Terms of Engagement

Surge Incapacity

Let's face it: America just isn't very good at nation-building.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The United States’ first "civilian surge" took place in August 1901, when 500 teachers disembarked from the USS Thomas, a converted cattle ship, in Manila Bay — "the men wearing straw boaters and blazers," according to journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, "the women in long skirts and large flowery hats. Like vacationers, they carried baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical instruments, cameras and binoculars." America’s colonial enterprise was new: Only a few months had passed since the Army had subdued a fierce insurgency and commenced governing the Philippines. The Thomasites, as this proto-Peace Corps came to be known, had responded to an advertisement placed in newspapers across the United States.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) no longer have to put ads in the papers to assemble a civilian force for the state-building effort now under way in Afghanistan, but it’s remarkable how haphazard, and almost frantic, the system remains. "It’s a numbers game," a USAID official told me, "a body game." Only a few of the 400-odd civilians USAID has hired so far have either language or technical skills; most are either eager youngsters or post-career officials from the military, State, or USAID. Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state who is overseeing the process, says that "it’s proved incredibly difficult to take on such an urgent challenge when you don’t have a deep enough bench."

As an American, this is perplexing. Why do we not have a deep enough bench — or any bench at all to speak of? We used to have one, even after we ceased to be a practicing colonial state. Tens of thousands of civilians — most of them serving in the Army — governed Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II and left behind effective democratic states. The "strategic hamlet" program in Vietnam — the core of the effort to win "hearts and minds" — involved more than 1,000 civilians, most from USAID. But after the Vietnam War, both the military and the political leadership recoiled from the idea of counterinsurgency and "small wars." The Powell Doctrine stipulated that the United States would fight big wars or none at all, thus effectively eclipsing the space between "war" and "peace" where in the past it had deployed a civilian force.

The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence. In 1997, Bill Clinton’s administration issued a presidential directive designed to systematize the civilian-military response to such emergencies. The reserve civilian force envisioned by the plan was never brought into being. And George W. Bush’s administration arrived in office ideologically opposed to state-building; Bush’s first national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, sneeringly declared, "We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

And then reality reared its ugly head. The fiasco in Iraq demonstrated even to the ideologues that you couldn’t win the war unless you won the postwar as well; and the postwar required civilian capacity. In April 2004, the National Security Council established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to orchestrate postwar operations. Carlos Pascual, the first director (and now ambassador to Mexico) drew up a plan to field a rapid deployment force of civilian specialists backed by a pool of 3,000 reservists. The cost of building the quick force and deploying it for three months would be a paltry $350 million a year. The money was put in the State Department’s budget, and then cut by the White House. As Pascual explained to me several years later, the Pentagon believed in the new force, but the civilian agencies, ironically, did not. The civilian force died yet another death.

The Pentagon under Robert Gates has continued to be an advocate for an "expeditionary" civilian capacity. In a 2007 speech, Gates pointed out that the 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers couldn’t quite man a single aircraft carrier strike group. Gates called for "a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills" — a remarkable proposal coming from a defense secretary. The Army already has thousands of its own such experts, but recognizes that the fundamentally political questions raised by state-building, or even disaster relief, require civilian authority and a civilian perspective.

The office of reconstruction and stabilization was finally funded in fiscal year 2009; its Response Readiness Corps has now recruited 78 officials, plus 554 on standby. This will not take you far in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the office is not expected to play an important role in staffing either theater. Even the thousand-odd civilians now being thrown into the breach in Afghanistan are spread very thin on the ground: A "district support team" may have half a dozen civilians quartered with, and escorted by, 300 Marines — this in a country of more than 28 million spread across an area about the size of Texas. The civilians, while no longer carrying tennis rackets, are scarcely as well grounded in their jobs as the Marines. A 2009 report by the National Defense University (NDU) notes, "Stabilization has to be led by teams of professionals who specialize in that work, train for it, and develop plans and doctrines for expeditionary operations in the same way that the military plans for crisis interventions."

The distribution of resources is just as skewed as the distribution of manpower and preparedness. A State Department official told me that in Kunar province, in the east, the military commander had $150 million to spend on local initiatives, while his USAID counterpart had just $10,000. A military officer is, of course, going to spend that money to support military objectives: If the local warlord makes himself useful, he’s probably going to get his share of that money no matter how much the locals hate him.

Officials in the Obama administration suffer none of their predecessors’ hostility or ambivalence toward the tools of soft power, very much including the civilian force. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been adamant about reclaiming some of the capacities, and some of the authority, that in recent years have migrated to the Pentagon; and her belief in the centrality of development to American national security dictates a far more prominent role for USAID. There has been a slew of studies in recent years advocating enhanced civilian capacity; most of the authors recommend situating that capacity not in State, which is a policy rather than an operation agency, but in some expanded and fortified version of USAID. The NDU study proposed the establishment of a cabinet-level Agency for Development and Reconstruction.

The administration is now seriously contemplating such questions in its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Lew, who is running the review, says that before officials figure out where to locate the new corps, they have to ask themselves, "What capabilities do we need?" One operation may require 100 agronomists, but if the next demands 100 hydrologists, do you really want to hire all those experts instead of knowing where to find them? What "core capacities" must the government retain? If you need to be able to both rapidly deploy and sustain a presence over time, so that public health experts don’t go home after three months — as they do now — does that require two different forces?

The searing experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has made many Americans doubt the U.S. capacity to do much good at all abroad. That skepticism is a necessary corrective to the airy fantasies of a few years ago, but it’s also a new kind of hyperbole. The Thomasites, four-fifths of whom, by the way, had prior teaching experience and thus more or less knew what they were doing, not only established a national school system in the Philippines, but offered the most benevolent possible face to America’s colonial enterprise. They didn’t leave a working democracy in their wake, but that’s not what we’re asking of the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan either. We are hoping they will help tip the scales of Afghan public opinion toward the government rather than the Taliban. Even that might be too much to ask. But it would be a shame if we failed because we hadn’t taken the responsibility seriously.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1
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