WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is forging ahead with its civilian surge in Afghanistan but some experts say thousands more are needed while others fear the security situation is making the push ineffective.
In unveiling his first Afghanistan strategy in March, President Barack Obama called for increasing the number of experts to 1,000 in order to help the Kabul government serve its people and wean the economy off opium production.
Obama, due to unveil a revamped strategy on Tuesday that is expected to include some 30,000 to 35,000 more troops, stressed again last week the importance of sending civilians to accompany the military push in Afghanistan.
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"It's going to be important to recognize that in order for us to succeed there, you've got to have a comprehensive strategy that includes civilian and diplomatic efforts," he told reporters.
Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said earlier this week that some 974 civilians will be deployed by "the early weeks of next year."
A US official told AFP on condition of anonymity the figure could be higher.
Steven Metz, an analyst with the US Army War College, wrote in the New Republic magazine that the civilian surge could only succeed if Washington sent several thousand experts to Afghanistan for years at a time.
But John Dempsey, a specialist with the United States Institute of Peace who has spent the last seven years in Kabul working on reforming the Afghan justice sector, said numbers were not necessarily the key.
If the civilians are stuck mainly on a military base or with armed escorts for security reasons, "the impact of the (planned US) increase will be marginal yet expensive," Dempsey said in an email exchange with AFP.
"On the other hand, if they can recruit qualified civilians who are given proper cross-cultural training and who are able to meet with Afghans regularly in the local communities... then I think there's a real opportunity for development progress to be made."
Senior State Department official Jacob Lew said there were only 320 civilians deployed by the US in Afghanistan in January when Obama succeeded president George W. Bush.
Lew said 388 experts alone will be deployed outside the capital Kabul by early next year, compared to just 67 who served in the provinces in January.
The civilians are either US government employees from the State Department or seven other government agencies, including the Agriculture Department, or have been recruited outside for their special skills, such as language.
They undergo various kinds of training, including in Pashtu and other Afghan languages if they don't know them, learning about Afghan culture and how to interact with the US military.
Civilian workers deployed in Afghan provinces to work on various projects, such as building an airstrip in Helmand, live on US military bases and are escorted by American troops and Afghan security forces to ensure their safety.
However, a handful of civilians are set to be deployed in new US consulates being set up in the cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif by the end of the year.
Anthony Cordesman, a civilian military expert who was in Afghanistan over the summer to advise the US military, is critical of the civilian effort.
"We're not meeting this so-called civilian surge goal, and the quality of the civilians we?re providing isn't meeting the need," he said recently.
The other problem, Cordesman said, is how to coordinate among an alliance of 42 countries which set down different guidelines for its forces. He also accused the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) of poor management.
In a paper published November 19, Cordesman spoke of "the near chaos in managing the overall foreign aid effort within the State Department -- an issue that Secretary (Hillary) Clinton has raised but so far done nothing to address."
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