When 9,800 Doesn’t Equal 9,800

The dirty secret about Obama’s Afghan plan is that tens of thousands of American civilians will be on the ground long after the troops have left.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

News coverage of President Obama’s speech at West Point Wednesday focused on one seemingly hard and fast statement: The United States will keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year, ensuring that the nation’s longest war continues a little longer. The 9,800 troop figure has been repeated so often, and in so many places, that it actually obscures a key point: An invisible army of American diplomats, intelligence personnel, civilian government officials, and contractors will remain in Afghanistan well in the future, likely outnumbering the 9,800 troops that will be there next year and the smaller numbers of troops that will be there in the years to come.

The size, scope, composition, and duration of that civilian mission to Afghanistan will hinge on the way the Obama administration answers four questions: (1) what does Washington plan to do in Afghanistan; (2) how will the White House divide those missions among military, civilian, and contractor personnel; (3) what level of risk should the United States be willing to accept for our missions and our personnel; and (4) how much will Washington rely on allies, both Afghan and international, to shoulder the burden going forward. Depending on how the administration answers those questions, and what mixture of civilians and contractors it chooses to field, the U.S. civilian presence in Afghanistan could grow to be two or three times as large as the military mission there — or more.

In his remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden, and today at West Point, President Obama outlined "two narrow missions" for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014: "training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda." What remains less clear is the extent to which the United States will continue its multibillion-dollar reconstruction and development program under the auspices of USAID and other civilian agencies, as well as how the United States will continue support private sector and international efforts to develop Afghanistan, if at all.

The U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul has mushroomed to include nearly 300 foreign service officers — still smaller than the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but large by State Department standards. These diplomats work alongside scores more from USAID, the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, and other civilian agencies, as well as civilian contractors, short-term government employees, and workers from nongovernmental organizations. Alongside these personnel, a clandestine force reportedly including hundreds of personnel from the CIA and other agencies also serves in Afghanistan. The embassy will need at least this many personnel to do its job as the locus of leadership in Afghanistan passes from the military’s headquarters to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. And if the United States chooses to continue its massive Afghan development program, this supersized diplomatic footprint will likely include scores or hundreds of personnel across the Afghan countryside as well, responsible for oversight of the billions of dollars in projects the United States is funding there (an alarmingly large amount of which has, over the years, been lost to corruption or mismanagement).

And therein lies the crux of the second and third questions: Who will do these missions, and how much risk will we be willing to accept in accomplishing them? U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham recently said there’s "no way" his civilians from State and other agencies could continue the fieldwork they do in the absence of U.S. military support. He’s right, to a point. No troops equals no forward operating bases to work from, no ground troops to provide convoy security, and no medevac helicopters to call on when casualties occur.

However, U.S. officials have floated at least two plausible options for continuing the countrywide diplomacy and development mission in Afghanistan.

The first is to contract for a sizable security and movement support network, similar to what was contemplated for the U.S. mission in Iraq after our troops left there in 2010. To safely move U.S. personnel around Afghanistan without military support would require hundreds or thousands of civilian contractors with their own air support, ground vehicles, supply lines, and communications networks. By the Pentagon’s latest count, there are 61,452 contractor personnel supporting the Defense Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. (This is down from 113,491 near the height of the Afghan war in January 2012.) These figures represent the current contractor support network for U.S. military forces, at a ratio of roughly two contractors for every U.S. service member. After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military, because the State Department and other civilian agencies don’t have the same logistics, communications, and security force structure as the military. A diplomatic mission of 1,000 to 2,000 could require as many as three to five times its number in support contractors, depending on the extent of its movements around the country and the amount of security risk it wants to take in Afghanistan. (Today, more than 5,000 contractors support the U.S. diplomatic mission in Iraq.)

Although contractors represent the State Department’s preferred option for security in places like Afghanistan, this option won’t come cheap, nor without some potential problems. In the post-Benghazi environment, it’s not clear the United States will be willing to accept the inherent risk of manning smaller diplomatic outposts or sending civilian personnel to project sites around the country, especially facing a heavily armed and sophisticated adversary like the Taliban. And even if the United States chose to hire private contractors to effectively supplant the military, it’s not clear it could work because the Afghan government has increasingly clamped down on private security contractors, directing that all operate under Afghan law and work in concert with an Afghan guard force called the Afghan Public Protection Force. Contractors enjoy a somewhat murky status under Afghan law, protected to some extent by the 2003 diplomatic agreements between the United States and Afghanistan, but with somewhat less protection under the draft Bilateral Security Agreement now under consideration.

The second option is to rely increasingly on a mixture of remote-observation technology and Afghan employees to be the eyes and ears of the U.S. mission outside the walls of the diplomatic fortress in Kabul. Although this minimizes risk to U.S. personnel, it asks a great deal of the Afghans who will instead monitor and evaluate U.S. projects around the country, putting many in the cross-hairs of the Taliban and other armed factions who will have the ability to influence, intimidate, and block their activities with near impun
ity after our troops depart.

Which leads to the fourth and final question: If the United States no longer runs these missions with military personnel, and decides not to do them with U.S. civilian personnel, can the United States rely instead on its allies to carry the torch? It’s unclear that our allies will be willing to invest the billions or tens of billions of dollars necessary to continue large infrastructure projects throughout Afghanistan, pay the costs of running the country’s impoverished central government, or pick up the tab for Afghanistan’s growing security forces. And even if they do sign on, they don’t have the forces in Afghanistan (if at all) to secure the countryside and oversee the massive and corruption-ridden Afghan development program. Which means that European governments will have to answer the same questions facing the Obama administration — except that their risk tolerance is far lower than ours. Allied willingness to soldier on with Afghan reconstruction will depend largely on the security environment in Afghanistan, and is not within our control. If it wants continued Western help, the post-Karzai government of Afghanistan must create a secure environment for the country, relying on a mixture of Afghan security forces, economic incentives, and negotiated political bargains with adversaries such as the Taliban. It’s far from clear, to put it very generously, that the Afghan government will be up to its share of the task, or that our allies will be willing to persevere in such an uncertain and risky situation.

For 13 years, our troops have largely led the effort in Afghanistan, shouldering the bulk of the burden and the majority of the casualties as well. The president’s announcements this week signal an end to U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, but leave many unanswered questions about the extent of our total involvement there, and the size of the civilian mission that will remain after the last combat troops come home. The White House has to make a decision about the diplomats and other civilians it has stationed in Afghanistan: whether to go big, go small, or go home. How the White House answers those questions will dictate the shape of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan long after the now-famous 9,800 troops come home.

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