Skip to main content

Analysis: How to make civilian 'surge' in Afghanistan work

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • As part of the strategy last year to send more troops, the U.S. also sent more civilians
  • Civilians work on projects with Afghans, local governments before troops begin to withdraw
  • Elise Labott: There have been pockets of success, but long-term results are still uncertain

For one week, CNN's Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott were embedded with U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, part of the Obama administration's civilian "surge." Watch the series "The Other Afghanistan Offensive" on "American Morning" (6-9 a.m. ET) and "The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer" (5-7 p.m. ET) this week.

Washington (CNN) -- The tripling of U.S. civilians since early last year, along with an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, was meant to extend the reach of the Afghan government and defuse the influence of the Taliban.

These Provincial Reconstruction Teams (known as PRTs) are doing everything from providing security, to conducting reconstruction and development, to improving the government's capacity to deliver services and establish rule of law to the Afghan people.

For the nearly 1,100 American civilians, the breadth of effort is inspiring. U.S. agronomists are teaching Afghan farmers how to boost farm output. Women are getting paid for a day's work as they learn job skills for future employment. Youth are taking part in local shura to learn about the workings and responsibility of government.

A major part of the U.S. civilian effort is focused on agriculture, which makes up a vast percentage of Afghanistan's economy. We met farmers in Wardak province who traveled more than an hour under threat of the Taliban to learn how to combat pests and clear their land after the summer's floods. We traveled up to a mountainside in Kunar province on the border with Pakistan to meet villagers learning how to reverse the effects of deforestation.

Rebuilding Afghanistan's farms

This is all to improve "food security" in the country. Today, food security for many of these farmers simply means growing enough food to feed their families. But with 80 percent of the Afghans working in farming, the ultimate goal is to wean the Afghan economy off poppy production and return the country to its place as breadbasket for the region.

Sometimes security means a paycheck, even a small one. U.S.-funded "cash for work" programs employ Afghans to clear dams, refurbish hospitals and complete other labor-intensive projects to benefit the community. Several of these programs are geared toward women.

We met women learning how to paint and plaster and how to become midwives and journalists. The stereotype of Afghan women is that they are oppressed and hopeless. We found the exact opposite: strong, hard-working women determined to support their families, follow their dreams and improve the lives of their fellow Afghan sisters.

Rebuilding Afghanistan's farms

We saw so many little pockets of hope, each of them producing modest gains. But in and of themselves, these bright spots do not necessarily add up to a policy. The concern continues that the U.S. will fail to translate these gains into a path for Afghanistan to stand up on its own.

The vast majority of the projects the U.S. is undertaking in Afghanistan are designed for "quick impact." We heard many times during our trip the goal of these programs is to show some immediate improvement in the quality of life for Afghans so they are not forced to turn to the Taliban.

Now that may work temporarily. These families who clearly benefit from these projects in the short term may not join the insurgency today. But certainly the U.S. cannot fund and implement these programs indefinitely. What happens when U.S. troops go home and U.S. funding dwindles? It's not clear at this point whether these programs can be transferred to the Afghan government and sustained.

What's more, quick impact and the focus on the "now" can come at the expense of setting up Afghanistan for the future. We saw little coordination between the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the Afghanistan government about long-term development and reconstruction, which is critical in areas where NATO forces are holding the area and where true building can begin.

The whole concept of the PRT and civilian-military integration is for the civilians, working with the Afghan government, to capitalize on the gains made by the military on the battlefield. This is the subject of a brewing debate between the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations that feel the Obama administration is sacrificing the kind of long-term development Afghanistan needs in favor of a quick fix that will allow U.S. troops to come home.

In Nangarhar province, home to the city of Jalalabad, an audit by the congressionally mandated Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found many of the U.S. reconstruction activities were being conducted in a vacuum. The programs, it said, were "implemented with little input or visibility of provincial officials," leaving Afghan officials in Nangarhar "disenfranchised" and "severely limited" in their ability to sustain U.S.-funded development projects.

In some provinces, the collaboration between the United States and the local government was evident. In Wardak, Kandahar and Kunar, we saw the Provincial Reconstruction Teams collaborating with local government on key issues affecting the province and working together to advance Afghan-led solutions. U.S. civilian advisers to the local government are often working out of the provincial governor's office. Sometimes, they are even living on the compound with these officials. In Jalalabad, we didn't see any local officials at all.

The key ingredient to success in Afghanistan will be the ability of the Afghan government to assume responsibility for providing security, delivering services and establishing rule of law.

But the challenge of building institutions in a country where none have existed is enormous. In many cases the current capacity of the local government is next to nothing. Local governors suffer from corruption within their staffs, unqualified employees or both. The mayor of Kandahar is basically a one-man band with a few administrative aides.

Everywhere we turned there was a reminder that this civilian surge, meant to bring stability to the country, is largely dependent on the security situation.

Collision at intersection of quick fix, long haul

Right now about 400 of the nearly 1,100 civilians in Afghanistan are out in the field, with the rest working out of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Even those in the provinces are largely confined to the compounds on which they live, unable to get out regularly into communities. While we were in Afghanistan, we operated inside a military bubble, traveling by armed convoy in many cases just to visit a project.

In Afghanistan, we found many well-intentioned civilians from the U.S. and other countries working hard to make the country a better place. They are living under incredibly difficult conditions, risking their lives to stabilize Afghanistan. Several advisers we met were finishing up their yearlong tours and signing up for another year. There is still more work to do, they said.

These civilians know they are on a race against the clock. Many were quite candid about the intense pressure they face to show progress before July when President Obama said he wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. They hope to get Afghanistan to the point before then where the gains they helped foster can be sustained and built upon by the Afghans once they leave. Right now, they say, Afghanistan is still too fragile.

Part of complete coverage on
Afghanistan Crossroads
Afghanistan Crossroads is where CNN's reporting converges, bringing you a diversity of voices, stunning images and video and global perspectives
Photo spotlight
Stunning images from on the ground in Afghanistan, from military maneuvers to every day life of Afghans
Crossroads of history
Explore the different historic events that have made Afghanistan a crossroads of history
Life and culture
Go inside every day life and the culture of the people who live in Afghanistan