The dirty secret about Obama’s Afghan plan

Updated May 30, 2014


US President Barack Obama. - File Photo
US President Barack Obama. - File Photo

WASHINGTON: News coverage of President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point this week 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, 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 US civilian presence in Afghanistan could grow to be two or three times as large as the military mission there — or more.

The US diplomatic presence in Kabul has mushroomed to include nearly 300 foreign service officers. 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 NGOs. 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 US Embassy in Kabul. And if the US chooses to continue its massive Afghan development programme, 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 US is funding there.

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? US 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 US 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.

After the military withdrawal, our diplomatic footprint will likely rely even more on contractors than the military.

However, US 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 sizeable security and movement support network, similar to what was contemplated for the US mission in Iraq after our troops left there in 2010. To safely move US 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 Defence Department in Afghanistan, including 20,865 civilians. 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. 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. And even if the US 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.

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 US mission outside the walls of the diplomatic fortress in Kabul. Although this minimizes risk to US personnel, it asks a great deal of the Afghans who will instead monitor and evaluate US 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 impunity after our troops depart.

Which leads to the fourth and final question: if the US no longer runs these missions with military personnel, and decides not to do them with US civilian personnel, can the US 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.

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 US 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.

—By arrangement with Foreign Policy-Washington Post

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2014