awash with a host of uniforms — those of NATO states, as well as others, from Australia to Mongolia. Americans in uniform walk the streets fully equipped and armed. American government civilians wear body armor, as I did when making the short twenty minute walk from Camp Eggars to the U.S. Embassy.

In much of our government, however, the war is nowhere to be seen. Civil servants go about their business as if it were peacetime. There is still a serious shortage of U.S. government civilians here in Afghanistan, although their numbers are increasing. Many of those who do indeed serve here do not venture out of Kabul. This is so not because they are less dedicated to their mission. The sorry fact is that all too often they have little to offer in the field. Their expertise tends to be bureaucratic — they are only equipped to manage and document projects and activities rather than technical.

The contrast with life back home could not be more striking. It is not just that most U.S. citizens go about their daily business unaffected by war, (unless they have a loved one serving in the military). Our executive branch does the same, with the notable exceptions of pockets in State, Treasury, and even smaller elements of other agencies.

And Congress is not much better. To be sure, it votes big supplemental budgets. But it has not done enough to lift restrictions on government activities that apply more to peacetime than to war zones.

As an example, while here I was told of the tragic story of a U.S. military couple deployed to Afghanistan and based at Bagram Air Base that had been bunking in a plywood structure with a tin roof called a B hut. The hut took a direct hit from a 107mm rocket; the wife was taking a shower outside the hut. When she returned she found her husband a victim of the hit.

Why were they in such a flimsy structure? Because of arcane Congressional spending limitations on what is called “minor military construction.” There was no money to build the brick structures that might have saved the soldier’s, and those of others like him.

The restrictions, and, more generally, the behaviors that make good sense in peace time are not appropriate in wartime. We cannot pretend to be a nation at peace even as we have the better part of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and a virtually like amount in Iraq, still very much at war. If we continue to do so, we will undermine the effectiveness of any troop increases, and make success — already a challenging proposition — even more difficult to achieve.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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