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Waiting on a Civilian Surge in Afghanistan

Interviewee: John E. Herbst, Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, U.S. Department of State
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
March 31, 2010

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During a surprise visit to Afghanistan last weekend, President Barack Obama praised the civilians helping to implement his administration's strategy there; roughly one thousand U.S. civilian employees are working in Afghanistan. But according to John E. Herbst, one of the State Department's point men on staffing civilian-led reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the slow pace of congressional action and ongoing funding challenges are hampering his agency's ability to operate in failed and failing states. The State Department's Civilian Response Corps, its principal vehicle for deploying civilian experts to conflict zones, is by law composed primarily of American federal employees on active duty. But Ambassador Herbst says his office needs "a larger pool" of American recruits. More broadly, he says, the State Department must shed the "risk-averse culture" it adopted in the mid-1980s. "Obviously, you cannot ignore risk, but we need to be willing to manage risk rather than simply avoid it," Herbst says. "Our office . . . has been in the forefront of the effort to begin to peel back some of that, some of those layers of security, so that we're able in difficult and dangerous environments to do the civilian jobs that are absolutely essential for our national security interests."

How many response corps personnel are currently in Afghanistan, and what are they doing?

We have maintained about twenty people in Afghanistan since last summer, and our folks have done a variety of things. The most significant is that we have been the folks who have helped put together plans integrating all American efforts in Afghanistan. We have written what we call "civ-mil" operational plans for all twelve American Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We also wrote the civ-mil operational plans for Regional Command East, for Regional Command South, and in November of 2008 we established a civ-mil group in the American embassy in Kabul.

In addition to that, Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke [the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan] asked us if we could help prepare the U.S. efforts regarding the Afghan presidential elections last year. Three weeks after he asked, we dispatched eight people to Afghanistan; they helped the embassy keep track of preparations for the August 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan. We did the same thing for Ambassador Holbrooke in the fall, when he asked us for support in fielding a strategic communications team to go out to Kabul.

Overall there are about a thousand or so American civilians working in the country, right? Who makes up the majority? And why is the contribution from your office so small?

We only began to build the Civilian Response Corps about a year ago. We received our first funds for the Civilian Response Corps late in the fall of 2008, so the civilian uplift began in earnest around this time last year. At this time last year, we only had about twenty-five active members of the Civilian Response Corps; by late summer we had maybe 200, that's all. We're building a Civilian Response Corps of 1,264. We have 719 on board today. But 719 on board means we're only able to deploy about 250, 300 maximum. There's a need for much more. So the office of Ambassador Holbrooke chose to use mechanisms we use in Iraq, essentially hiring contractors to go out and do the large majority of civilian jobs. Once we have a substantial-sized Civilian Response Corps, we'll be able to take on missions like Afghanistan and provide most, if not all, of the civilians required.

Our office is dedicated to two tasks: conflict prevention and peace building. Ideally we will be engaged when a country is experiencing some serious problems of governance, but before things spiral out of control.

Are you saying that contractors might not be the best way to do the work, in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

There's no question that having a Civilian Response Corps of permanent federal employees--who are truly expert in these types of operations, who can build on their own experience, who can have their own command and control structure--is the preferable way to do this. And once we build it, we'll be able to use it. But until we do, we need to use other mechanisms.

You mentioned an end-state of 1,264. Is that a reduction from your office's original plans? I've read that the original goal was around two thousand.

We have funds that would enable us to build a Civilian Response Corps of 2,264. We don't have the hiring flexibility that we need to do that. Right now, by law, the Civilian Response Corps is made up of American federal employees on active duty. We need to widen that category. We need to include Foreign Service nationals who work at our embassies overseas. We also need to include retirees from federal service. Currently, the concept for the Civilian Response Corps [is that] we have "active" and "standby" members. ["Active component" members are defined as full-time government employees able to deploy to crisis zones within forty-eight hours. "Standby component" members are full-time government employees who can deploy with thirty days of becoming operational]. We are building to 264 active members.

We have both the money and the hiring flexibility right now to hire one thousand standby members. Each agency must recruit eight standby members for every active member. [The Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization draws on employees from eight federal agencies, including the State Department, USAID, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the CIA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Joint Forces Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Treasury Department.] USAID has the plurality of civilians in the Civilian Response Corps, 37 percent. That means if we build a standby element of two thousand, USAID needs to provide 740 members. They have a foreign service of about 1,400 people. There's no way they could come up with 740 standby members out of a pool that small.

If Congress permits us to include Foreign Service nationals, then USAID will be able to provide 740 standby members, and we could build the standby to two thousand. We are working with Congress now, seeking the authorities to do that. If we succeed . . . without any additional funding we can build the Civilian Response Corps to 2,264.

Is it also a challenge to recruit qualified candidates, people who speak the languages and have the skills needed?

In terms of moving from 1,264 to 2,264, it's simply a matter of not having enough people to recruit from, not finding precisely the right skills in precisely the right people. If we can expand the category, we can build to two thousand standby members. We have had thus far very little difficulty hiring people for the active component with the right skills and the right area expertise. But again, we need a larger pool if we are going to get to two thousand standby [members].

Your office was stood up in 2004, in the aftermath of the post-Iraq war reconstruction fiasco. Why has it taken so long to get the recruitment piece underway?

It took three years after the office was created to reach agreement within the federal government regarding how S/CRS [Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization] would run stability operations and conflict prevention. We finally reached interagency agreements at an assistant secretary level meeting I chaired in January of 2007. That was more than two and a half years after the office was created. Once we reached that agreement, we needed to put together a budget. Our first budget was only approved for building a Civilian Response Corps in June/July of 2008. The Iraq-Afghan supplemental passed at that time gave us $55 million to begin building the active and standby components of the Civilian Response Corps. Even then there was a problem, because you could not create permanent positions with money that comes from a supplemental budget; you have to receive money in a regular budget. We could only offer people permanent positions when our Fiscal Year 2009 regular State Department budget request was approved. That was approximately a year ago.

How effective are civilians in reconstruction efforts, especially in conflict environments like Afghanistan? Civilian government employees who are in Afghanistan talk of bureaucratic nightmares, of security problems, of the mountains of red tape that keep them inside the wire.

To succeed in an operation like Afghanistan, you need to have a substantial, well-thought out and well-resourced civilian effort. The military component is absolutely essential, but so is the civilian. Now, regarding some of the frustrations you've described, I've been in the State Department since the late 1970's. At some point in the . . . '80s, we began to develop a substantial risk-averse culture that remains to this day. There's a general understanding that there's a need to move away from that.

Outsiders can play a critical role in helping a country reestablish governance, but they don't play the absolute, pivotal role. Outsiders are only supporters to the local actors.

Obviously, you cannot ignore risk, but we need to be willing to manage risk rather than simply avoid it. Our office at S/CRS has been in the forefront of the effort to begin to peel back some of those layers of security, so that we're able in difficult and dangerous environments to do the civilian jobs that are absolutely essential for our national security interests. For example, S/CRS deployed its very first people to Darfur in the summer of 2006. And to do that, we had to sit down and negotiate with the security part of the State Department on the way we would operate, because certain security requirements were simply not in place in Darfur. Yet, the security folks agreed to our going out, with certain precautions, but still something less than mandated security requirements. That needs to be done more every place we have people on the ground, where things are not easy, where things are dangerous, including in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, how important to success is a viable, trusted governmental partner?

It's absolutely critical. Outsiders can play a critical role in helping a country reestablish governance, but they don't play the absolute, pivotal role. Outsiders are only supporters to the local actors. And the objective of our mission in Afghanistan is to ensure that a government emerges in Kabul which can truly govern the country. Our people are there in support of that. The local actors are the essential element.

Can you explain the difference between your office's mission, and say, the day-to-day operations of the Foreign Service?

Our office is dedicated to two tasks: conflict prevention and peace building. Ideally we will be engaged when a country is experiencing some serious problems of governance, but before things spiral out of control. Classic conflict prevention or where there's the danger of hostilities within a society. Alternatively, we can be engaged when you have a war break out, and you have had a peace-keeping mission and you need to restore order, restore stability. Or when a government has completely fallen apart and you have to restore government services. These are very specific missions. These specific missions are part of the overall brief of the State Department, but until our office was created, you did not have staff dedicated to precisely these problems.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been a strong advocate for increasing funding to the State Department for these types of operations. He suggested last month that the State Department and the Defense Department should pool funds and coordinate mission approval. Is the State Department considering such close cooperation? What are some of the challenges of linking too closely with military operations?

What we are talking about is increasing the State Department budget so that State can undertake these civilian functions that are absolutely critical to our national security. If we have the resources to undertake these functions, and we do it properly, there will be less need to deploy American troops and to lose American lives overseas. That's really what both Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton are talking about. Having said that, there's no question that in parts of the world there is a need for greater civilian-military coordination, and that's something that I know the State Department is interested in where it makes sense, and the Pentagon is interested in where it makes sense. Our office is one of those nexus where the military and civilians get together.

Talk briefly about your office's successes.

The most important things we have done, still relatively modest, have been in Afghanistan, where again, we are responsible for all the civilian-military planning done in that country for the United States. [And we've done projects around the globe which have promoted stability.]

Some critics, including the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, have suggested there may be a better way (PDF) to accomplish what your team is doing.

This has come on stream slower than we would like. But people who claim that because it's come on slower than we'd like we should do something else don't understand how Washington works. We have only begun over the past eighteen months to build a civilian response because we've only had funds for eighteen months. We are now starting to take off. If you choose to reinvent capacity, you will set back this effort three years. It took us four years to get funding from our creation, and in the eighteen months since we've had money, we've built a corps of 719. That corps will be close to double a year from now. It could be triple a year and a half from now. If you go in a new direction, it will take you three or four years to return to the point we are right now.

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