Call in the Civilians

Counterinsurgency is at least 50 percent civilian. So where have all the Foreign Service officers gone?


Amid the roiling controversy over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, one fact often gets lost: The soldiers are only half the picture. It will take both combat troops and civilians to tackle what the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual sees as objective No. 1: "foster[ing] development of effective governance by a legitimate government." Such a task entails ensuring personal security, public participation, and social and cultural acceptance of the regime. The Afghan government is going to need a lot of help on its way there — help from expert civilian advisors. Yet those civilians are nowhere to be found.

Call it Washington’s blind spot. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has suffered from a myopia that sees military expansion as paramount and civilian support as an afterthought. As a result, the State Department’s ranks have been depleted and overstretched to the core. And the civilian half of warfare has suffered.

Just think back to a few years ago in Iraq. In 2004, the Pentagon brass realized that guns alone wouldn’t bring security, but there weren’t enough civilians at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to get the state-building job done. The Defense Department has about 2.3 million uniformed service members and more than 800,000 civilians. The State Department and USAID combined have about 8,000 Foreign Service officers. The Defense Department had to fill 350 civilian positions in Iraq and is preparing to fill 300 in Afghanistan.

Those two perilous countries are just the beginning. Some U.S. embassies are as much as 30 percent understaffed. Things are so bad that the State Department has had to hire 2,300 family members to fill positions overseas.

Up until today, the situation has continued to deteriorate, even as the military promotes stability operations — capabilities like "strengthening governance and the rule of law" and "fostering economic stability and development" — as a mission of equal importance to combat operations. Trouble is, these really aren’t tasks for soldiers. But the civilians are missing in action, so the Army has to step in.

Development and diplomacy, like defense, are clearly defined and specialized fields. No one would task a USAID agricultural economist with helping develop Afghanistan’s or Iraq’s internal defense strategy. But with the current deficit of Foreign Service officers (FSOs) at the State Department and USAID, the government routinely tasks U.S. special operations forces with implementing development and public diplomacy tasks. One exasperated officer asked me, "How am I, as a military professional, supposed to know what’s best for the development of this country? That’s USAID’s job." But there is no USAID officer in the area, so she soldiers on.

Worldwide, the State Department and USAID need about 5,000 new FSOs to conduct core and public diplomacy, oversee foreign assistance, and manage stabilization missions. The State Department has been hiring about 700 new officers a year, a rate that barely beats attrition in the rapidly graying Foreign Service. USAID is 75 percent smaller than it was a generation ago, and despite bringing in 300 officers a year, it is still not meeting the global demand for development specialists.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two immediate predecessors tried to get funding for more FSOs from Congress. Colin Powell, for example, increased the Foreign Service by about 1,000 people a year. But most of these newbies went to consular and diplomatic security positions, not core and public diplomacy jobs. Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for 1,100 more FSOs annually, but she got considerably fewer. Still, it’s a question of scale; Congress and the administration need to open the taps and hire thousands, not hundreds.

These personnel shortages reduce the United States’ ability to project what Clinton calls "smart power." Absent civilians place an unfair burden on the U.S. military and present the wrong image of America to the world: that of a country which implements foreign policy with a bayonet. In the end, the sorry state of State reduces the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to promote international security and make the country and the world less secure.

The Afghan people won’t stand for long any force that they view as an occupier. Time to move quickly and fill the ranks of the civilian brigades who can fight the other half of the war.

Ron Capps is peacekeeping program manager at Refugees International. He served in Afghanistan as a soldier and in Iraq as a Foreign Service officer.